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What is HE Detergent? How It Works, How to Use It, & More!

Posted by Meredith Czymmek on Dec 1, 2021 7:30 AM
Meredith Czymmek

HE Laundry Detergent_GE Appliances GTW485ASJWS

If you are in the market for a new washer, you are probably trying to learn as much as you can about modern washing machine technology. One of the big themes in today's market is HE laundry detergent - short for High Efficiency laundry detergent. So, what is it and why are many new washers using it? This article will answer all of the common questions people have about HE detergents and these low-water washers as well as help you avoid overuse of these detergents (and the wash problems that can result from overuse).




Table of Contents

  1. HE Detergent vs Regular Detergent
  2. How Can My Clothes Get Clean with Less Water?
  3. Can You Use Regular Detergent in an HE Washer/Vice Versa?
  4. What's the Best HE Laundry Detergent?
  5. Washer Problems Caused by Too Much Detergent
  6. HE Front Load Washer Review



HE Detergent vs Regular Detergent

HE laundry detergents are low sudsing - if your washer has a glass lid that allows you to peek in on the wash action, you might not see any suds at all. (This is actually a good thing - if you see suds, that means you have probably used too much detergent!) They are designed to activate quickly and to work well in lower water temperatures than traditional detergents. You'll notice the "HE" symbol on many of the laundry detergent bottles at your local supermarket.

These highly concentrated detergents are specially designed to work with today's low water washers. Most if not all of today's washing machines, whether they are top load or front load, are designed to be used with HE detergent.



How Can My Clothes Get Clean with Less Water?

Traditional washing machines could use almost 40 gallons of water per wash. Today's washers use half as much water, or even less - and, at the same time, tub sizes have increased, so you can wash more clothes per load. Some of today's super-efficient front loaders use less than 10! So, how is it possible to clean your clothes in these conditions?

Let's start with a little science. Have you ever heard of the Sinner's Circle? Named after Dr. Hubert Sinner, it describes the combination of factors needed to get something clean:

  1. Chemicals
  2. Mechanical power
  3. Time
  4. Temperature

Combining these factors in different ratios will produce the most efficient cleaning results, depending on limiting factors like the effectiveness of the chemicals available, whether the item can withstand high temperatures, and so on. For example:

  • Scrubbing a casserole dish with a sponge is an example of mechanical power.

  • If you left the dish to soak, time would increase but mechanical power would decrease.

  • Or perhaps you use a special scrubbing cleaner (chemicals) and scalding hot water (temperature), which might decrease how hard you needed to scrub (mechanical power) and how long you needed to scrub.

The end result is the same (a clean dish), but the Sinner's Circle demonstrates the different methods we can combine to achieve that same end result.


Old-fashioned washers had Sinner's Circles that looked something like this:

Old Fashiond Washer Sinner Circle Example


But a modern washer's Sinner Circle is more like this:

Modern Washer Sinner Circle Example



Old-fashioned washers relied on beating the clothes around an agitator and churning them back and forth through plenty of hot water to release soils. This is why, in my example Sinner's Circle for traditional washers, mechanical power and temperature take up larger sections.

Nowadays, the detergent does a lot more heavy lifting. Enzymes and other specialized ingredients release stains and soils from your fabrics. This is also why wash cycles take longer in HE washers than in machines made in the 90s and early 2000s - the clothes need to soak in the detergent longer so the detergent can work.

So, in my example Sinner's Circle for modern washers, you can see that chemicals take up a much larger portion, followed by time, while mechanical power and temperature are much smaller sections.


Advertising has trained us to think that foam + suds = more cleaning power, but that's just not true! In fact - I'm going to mention this several times in this article - if you see suds in your clothes during the wash cycle, that's a sign you're using too much detergent. This not only is a waste of your money, it can also lead to poor wash performance and premature wear and tear on your washer!


HE Detergent Dispenser_Amana NFW5800DW Washer



Can You Use Regular Detergent in an HE Washer, or Vice Versa?

Using regular detergent with an HE machine may result in a scene out of a childhood movie or TV show with the foam overflowing out of the washer! Plus it can result in build-up that breeds mold and odors, and it can even make your clothes look worse due to detergent residue. In the worst case, the extra sudsing could even damage the electronics of your washer... So let's avoid that if we can!

Even today's agitator top load washing machines typically recommend HE detergents. This includes the ultra-durable traditional Speed Queen top load washers, which are built to last 25 years. (For even more information on washers, check out our washing machine buying guide!)

I'm not sure if non-HE detergents are even sold in stores these days, at least in the US. If you'd like to send me a brand of "regular" detergent that is NOT designed for HE washers, I'd love to see it!

