When Doing Laundry, Be Careful Not To Overdose

Our less-prone-to-hysterics sister publication Consumer Reports says some laundry detergent caps lead to overdosing when it comes to adding detergent to the wash. Why is this a problem? Aside from wasting money, leaving soap film on clothes, and increasing lint levels, it can actually damage high-efficiency washing machines.

The problem stems from the way the caps are designed, mostly:

“If the lines aren’t clear or are hard to see, it’s easy to overdose and use too much detergent,” says Pat Slaven, a program leader in our Technical department who conducted the detergent testing. “Plus, for all the products we tested, the line for a medium load-the most commonly done load-is less than a full cap, which makes it easier to use too much detergent.” The line for a maximum load is also typically less than a full cap.

I’ll admit, I overdose my clothes every single time I do laundry—there’s some irrational part of me that thinks more detergent=more cleanliness, which of course means God will be on my side and help me smite my enemies. You, however, should not be so vengeful in your laundry chores; take time to read the instructions carefully, and if the cap’s fill lines are hard to see, mark them with a Sharpie so you don’t have to think about it the next time you’re adding detergent. Your clothes and your washer will thank you, and I’ll have more God to myself for smiting power.

“Some laundry-detergent caps can lead to overdosing” [Consumer Reports]


Edit Your Comment

  1. floraposte says:

    Overdosing laundry loads makes the Baby Jesus cry.

    • YouDidWhatNow? says:


      Every time you overdose your laundry, God kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.

    • Wombatish says:

      @floraposte: It makes detergent companies smile, though.

      I went to check out my detergent cap after reading this (I always fill it to less that the lowest line, but I -know- my roommate doesn’t) and found, to not too much surprise, that it still has lines 1, 2, and 3 on it, despite the bottle saying “Only use 2 for your largest loads, 1 will do for everything else”.

      You’ve got to know that a lot of people just fill it up to the top line no matter what, and that many others think 3 big, 2 medium, 1 small.

      But fixing it? No, no, that would loose them too much money.

  2. thesadtomato says:

    I’ve started using what I *used* to consider a negligible amount of laundry detergent based on this kind of reasoning. I figure if my shampoo bottle wants me to “rinse and repeat” then the laundry bottle is probably fudging a little on amounts, too.

    • Amish Undercover says:

      @thesadtomato: I use about a 1/4th of the recommended amount and my clothes get just as clean as the next person’s. The reason I started doing this is that when I used the recommended amount my clothes smelled so strongly of detergent that I got bad headaches.

  3. bnelson333 says:

    We’ve had our HE washer for going on 4 years and have never had a problem with it, not even the “smelly washer syndrome” that everyone complains about.

    We have always used HE specific detergent. As it was explained to me, it’s formulated differently to produce less suds, so it washes away with the smaller amount of water used.

    If unsure of amount, err on the side of too little detergent as opposed to too much, you can always wash your clothes again if really needed.

    And lastly, leave the door open to air dry the gasket after you’re done washing for the day.

    • MustyBuckets says:

      @bnelson333: Bah, the formula is almost if not identical to standard detergent, with added H2O. Not only from my Appliance Business background, that of my customers, but from my own Maytag Neptune, a quarter inch in a regular sized cap, or roughly a shot glass of standard detergent will clean effectively and not cause problems to your unit.

      Not to mention the savings on detergent adds up.

      • RedwoodFlyer says:

        @MustyBuckets: WRONG!!!!!!

        For one thing…HE detergent costs the same as regular..

        using less of the regular = less suds, but it also = less cleaning.

        The main advantage to HE detergent, other than the low suds, is the fact that they can basically form a web around pigment/dirt molecules. Since the washing action is so different, and you don’t have 30 gallons of water to rinse everything out, this different chemistry is important to keep stuff from redepositing.

        I didn’t believe the hype until I finally bought a bottle of Tide HE and compared it to the identical, non HE stuff I was using before.

        • razremytuxbuddy says:

          @RedwoodFlyer: Thanks for the excellent info. I was wondering if it really was important to get the HE detergent.

