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What's the Difference Between Soap vs Detergent?

They might sound like they're the same thing, but soap vs detergent are different. When you're using laundry detergent in the washing machine or hand soap on your, well, hands, or dish soap when you're washing a sinkful of dishes, you might wonder how they differ and why you can't necessarily use one thing for another task, like bar soap in your washer. Allow us to explain.

Soap vs Detergent: What's the Difference?

In short, soap tends to be more natural than detergent. While detergents are made from "man-made derivatives," soap is made up of "natural ingredients," like plant oils including coconut oil, vegetable oil, palm oil, and pine oil, or "acids derived from animal fat," Nyco explains.

Soap is made by mixing fats and oils with a base (like lye) or alkali — the process of saponification. In soap-making, homemade hand soap can be made from a clear glycerin base and essential oils, and occasionally herbs and spices, according to Clean Cult. Soap is also biodegradable, making it more attractive to the environmentally-minded.

The surfactants, AKA surface-active agents, in detergents can be used for lots of different cleaning products and reduce surface tension.

If a soap includes chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate or cocomidopropyl betaine, it's not a soap, according to Brown Thumb Mama. It's technically a detergent. When it comes to cleaning agents, you've really got to check the label to determine what it actually is — soap vs detergent. True soap/natural soap won't have all those additives that are actually chemicals.

"Most cleaning products today are detergents," Nyco says, because of the way it reacts with water. "Soap needs a clear water wash after application or it will leave a film" or soap scum build-up that can ruin clothes or damage surfaces. Particularly with hard water, detergent tends to work better to clean with and to cut through grime because of the chemical reactions involved.

So when you're picking out your laundry soap or soap for your bathroom, keep in mind that you might actually be looking at detergent before you make your choice.

Watch: How to Make Homemade Car Wash Soap in 3 Steps