Can You Use Fabric Softener As Detergent?

For some inexplicable reason, you’re out of laundry detergent. Now you’re tempted to use the bottle of fabric softener near by because it looks quite similar to a laundry detergent. 

Is it a good idea? Can you actually use fabric softener in place of laundry detergent? Are they interchangeable?

This article explores the differences between fabric softener and laundry detergent, and also the idea of using fabric softener as a viable alternative for laundry detergent.

What exactly is a fabric softener? And what does it contain?

A fabric softener is a laundry product that is specifically designed to soften fabrics. Additionally, it does help to remove static cling, and also add a layer of exciting fragrance to clothes which can last a very long time.

Fabric softeners typically come in various forms such as pods, liquids and dryer sheets. The pods and liquids are meant to be tossed into the washing machine, mostly doing the rinse cycle (although there are brands that recommend tossing them in during the wash cycle) to mix with the rinse water and distribute all over clothes. 

The dry sheets on the other hand are placed on the clothing items right before the drying cycle begins. They are then tossed immediately after the drying cycle is completed.

Fabric softener is great for improving the texture, feel, and smell laundry such as shirts, towels and bedding, but as much as it works to improve them in all these departments, its use must be carefully regulated otherwise it can begin to cause problems such as decreased absorbency (in the case of towels) or odor build up (in the case of spandex and elastic). 

When it comes to the ingredients that are in a fabric softener, it can vary based on the brand producing the fabric softener as well as the type of fabric softener (whether liquid, pod or sheet).

However, it’s still possible to point out some common ingredients that can be found in a typical fabric softener.

Cationic surfactants: 

These are chemical compounds such as (ditallow ester quats of dihydroxypropyl ammonium chloride, dihydrogenated tallow dimethylammonium chloride and triethanol ammonium chloride) that are responsible for the softness and pliable feel that fabric softeners leave on clothes. 

These chemicals are cationic in nature, which means they automatically attract fibers that are negatively charged to neutralize any static build up on clothes and make them very comfortable to wear – clothes cleaned without softeners typically have negative charge on their fibers which builds up static, and leaves the fabric feeling rough.


This is one of the solvents in a fabric softener. It acts as a base for the formulations that make up a liquid fabric softener.


Depending on the brand, fabric softeners can be infused with a variety of scents from floral to classical and even strong scents.


These are the ingredients that are responsible for the extended shelf life of your fabric softener. The preservatives help to prevent the growth of bacteria and microorganisms which will cause the product to go bad quickly. 


The dye in fabric softener is responsible for its color.

Softener brighteners: 

Some fabric softeners contain brighteners which can help make clothes look brighter.

Other fabric softeners come with detergents in them for a one stop solution. These types of fabric softeners usually have more ingredients in them (obviously because of the addition of the detergent).

How does fabric softener differ from a detergent?

Fabric softener differs from a laundry detergent in its intended purpose (and also ingredients). A fabric softener is intended to be used to soften, eliminate static build up and add fragrance to a laundry. 

Detergent on the other hand is formulated to tackle stains, remove soiling, and make clothes look brighter.

Because of the difference in purpose, both products have key ingredients that are exclusive to their composition.

Laundry detergent for instance contains the type of surfactants that aid in the removal of stains and dirt, has optical brighteners, has enzymes, bleach and even water softeners. 

Some of these key ingredients, for example the surfactants, enzymes and bleach are missing in the formulation of fabric softeners in the same way that the softening agent of a softener can be missing in many brands of laundry detergent.

There are also differences in the way that the products are being added to a laundry. Fabric softeners are typically added during the rinse cycle or through a fabric softener dispenser which dispensers in the rinse cycle, whereas laundry detergents are meant to be used in the wash cycle.

Will fabric softener wash your clothes?

No, a fabric softener will not wash your clothes because it lacks the necessary ingredients to do so. 

Fabric softener is an enhancement product to be used alongside a laundry detergent. It is meant to be added to clothes after washing them thoroughly with a laundry detergent.

It will help to add softness to clothes, remove any static buildup, and make clothes smell really fresh.

If you’re looking for alternatives to a laundry detergent, then you can scroll down to the bottom of this article.

What happens if you use fabric softener instead of detergent?

When you use a fabric softener, instead of a laundry detergent, then your clothes will not be cleaned properly, and this is because a fabric softener does not have the cleaning properties of a detergent. It’ll only add scent to the dirty clothes as well as make them softer.

When you accidentally use a fabric softener instead of detergent, what you should do is to run another wash cycle using a proper laundry detergent like Persil. This will ensure that the clothes get the proper treatment they deserve and any stains or soiling on them are removed.

Then the next thing you want to do is to make sure that you run an extra rinse cycle to remove as much fabric softener as possible or, if you like the softness it adds, then there is no need for the extra cycle. Just avoid adding fabric softener to the rinse cycle again.

Can you use fabric softener and detergent together? 