          • ChuckECheese says:

            @razremytuxbuddy: When I used a HE washer, I used a smaller amount of normal detergent and had great results. Specifically, I used about 1/3 of a scoop of my favorite, Purex Ultra w/ Febreze powder. Great detergent and costs less than $4 for over 50 HE loads.

        • MustyBuckets says:

          @RedwoodFlyer: First of all, the savings doesn’t come from the cost of the two detergents, but the fact you use a fifth or less a load from non HE to HE, secondly yes, HE is suppose to help stop colors from transferring in the wash, but there are no standards regarding it.

          Third, as you say using less of regular gives less suds, which you say is less cleaning, then go right on to mention HE is a low suds formula. You need to use less of regular as you are diluting it with 30-40 gallons of water, you are diluting it with 16-20.

          Which brings me back to my family run appliance store, and my experience with this issue. There are two reasons to choose HE over non-HE – if you are worried that you or someone using your washer will put a full capful of standard detergent into it, or if you are afraid that you’ll be ‘caught’ using standard detergent voiding your warranty.

          But maybe my experience in the matter is shadowed by your shouting of WRONG. Who am I to know.

          • MustyBuckets says:

            @MustyBuckets: Sorry, brain fart, regarding the color transferring issue, most clothes, after the first wash or two, stop bleeding. Then the color transference is no longer an issue. As for the suspended ‘web’ of dirt? Bah – Soap is a hydrophilic and hydrophobic molecule, half of the soap molecule will stick to the dirt and grease, and half will stick to the water washing out. There is no magical web created by HE detergent, it is just soap doing its thing.

          • FLConsumer says:

            @MustyBuckets: I’m curious how you’re getting away with using regular detergent in an HE machine.

            In my European 24″ Gorenje washer all I can use is about 2 tbsp of HE detergent otherwise it’ll oversuds and I’ll have a porthole full of suds that takes an extra run or two of the rinse cycles to tame. The recommended amount of HE (with their cup) always causes an oversuds condition with my machine. On the bright side, my clothes have never been cleaner than they are with this machine and I’m buying laundry detergent about once every 18 months.

            There most certainly is a difference in the formulation of the two, besides concentration. I’ve yet to find any amount of regular detergent that works without creating a mess.

            • MustyBuckets says:

              @FLConsumer: HE detergents can have some ‘anti-foaming agents’ as well, but the problem you are facing is different.

              Some HE detergent can suds up as strong or stronger than standard detergents. Try switching brands, and to test how much suds you can expect, find a jar with a lid, put a cup or two of water in with a tablespoon of detergent and shake. Try it out in the same concentrations between other HE detergents to find one that will work better in your machine, or half or quarter the concentration for standard detergents.

  4. Trai_Dep says:

    Gods, I mind was invaded by the image of Mrs Cleaver, a dangling cigarette hanging from her half-sneering (perfectly painted, of course) lip, slouching in the laundry room with Mrs Dennis the Menace and Lucy Ricardo (who’s cursing loudly and plentifully) while the menfolk, children and cameras are away. Playing craps with the shopping money while recklessly abusing laundry detergents.
    So, Consumer Union… Thanks?

  5. eelmonger says:

    But Chris, he’s empty just liiiiike you.

  6. Bluth_Cornballer says:

    Jimi Hendrix, Layne Staley, Janis Joplin, John Belushi… they all used too much detergent.

  7. Shoelace says:

    The cap marks are hard to read so people tend to use more than they need and the manufacturers make more money. So what’s new?

    I generally use 1/3 to 1/2 of the recommended amount of detergent with no problem.

  8. StutiCebriones says:

    You can also screw up your skin. I thought a little shake more was better back in my powdered-detergent days until I started getting rashes. When I cut back to a little less than recommended, they went away.

  9. Laura Northrup says:

    I’ve always been of the school of thought that goes, “if some detergent is good, more is better. More! MORE! MORE!!!” But then, I also own my own washing machine, so I should probably watch it.

