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Both soaps and detergents are used in cleaning. So, they are fundamentally the same thing, right? Wrong! Most people use the words ‘soap’ and ‘detergent’ interchangeably due to the assumption that they are essentially the same. After all, both are cleaning agents! Even though their cleaning action is similar, both scientifically and practically, there is a lot of difference between soaps and detergents. Let us look at the properties that distinguish one from the other.

Differences Between Soaps and Detergents

Soaps and Detergents: Composition Differences

  • Natural ingredients are used to make soaps. Soaps use plant-based oils like coconut oil or palm oil or acids which are derived from animal fat. Soaps are alkaline in nature.
  • Detergents are made from artificial sources such as petroleum products with surfactants, alcohol, etc. Detergents might not always be alkaline.

Response to hard water

  • Soaps react with the minerals in the hard water and form scum. This affects their cleaning properties and they do not clean well.
  • Detergents react less with the minerals present in hard water. Hence, they are better able to and clean surfaces or fabrics even when hard water is being used. This is a major difference between soaps and detergents.


  • Soaps do not lather in hard water. The water needs to be converted into soft water for soaps to work.
  • Detergents lather well in hard water as well as soft water.

Water temperature

  • Soaps work better when used with warm water.
  • Detergents work just as well with water at all temperatures.


  • Soaps are biodegradable. Hence, they do not cause pollution and do not harm water bodies.
  • Detergents are not biodegradable due to the chemicals present in them.

Cleaning prowess

  • Soaps are milder in their cleaning action.
  • Detergents are powerful and can clean better than soaps even when used in smaller quantities.


  • A fabric or surface washed with soap requires a lot of water to be thoroughly rinsed.
  • Detergents can be easily rinsed off from fabrics or surfaces using lesser water compared to soaps.

Environmental Impact

  • It can be argued that even though soaps are biodegradable, they impact the environment negatively in the long run. This is because, they use valuable natural resources during manufacturing, require more water for washing, and indirectly consume energy required for heating the water used, or treating the water from hard to soft.
  • On the other hand, even though detergents contain ingredients that are not biodegradable, these ingredients can be treated in a sewage treatment plant before letting out in water bodies. This ensures proper biodegradation. Also, they do not require heating the water or treating it in any way. So, they seem like a more viable option for cleaning.

Cost factor

  • Soaps are cheaper.
  • Detergents are more expensive than soaps.


  • Soaps are commonly used for bathing.
  • Detergents are majorly used for washing clothes, surfaces, and dishwashing. Detergents are more versatile compared to soaps and are used in industrial and facility cleaning.


  • Soaps have been around for thousands of years with the earliest evidence of people using soaps being dated as far back as 2800 B.C.
  • Detergents are fairly recent, with the first detergents being manufactured during the World War I in 1916.

Quick fact: In spite of the difference between soaps and detergents, many manufacturers still mention ‘soap’ on labels of cleaning products meant for the skin. But these products fall into the category of ‘detergents’.