Baby Laundry Detergent vs Regular Detergent Explained for Parents

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Your first time doing baby laundry can be a harrowing experience.

So many things to worry about! Shrinking onesies, colors running, and worst of all, wondering if the detergent will irritate your baby’s skin.

This is precisely the reason special, baby-formulated laundry detergent is so popular.

But let’s be real — do you need to buy this so-called ‘gentle’ stuff? What’s the difference between baby detergent vs regular detergent, and does it matter or can you just buy whatever’s cheaper?

Baby laundry detergent is different from adult/regular detergent in that it usually contains fewer chemicals, less aggressive cleaning agents, and less or no colorizers and fragrances. In other words, it’s far more gentle and formulated for sensitive skin and potential allergy issues. But on the downside, it probably won’t clean tough stains quite as well as the adult stuff.

But there’s so much more to know about choosing the right laundry detergent! Let’s take a deeper dive.

How Does Laundry Detergent Work, Anyway? And What’s In It?

Before we explore the differences between detergent for babies and adults, it’s helpful to know what kind of stuff generally goes into laundry dergent.

And why it’s in there.

Let’s start with the main cleaning agents in detergent (and most soaps), surfactants.

Surfactant molecules are able to separate grease from clothes (and dishes and other things you might want to clean) wrapping grease particles in detergent, breaking them down into pieces, and allowing them to be easily washed away.

These surfactants also reduce the surface tension of the water and allow water particles to penetrate the clothing. The shaking and spinning of the washing machine aid in this process.

Detergent also contains lots of different enzymes — these are biological agents that seek out very specific types of stains. There may be different enzymes for things like blood, fats, grass, and more.

Other chemical agents inside the detergent play different roles in seeking out grease, dirt, and stains, separating them from clothing, and washing them away without allowing them to be reabsorbed by the clothing.

There are even agents inside the detergent that keep the foaming/sudsing from getting too out of control.

The whole process is fascinating!

Many detergents also contain fragrances to leave your clothes smelling great, along with fabric softening agents to fight wrinkles and add softness.

Adult Detergent Ingredients Explained

OK, now let’s take a look at what’s in some popular adult laundry detergents.

Warning, you won’t understand most of these lists unless you have a chemistry degree, but we’re going to list them anyway before taking a look at some of the usual suspects.

Arm and Hammer standard detergent: Water, C10-16 pareth, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium carbonate, pentasodium DTPA, fragrances, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium C10-16 alkylbenzenesulfonate, acrylic acid homopolymer, disodium distyrylbiphenyl disulfonate, sodium hydroxide, colorants. Contains fragrance allergens. Contains no phosphates.

Tide detergent with Downy: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, C10-16 Pareth, Sodium And MEA C10-16 Alkylbenzenesulfonate, MEA Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Borate, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium Bisulfite, Calcium Formate, Sodium Cumenesulfonate, Sodium And MEA Salts Of C12-18 Fatty Acids, Sodium And MEA Citrate, Subtilisin, Amylase Enzyme, Mannanase Enzyme, Cellulase Enzyme, Polyethyleneimines Alkoxylated, Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate, Diethylenetriamine, Methyl Di-T-Butyl Hydroxyhydrocinnamate, Propylene Glycol, Alcohol, Ethanolamine, Colorants, Fragrances, Water

Tide Free & Gentle: C10-16 Pareth, Sodium C10-16 Alkylbenzenesulfonate, C10-16 Alkyldimethylamine Oxide, Sodium Borate, Sodium Cumenesulfonate, Sodium Salts of C12-18 Fatty Acids, Sodium Citrate, Subtilisin, Amylase Enzyme, Mannanase Enzyme, Polyethyleneimines Alkoxylated, Sodium Formate, Propylene Glycol, Water

Many of these name brand detergents have a lot of common ingredients including well known agents and/or slight variations of:

  • C10-16 Pareth (a common surfactant),
  • sodium salts (which reduce suds)
  • various enzymes (agents that target specific stains)
  • sodium citrate (a water softener)
  • and fragrances and colorizers

So how do detergents formulated for newborns and babies compare?

Baby Detergent Ingredients Explained

For starters, why do babies need special detergent?

Well, need is a strong word. But some parents and experts feel it’s advisable to specially formulate detergent that accounts for baby’s sensitive skin and potential for allergens.

With that in mind, here’s what you’ll find in a few common name brand baby laundry detergents:

Dreft Newborn: Water, C10-16 Pareth, Sodium C10-16 Alkylbenzenesulfonate, Sodium Salts Of C12-18 Fatty Acids, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Citrate, C10-16 Alkyldimethylamine Oxide, Sodium Borate, Sodium Cumenesulfonate, Polyethyleneimine Alkoxylated, Fragrances, Subtilisin, Sodium Formate, Cellulase Enzyme

Arm and Hammer baby: Water, C12-15 alcohols ethoxylated, Sodium laureth sulfate, Sodium bicarbonate, Sodium hydroxide, Trisodium dicarboxymethyl alaninate, Fragrances.

Again, you’d need a chemistry degree to really break this down, and you will recognize some of the same ingredients (common surfactants and enzymes) from the adult detergent lists.

However, there are some key differences.

Baby vs Adult Detergent Explained

Here are the main differences between adult and baby detergent ingredients:

  • For starters, baby detergent usually has fewer ingredients
  • Baby detergent often has no added fragrance, or contains less of it
  • Baby detergent usually is not artificially colored
  • Chosen surfactants in baby detergent are more gentle and less aggressive
  • Chemical agents and enzymes in baby detergent are easier to wash away and leave behind less residue

That all sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, there is a downside.

Baby detergents are notoriously less effective at removing stains, grease, and dirt (due to fewer specialized enzymes and more gentle surfactants).

Which makes sense, their main goal is to avoid irritating baby’s skin or exposing them to allergens!

However, some parents find that baby detergent just isn’t strong enough, which begs the question:

Can You Use Adult Detergent on Baby Clothes?

The answer is an emphatic YES, but with one catch:

You have to try it for yourself and see what happens.

Your baby may have sensitive skin or an allergy you aren’t aware of.

An overwhelming majority of babies will be completely fine and have no problems wearing clothes that have been washed with regular, adult detergent.

Try a small batch (1 or 2 items of clothing) and see how your baby responds to wearing those clothes before you start using adult detergent on all of their laundry.

If no reaction or irritation occurs, you can feel free to continue using more powerful adult detergent, or just buy whatever’s cheaper at the store!

(Baby detergent is often, but not always, more expensive.)

One final tip here from the experts: Best to use a liquid detergent, as it washes away better and leaves less residue behind in clothes.

Wrapping Up

How are we feeling? I know, that was a lot of chemistry!

You don’t really need to stress about every ingredient in soaps and detergents unless your baby has extremely sensitive skin, a condition like eczema, or an allergy.

In most cases, you’ll be totally fine to use whatever detergent you have lying around for baby’s clothes — just try it in a controlled setting before you go hog-wild washing everything you own.

Good luck! And for more baby vs adult guides don’t miss:

Hope this helps!