  10. bohemian says:

    I thought this was going to be about the overpowering stench in some laundry soap. I can smell when my neighbors are doing laundry. In my house with the windows shut and the homes are not close together. It smells like an obviously fake pine tree air freshener.

    I usually use half of what the laundry soap container tells you to use. With some I have to use half again or it leaves soap residue in the clothes.

    • thesadtomato says:

      @bohemian: I would think you’re smelling their dryer exhaust more than their laundry detergent. I never use those dryer sheets or fabric softener because of the nasty fake smells they have.

      • Chris Walters says:

        @thesadtomato: If you do use the dryer sheets, for static cling for example, try cutting them in half and only using one half per load. It cuts down the overpowering perfumey smell and works just fine (plus cuts your dryer sheet costs in half).

        Don’t use them in loads that have microfiber items, though. The chemicals coat the microfiber and reduce its effectiveness/lifespan.

        • subtlefrog says:

          @Chris Walters: And some of the not big Proctor & Gamble-type sheets are nice. I like because they’re not made with lard-type softeners, but another bonus is that they are not nearly as strong smelling. And the ones I got most recently are on paper that is recyclable after you put them through the dryer!

          • subtlefrog says:

            @subtlefrog: Not p&g type as in more hippy-type – I got these at Whole Foods, don’t remember the brand. Maybe the house brand?

            • edwardso says:

              href=”#c13497505″>FLConsumer: Now that I live in a humid climate dryer sheets feel disgusting. But if you live somewhere in the desert and forget the dryer sheets your clothes are likely to come out in one static filled ball.

      • Coles_Law says:

        @thesadtomato: I use unscented dryer sheets for that very reason. Well, that and without them I’d get shocked every time I got dressed in the morning.

        • Etoiles says:

          @Coles_Law: Yeah. In the winter, on the times I’ve forgotten a dryer sheet, I end up dumping a solid ball of socks and sweaters into the basket, and by the time I’ve managed to sort and fold my laundry I’ve been shocked so many times that my fingers have gone numb. If I lived in Florida I might not care, but I don’t. ;)

        • thesadtomato says:

          @Coles_Law: I definitely and down with unscented and perfume free products. Dryer sheets I’ve just never used. I think I must be the one person in the world who deals with static cling by just vigorously shaking out the clothes as I fold them.

    • FLConsumer says:

      @bohemian: I’ll take the fake pine air fresheners any day over the absolutely vile stench of fabric “softener” or dryer sheets. Why people want to take their freshly-washed clothing and smear lard all over it is beyond me. (Take a look at the ingredients sometime, animal tallow is the primary one.) Even worse are the people who use it so thickly that you can smell it in clothes they’re wearing. Ick. Gross. Not to mention how disgusting a fabric-softener-soaked towel feels, let alone how it doesn’t dry.

      I use a little bit of distilled white vinegar in my final rinse to change the pH. It causes the detergent to release from the clothing and be rinsed clean away. Fresh clothes shouldn’t smell like the soap that was used. They won’t smell like vinegar if you don’t use too much.

    • SafetyMachete_GitEmSteveDave says:

      @bohemian: Maybe they do their wash in Pine-sol. I don’t think I’ve ever seen pine scented laundry detergent.

    • edwardso says:

      @bohemian: I live in a condo where the upstairs neighbors washing machine shares a pipe with my kitchen sink and sometime we get bubbles or can smell their detergent. There are always notices in the condo newsletter reminding people to use the proper amount of detergent

    • Ragman says:

      @bohemian: When my wife was pregnant, we totally stopped using scented laundry products. We buy non scented dryer sheets and scent free detergent. Now we can totally tell when someone has scented detergent/dryer sheets – even worse, when someone uses too much. We actually had to throw away the fabric seat of a baby play saucer we lent to a friend b/c they used too much scented detergent on it and we couldn’t get it to wash out after 3 full cycles in our washer.

  11. RedwoodFlyer says:

    The word of the day is meniscus

  12. Jeff_McAwes0me says:

    Whenever I wash my clothes, I use a very precise amount of detergent: a metric shit-ton. Is that too much?