You can use fabric softener and detergent together, but not in the same cycle. Or, at least you can in some brands, but most brands would recommend that you use laundry detergent in the wash cycle, and then add the fabric softener manually during the rinse cycle. 

If you have an automatic detergent and fabric softener dispenser, you don’t need to worry about when the softener or detergent dispenses because it will automatically dispense at the right time, which is the wash and rinse cycle respectively.

Can you wash clothes without fabric softener?

Yes, you can wash clothes without fabric softener. Fabric softener is only an extra addition to the laundry step and isn’t really a necessity.

Most of the things that it does, with exception of softening, can be achieved using a standard laundry detergent. 

In fact, there are some detergents that come with softeners in them, which helps make clothes feel softer and very comfortable when worn.

For many, they may even find that fabric softener affects the absorbency of their towels and leaves patchy residue on their clothes.

If you want to soften your clothes without fabric softeners, go the natural route of adding vinegar or baking soda to the rinse cycle of the laundry.

What can you use in place of laundry detergent?

There is nothing that can wholly replace your laundry detergents at home, however, there are things and products you can use to improvise whenever you find yourself short on laundry detergent.

Extract the last bit of detergent remaining

If you ever stretch out for a bottle of liquid detergent and find out that it is empty, instead of tossing it away and pausing the laundry until the next day, it’s best to add small amounts of water into the bottle, shake vigorously and then pour out the detergent into the washer drum. 

You can even insert a pump dispenser to help get the last bit of your detergent out of the bottle.

When washing using very little detergent like this, make sure to up the game with the warmest water temperature the clothes can tolerate.

Use baking soda

Baking soda is a popular laundry additive that is used to boost the cleaning action of a laundry detergent. On its own, baking soda won’t do much, but when you are faced with lack of resources, you might as well turn your face to the only alternative available.

When using baking soda, ensure that the clothes aren’t heavily soiled otherwise a lot of the stains would still be visible after washing and drying. 

For further boost, try pre-treating stains first by making a paste of baking soda and water and rubbing it on the stain, then washing using the baking soda method.

As for the quantity of baking soda to use, you only need ½  cups for a normal laundry load that is lightly soiled. For more soiled and stinky loads, use 1 cup. Make sure to add the baking soda to the drum before you add in your clothes, and use the warmest temperature the fabrics would allow.

Use oxygen bleach

Bleach acts to remove stains from laundry and would do a perfect job at removing them from your clothes when you’re faced with lack of detergent. 

To use bleach, make sure the fabric allows its use otherwise it would cause discoloration or weakening of the fibers. 

When you’re pretty sure it’s a go ahead from the fabric’s care label, make a solution of the bleach with water as per the manufacturer’s instructions. 

Then soak the garment in it for the recommended amount of time and proceed to launder. You can add ½ cups of baking soda to serve as a booster.

What you should never use in place of detergent in the washer

Whenever you run out of laundry detergents, there are options that you must never try otherwise you risk ruining your clothes as well as the washer. 

These include alternatives such as dish soap, dishwasher detergent, shampoo or body wash that produce too much suds which can end up hiding in the nooks and crannies of the washer and causing mold growth, odor or even blockage of the drainage system in the machine. 

Some of these alternatives like dishwasher detergent also, aren’t typically formulated to clean clothes and as such, can contain certain chemicals that would do harm to a fabric’s fibers. Using them on clothes can also leave residue that could trigger allergic reactions. 

What can you use as an alternative for detergent when hand washing clothes


Baby shampoo is mostly recommended for this purpose as it is formulated to be gentle and thus would hardly cause destruction of fibers or even trigger allergic reactions. 

To use baby shampoo, fill a basin with warm water then add very little amount of the shampoo and mix vigorously until little suds form at the surface. 

Submerge the clothes into the water and allow to soak for 15 minutes, after which you work the detergent gently into the fibers (by rubbing the cloth together) using your hand. 

Rinse and wring properly then dry according to the care label. 

Always remember that hand washing is not a technique that is recommended for every fabric as it can cause distortion in some clothes for example knitted sweaters. 

Body wash

The same way you use shampoo to wash clothes is the same way you can use body wash to clean them. When choosing body wash for cleaning clothes, make sure it doesn’t contain moisturizers otherwise it would leave a thin film on the clothes which would make them attract dirt easily and become less breathable. 

Also, make sure to use only small quantities.

Dishwashing liquid

For this method, I would highly recommend that you test it in an inconspicuous area of the cloth to see how the fabric would react first, before going full force. Sometimes, it could cause discoloration and damage. 

When you’re done testing, proceed as follows: 

Use only a little amount in a basin or tub filled with water, and shake vigorously to mix in the detergent with the water. Soak the clothes for sometime and then agitate to remove soil. Rinse and wring thoroughly to remove all traces of the detergent from the cloth. Dry according to the care label of the cloth. 

Note that because a dishwashing liquid is formulated to tackle stains on dishes, it may not work effectively to get rid of stains on your clothes.