Laundry Detergent History: Changes Through the Years

Updated September 20, 2021
House cleaning supplies, Spray bottle and cleaning liquid

When doing laundry, you just grab the detergent and go. But this wasn't always the case. That fresh scent, soft laundry detergent was actually a recent invention. Before that, you used to wash your clothing with plain ole' soap. Talk about crunchy laundry. Dive into the history and recent improvements to laundry detergent.

The 411 on Laundry Detergent History

Detergent is not soap. Mind blown, right? Laundry detergent is actually a chemical compound that helps clean clothes in washing machines because it helps keep the dirt suspended in the water. When it comes to cleaning clothes, the washing machine is the thing, not the laundry detergent. A washing machine uses water and water pressure to loosen dirt from clothing. The detergent helps break down the barriers between water molecules, so the water is more efficient. The detergent also helps keep the dirt suspended to wash when the water drains.

Historical Use of Soap for Laundry

Historically, standard soap was used when clothing was scrubbed by hand or washed in the river. During the times of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, soap came from rendered animal fat and ashes. Lye would eventually become a popular soap product. Soap became the work of the devil during medieval times. The abhorrence of cleaning the body and clothes led to a decline in soap products. Some historians speculate it contributed to the spread of the black plague (generally transmitted by fleas on rats) because people were so dirty.

Modern Washing Machines

Standard and lye-based soaps are too harsh on the internal mechanics of washing machines. Modern laundry detergents provided an alkali-based cleanser that helped the water clean clothes, but modern detergents were detrimental to the environment because the detergent did not break down. In fact, once in the water, the detergent remained and could be seen foaming in cesspools, water breaks, and even in the groundwater. However, it was 'cleansed.' Modern scientists continue to work on green, safe products to use as laundry detergent substitutes to help reduce the amount of water pollution that detergents contribute.

Laundry detergent Capsule

Laundry Detergent Milestones

The significant milestones in the development of laundry detergent history took place post-1945 when the modern washing machine began to replace scrub boards in American homes in the post-war boom economy of the late 40s and early 1950s.

  • 1950s - Liquid and powder laundry detergents become popular purchases along with bleaches for whiter whites and fabric softeners to gentle the water and soften clothes.
  • 1960s - Stain removers and pre-treatments are added to the shelves. Enzymatic laundry detergents are introduced. Homes also used laundry tablets.
  • 1970s - Fabric conditioners included in laundry detergent for an all-in-one product.
  • 1980s - Varying temperature laundry detergents and concentrated laundry detergents grow in popularity.
  • 1990s - Biodegradable cleaners, conditioners, and color-safe bleach are big sale items on the laundry detergent aisle
  • 2000s - Biodegradable and green-friendly products and water conservation are big-ticket issues for modern concepts of laundry detergent.
  • 2010s+ - Laundry pods and sheets available in dissolvable units that provide a quick, single-serving of laundry detergent to prevent waste and overuse of detergent. Introduction of detergents specifically for synthetic fibers.

Clean Clothes & Clean Water

The history of laundry detergent continues to impact the modern environment and clean water standards. And, like everything else in the world, it's constantly changing to meet the new needs of consumers. Next time you pick up a bottle or box of detergent for your home, think how far the history of laundry detergent has come in less than 100 years. Now learn about some of the best smelling laundry detergents available.

Laundry Detergent History: Changes Through the Years