  13. dbshaw says:

    Working off the incredibly probable assumption that they were trying to rip me off I’ve been using half of the 1 level for my clothes. If I have a really heavy triple load, I may use the 1 level. Maybe.

  14. MsAnthropy says:

    I use just about enough detergent (Tide HE – the concentrated one) to cover the bottom of the cap – enough to fill it to around 1/4-1/2 an inch. Unless I’m washing a load of really, disgustingly filthy clothes (in which case, yes, I use a little bit more – but still nothing that even comes close to the lowest of the lines on the cap), that is plenty, and everything washes perfectly.

    I do an absolute fuckload of laundry each week, and one bottle of Tide must have lasted me 10 or 11 months, I swear.

  15. Anonymous says:

    The key to getting your clothes really clean is not overloading your washer. Give the clothes plenty of space to get swished around and they’ll get clean and rinse clean of whatever detergent you put in.
    Personally I’m a less-than-line-1 for single load washers, full-line-1 for the big triple front loaders at the laundry mat. I buy dye and perfume free detergent (who in their right mind would WANT dye in their detergent??) and when I’m feeling really foxy will throw in a scoop of Oxyclean too.

    • GreatWhiteNorth says:

      @SakhiPeafowl: I agree do not overload the washer… Not only do your clothes get cleaner and last longer, but your washer will last longer too.

      By the way the most powerful solvent used in cleaning is… Water.

  16. Juliekins says:

    I’ve owned a frontloader since 2005 and have always used HE detergent, probably too much. I’m going to start cutting back and see what happens. My brand-loyal (Tide) husband is finicky, or I’d try cheaper HE varieties.

    I’ve also never had stinky washer syndrome. Here’s the key:

    1) Don’t leave the washer shut tight–leave the door cracked when you’re not using it if at all possible.
    2) Occasionally use chlorine bleach.

    Number 2 is easy for us, as we switched to all white towels a few years ago so that we could bleach them. We made that decision before we knew about stinky washer syndrome.

    The only issue we’ve had with our frontloader was not related to detergent. One of the braided metal hoses’ clamping valve just started randomly clamping and cutting off the cold water supply. We wound up replacing the damn things with some laundromat-grade braided reinforced hoses that don’t have the $*(&!)% clamping valve. I am eternally grateful to our super handy neighbor for saving us a service call on that.

    • puddinhead says:

      @Juliekins: our front loader features a “baby” cycle – not to wash the actual baby, but it uses white-hot water to disinfect baby poopy clothes. I use that in addition to the bleach to wash my cleaning rags, and that freshens the washer nicely.

      • The Porkchop Express says:

        @puddinhead: You’re wrong, that is for the baby. that way they only need one bath a week.

        **just in case, it’s not really for the baby***

    • FLConsumer says:

      @Juliekins: ***NEVER*** put chlorine bleach in a non-American-brand front loader! Unless it specifically has a compartment for chlorine bleach, it’s NOT safe to use. All of the non-American frontloaders use stainless steel inner and outer drums. Chlorine eats away at the stainless steel and you will develop multiple pinhole leaks after awhile. Asko/Bosch (Axxis series)/Miele all have warnings about this.

      American-specific ones use plastic outer drums due to the prevalence of chlorine bleach used in this country, thus the outer tub won’t rot out from the chlorine bleach, but the inner drum will eventually start to pit and fall apart from it.

      Not sure why anyone would want to use chlorine bleach with a good front-load washer. Heat and time clean far better than chemicals. That’s why most Euro washers have water heaters built into them. Not much can survive a 210F boil-wash. It’s worked wonders on my lab coats all these years.

      • FLConsumer says:

        @FLConsumer: and I should point out that down here in swampy Florida, I’ve been using a front-load washer since ’98, still no smell/mildew inside the washer. I DO leave the door ajar when it’s not in use, but that’s good advice down here for top-load machines as well.

        • Ragman says:

          @FLConsumer: You don’t have the smell b/c you leave the door open. The Neptunes are bad about the smell, and leaving the door open takes care of it.