Can you use HE detergent in a regular washer? Well, the owner's manuals for all of the washing machines that I've seen over the past few years recommend or require HE detergents, even models with agitators. However, if you have an older top load washing machine made before HE detergents became popular, you can still use HE detergent - you will just need to use more than you would with a low-water washer. This is because that washer will use more water than a modern washer, which dilutes out the detergent more as a result.



What's the Best HE Laundry Detergent?

We recommend choosing an established brand of HE laundry detergent like Tide, Persil, and so on. They may be a bit more expensive than budget brands, but they test their detergents more extensively. Today's detergents are so powerful that they can actually harm the components of your washing machine, so choosing a quality detergent and not using too much of it per wash protects your machine in the long run. You can check websites like The Wirecutter and Consumer Reports for detergent tests and reviews!

Eco-friendly brands that use lye should be avoided because those chemicals are harder on a washing machine's components. Detergents no longer contain phosphates, which are known to be environmentally harmful.

As for laundry pods... my personal opinion on them is: MEH. They are more expensive than plain liquid detergent, for one thing. For another, pods containing fabric softener as well as detergent are poorly designed: fabric softener should be added towards the end of the wash cycle, if you're going to add it at all. If you want to use pods, some newer washing machines are specially designed to handle them. For example, Electrolux front load washers have dedicated pod dispensers that break down the pod and premix the detergent before adding it to the wash.



Washer Problems Caused by Too Much Detergent

More isn't better when it comes to detergent! For most loads, you only need about a coffee scoop's worth (about two tablespoons). Draw a mark at a "two-tablespoon" depth on your detergent cup and refer to that rather than the detergent manufacturer's suggested fill lines.

Here are some of the problems that can be caused by using too much detergent:

  • In front load washers: It can impact the door's ability to seal and cause water to leak from the door

  • Clothes may look dirtier - dingier or dull - because the detergent is not being fully washed away

  • Clothes may have white streaks or lint - this is especially visible on denim and dark fabrics

  • The washing machine may run more spins and rinses because it detects the suds - meaning cycles will take longer (a Normal wash cycle with no additional rinses/other settings should take about 50-60 minutes)

  • Suds can also cause the machine to cancel the final spin cycle - if you find your clothes are still very wet at the end of the cycle, this is a potential cause

  • Odors and a waxy buildup in the tub and other washer components

  • Detergent residue can also cause a skin reaction for some people with sensitive skin


So if you have a newer washing machine and you think it isn't cleaning your clothes - try using less detergent before you call for service! Running a washer cleaning cycle regularly will also help prevent buildup and odors. There are washer cleaning products like Affresh, and some brands offer tub cleaning cycles that don't require any additional products.



HE Front Load Washer Review - The Whirlpool WFW5620HW

High efficiency machines that use HE laundry detergents and use less water are a great way to save money and natural resources. One of our favorite attractively priced front loading HE machines is the Whirlpool WFW5620HW. This front load washer is affordably priced at $899 and has a direct drive motor, stainless steel drum, and a 4.5 cubic foot tub capacity. Whirlpool updated their front load washer lineup for 2019 and this model has been a best seller!

If you want to avoid trying to measure out the right amount of HE laundry detergent in the first place, this model might be for you: it offers Whirlpool's Load and Go bulk dispenser design. Add detergent once and skip refills for 20 loads - the washer will dispense the right amount of detergent for each load automatically! This will help prevent the detergent overuse issue we discussed in detail above.

Another cool feature is Whirlpool's Intuitive Controls, designed to make front load washer control panels a little less crowded and overwhelming. Choose "What to Wash" and customize it with a "How to Wash" selection, choose any wash options you'd like to add on, and that's it!

The price point of this washer is pretty much the lowest you can find for front load models. Compared to an entry-level top loader, many front load models have larger capacities, more advanced features, and a sleeker design aesthetic. This is one example of a model designed to work with HE laundry detergent to use less water that would be a great option for your home.


Cycles & Options:

  • What to Wash: Regular, Delicates, Bulky Items, Whites, Colors, Towels

  • How to Wash: Normal, Wrinkle Control, Heavy Duty, Sanitize with Oxi, Cold Wash, Quick

  • Options: Clean Washer, Drain & Spin, Steam Clean, Extra Rinse, Pre Soak, Load & Go


Whirlpool WFW5620HW - $899

Whirlpool WFW5620HW Front Load Washing Machine


RECOMMENDED ARTICLE:  Washing Machine Buying Guide - 7 Important Steps!


We hope you enjoyed this article about HE laundry detergents and the machines that use them. Please leave us a comment below. We'd love to hear from you!


Editor's Note: This blog was originally written in February of 2017 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy as of the publication date noted above.

Topics: Washing Machines

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