Soap vs Detergent : Difference Between Soap and Detergent

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Be it soaps or detergents, they both clean. So that must make them the same thing, right? No, not really. Soap and detergents might serve similar purposes but in reality, they function quite differently. And that brings us to the ‘Soap vs Detergent’ standoff over which one is better and why.

Other than their organic and inorganic origins there are a couple of other contrasts as well. So let’s take a look at an in-depth comparison of the two. Stick with us till the end to know every essential difference in terms of their manufacture, uses, and nature.

Origin Of Soaps And Detergents

The earliest record of soap dates back to 2800 BC. Humans have been making soaps for over 5000 years! Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and all other ancient civilizations have been using animal fats and plant ashes as soaps in their daily lives.

Detergents entered the picture after the rise of technology in the early 20th century. Many consider them as an evolved form of soap, while some say they came into being because there was a lack of soap during the First World War.

This isn’t entirely incorrect, although by going through this post you will learn more about soap and detergents and why they have been co-existing together to this day.

With time soap-ingredients have been added and removed, but the primary constituents remained the same. But such is not the case for detergents.

Soap vs Detergent

Believe it or not, a vast number of people consider soaps and detergents to be the same thing. This is because we have been using these two words interchangeably for a very long time. And there are several reasons why.

In this post, we are about to discover why we confuse soap and detergent to be the same, as well as how they differ from each other.


The basic difference in their composition is that soap is mostly made out of organic components whereas detergents are made out of both organic and inorganic constituents.

The chances of finding a detergent company that uses organic ingredients for production is almost zero.

Composition Of Soap

Soaps are salts of fatty acids. Fats and oils come together in the right proportions with water and lye to form soap. This process is known as ‘saponification’.

Since soap is a carbon compound so it’s bio-degradable. Today many soap manufacturers like to use various cosmetic ingredients in it for marketing purposes; even though the primary constituents always remain the same.

Composition Of Detergent

Detergents are not made through the saponification process like soaps. The manufacturers take long-chain hydrocarbons derived from petroleum and synthesize it with alkali and sulfuric acid.

In other words, Detergents are sodium or potassium salt of sulphonic acids. The constituents are synthetic. As a result, they aren’t bio-degradable.

Depending on their composition a detergent may be classified into cationic, anionic, and zwitter ionic. The commercial nomenclature of detergents is quite different from this.

Nature And Cleaning Method Of Soap and Detergent in Water

As mentioned earlier, we use both soap and detergent for cleaning the dirt off of our lives. But their way of functioning in carrying out this common task is quite different. We have carefully compared the nature of the two cleansing agents according to their cleaning capacity.

Soap Vs Detergent

Cleaning Method Of ‘Soap + Water’

‘Cleaning-aggression’ refers to how much chemically strong a reagent has to be in order to be able to properly clean. Soap is suitable for cleaning processes that require lighter cleaning-aggression, such as washing off the dirt over your skin.

The chemical structure of soap causes it to break down the grease and dirt settled on your skin/clothes. The rinsing of water then helps the dirt to wash off.

When soap operates on clothes, it can penetrate deep into the fabric due to having ionic features. Yet you shouldn’t use soap as a fabric cleaner. Here’s why—

Soap and hard water don’t go well together. When soap comes in contact with hard water it starts to form lathers over the surface. And this in turn makes the cleaning process less efficient.

Again, they do not perform well in colder temperatures of waters as well. So, there always remains some potential limitation.

A common use of soap includes cleaning coffee makers. Also, we use this thing as a cleaning agent in any dishwasher. Check out our post on how does a dishwasher work to know more about that.

Soap Vs Detergent

Cleaning Method of Detergent + Water

Detergents have no difficulty functioning in hard water as they are soluble in it and often in other liquids as well. They don’t react with the minerals present in hard water and that makes them the perfect cleaning agents for fabric.

We’re not here to bore you with scientific explanations and formulas. Here’s an easy approach. The cleaning method of detergent is similar to how a crane would work.

First, attach to the object that needs to be removed (dirt). Then simply move away from there, with the object still attached to it. As simple as that.

Now, since they are synthetically manufactured, so their formulas are often altered according to requirements. More about the versatility of detergent in the next point.

Soap Vs Detergent From A Commercial Point Of View

In the US, soaps are popular options for cosmetic purposes such as skincare or they are popular as hand-washes too. Soaps have a lesser demand compared to detergents since they tend to show some limitations in various environments.

Don’t let that fool you into thinking people don’t buy enough soaps! A survey shows that the average annual expenditure on soaps and detergents per consumer unit, as of 2018 was $90 in the US.

This is the highest value ever recorded compared to previous years and the number is still on the rise as the years pass. Manufacturers like to alter the formulas to make the detergent serve a particular purpose.

This is why you will find detergents in the market that specialize in a variety of tasks such as cleaning your car, furniture, dishes, or even clothes. After all, who doesn’t like a wide variety of options to choose from?

Manufacturers adjust soap-ingredients according to consumer needs to serve separate purposes. So it automatically becomes the more popular option among users. As a result of which they have become the pioneers of commercial cleaning today.

Which One Is Better?

In a perfect world without consequences, detergent takes the win against soap for being much more functional, strong, adjustable, and effective.

But if you have read through this post then you know that the reality is much more complex than this. Soap and Detergent usage have their own pros and cons.

So how to determine which one is best for you? By judging what you need it for. If you want to wash the oil off your face or maybe shampoo your pet, go for soaps.

On the contrary, detergents are for tasks like taking the grease off of your favorite shirt. The key is in knowing when to use what for the best results.

To Wrap It Up

The sole purpose of this post was to enlighten you with the basic contrasts between Soaps and Detergents so that you can make the best possible use of the two.

Whichever one you use, always read the instructions mentioned on the package for safety. No more confusions between Soap vs Detergent. Happy cleaning!

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