      • SafetyMachete_GitEmSteveDave says:

        @FLConsumer: [en.wikipedia.org]

        Many creatures might not enjoy that chilly 210F water, and would ask you to heat it up. :)

      • ChuckECheese says:

        @FLConsumer: My stainless-steel-tubbed Asko said that chlorine bleach was not recommended, but could be used in low doses if desired.

        Even with lengthy wash times (the whites wash cycle in an Asko is over 2 1/2 hours long) and very hot water, such as the 210F you mentioned, and oxygen bleach, some whites (towels) would become dingy after awhile. So I would do an occasional cold water + 1/8 c bleach wash to whiten things up.

        • FLConsumer says:

          @ChuckECheese: If they’re getting dingy, try using less detergent (seriously). Excess detergent can cause a darkening of whites. I’m trying to remember the exact reason given to me, but I got the tip from someone in the fabric industry awhile back.

          My Gorenje’s long cycle is 1 hour 48 minutes, never had an issue with things looking dingy at all. Going on 6 years with the Gorenje, longer with my other front loader. I even have friends who will bring their whites to my house to get rid of the faded gray they’ve become.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, the one unintended consequence of the new concentrated liquid detergents is that it’s just that much harder for me to go halfsies on the detergent line. I occasionally wish I had an old school jug o’ detergent that I could dilute my concentrate into, just so the measured amount wasn’t hovering down around the tablespoon level.

  18. CFinWV says:

    It’s well known that A-List superheroes would never fight crime in anything but sparkling white undies.

  19. Megan Squier says:

    When ANY brand of laundry detergent is being sold at a ridiculously low price I stock up. I usually prefer Purex because its cheap to begin with; last October I found 35 load bottles for $2 a piece at Kroger, combined with (doubled) 35 cent coupons I got the stuff for $1.30. One year of laundry detergent for my cheap top loader only cost me $5.20. I also run the wash on the cold cycle to save money on hot water and haven’t had a problem considering that nothing my husband nor I use gets particularly dirty other than the clothes he wears when he’s working out in the garage. Considering that those clothes are already covered with grease stains from his previous occupation as a mechanic, all I care about is getting the sweat out.

    I line dry my clothes so I don’t need to pay for dryer electricity either.

    • edwardso says:

      @Megan Squier: Purex always has great deals and the smell isn’t offensive

    • bcsus83 says:

      @Megan Squier: I loooooove Purex detergent. Their scents are very very light and like a previous poster mentioned, they aren’t offensive. Add that to the fact that it works great, and is insanely cheap, even at full price, and I’m sold. :)

  20. mcs328 says:

    Use even less for front load washers.

  21. LaundryHE says:

    My name is Doug and I’m with the LaundryHE team – which is an online resource from Wisk to clear up the confusion around HE detergent. Glad to see people are using HE and using it properly.

    Just wanted to clarify that if you have a front-load washing machine, you need to use HE detergent. HE washers use less water to clean your clothes, so if you use traditional detergents, you get too many suds on your clothes, which are hard to rinse off and can impact cleaning. HE detergents are formulated to work properly in front-loading machines.

    You can find more information at http://www.laundryhe.com if you’re interested. Thanks.

    – Doug
    LaundryHE Team

    • ChuckECheese says:

      @LaundryHE: Thanks Doug, but I disagree. My Asko HE washer had instructions that HE detergents were preferred, but unnecessary if you used a lesser amount to control sudsing.

      When I lived in France, we had those weird top-loading drum washers, and used small amounts of detergent that wasn’t HE. You got too many suds if you overused, but in such a case you drain the tub and start over.

      HE detergent is just another way of ripping people off IMO. Regarding “low-sudsing and quick dispersing,” here’s my take: HE detergents probably have fewer ingredients such as sudsing agents, and possibly more water for better dispersion, but despite containing less, they cost more. HE is just another way of scaring people into paying more for less.

      Another friend with an HE washer was paying $15 a bottle for HE detergent. I talked her into buying regular detergent and using less, and she is happier with her laundry and the money she is saving.

      If you are looking into buying a washer that is so fragile that it needs to be fed special detergent in order to keep from breaking down, you need to keep looking.

  22. chrisexv6 says:

    All the discussion about HE detergent but no one brought up the fact that powder is actually much better to use than liquid? No waxes, fillers, etc….that all contribute to smelly washer syndrome (of course keeping the door open will fix it regardless)

    I did an Amazon Grocery subscription for Country Save powdered detergent. I use half of the recommended amount unless its a really big amount of clothes, then I just use the full amount (which is very very little anyway). Clothes come out clean, no chemical smell and no “gunk” leftover in the washer that I cant see (between the stainless tub and the plastic tub that surrounds it).

  23. Brunette Bookworm says:

    @bohemian: Me too. They get clean just fine with less detergent. I get free and clear Seventh Generation detergent and use less liquid fabric softener (by Ecover, very light scent) than they tell you. I just need enough to keep things from being too staticy. Since I do this and use cold water to wash my clothes, they last much longer.

  24. suburbancowboy says:

    Is it just me, or is the scent of laundry detergent disgusting?
    When I smell any detergent or fabric softener in the air, (from my neighbors machine going)that is scented and not all natural, all i can think of is how un-natural it smells, and how breathing that in can’t possibly be good for you.
    I use the Trader Joe’s powder. Cheap and it works good.

  25. ladygoat says:

    I used to think more detergent = cleaner too, until I started washing cloth diapers, which are far dirtier than my ordinary clothes, but need much less detergent, especially in a frontloader.

    The key is to not overload, use less detergent rather than more, and to be sure to rinse THOROUGHLY. Too much detergent just means that it takes more water to completely rinse things out. For heavier items like diapers and towels, you may need an extra rinse.

    I’ve also found that powder detergent works a little better, with the exception of cold washes in the winter, when the cold water is REALLY cold, and the powder doesn’t always dissolve completely.

  26. kexline says:

    My officemate’s wife severely overused Tide for a while. He’s not sure, but he thinks she might have been using two large capfuls per load on grounds of “more is better”. Every time he opened our door in the morning, I’d have a big histamine party in my head, with sniffles and violent sneezing until he went away for a couple of hours. It’s not like we share a broom closet, either — I sit about 15 feet away from him and the door.

    Remember, kids, smelling reeeeeally “good” can be even more offensive than smelling bad.

  27. RyanC0989 says:

    This just happened to my fiance and I. We have an HE front-loading Maytag,and didn’t know what soap proportion to use. It ended up damaging the pump. The repair guy told us we don’t need more than an inch of detergent to fully clean our clothes.

  28. Tuuurd_Ferguson says:

    Powdered Detergent. Henkel Persil HE Laundry Detergent – MEGAPERLS, to be exact. ONE tablespoon (harvested from an old set from my kitchen) of this powder is all it takes to clean a load. An 8lb box lasts at least 18mo for a family of 2 with 2 large dogs and their accompanying hairs. We are both sensitive to detergent fragrances, but this one leaves your clothes smelling new everytime – no fragrance smell or residue at all.

  29. LawyerontheDL says:

    I’ve been slightly “underdosing” my detergent for the last couple of years because my skin is very sensitive, even with the dye free stuff. My clothes seem to come out just fine and they tend to not make me itch as much. So, either I was overdosing before or no one has the heart to tell me I smell. I’m hoping for the former.

    • trujunglist says:


      Not cynical. I use Tide, and recently I picked up 3 bottles on sale at CVS. They all have the blue cap. The writing is in blue. It is almost impossible to see without the right lighting and angle.
      I generally use line 2, but maybe i’ll start going to line 1 and see what happens.

  30. SalParadise says:

    I love Arm and Hammer liquid, but they make it practically IMPOSSIBLE to read the measuring lines on the cap. I’ve always assumed this was intentional, so that I’d wind up using more product than necessary, and subsequently have to hurry back to the store to buy more of their product.

    Or am I just being cynical in my old age???