Walk down the cleaning product aisle at a Target or Walmart store in any US city or town and you will encounter row upon gleaming row of stout, colorful bottles of liquid laundry detergent. Powdered detergents are relegated to a sad corner at the end of the aisle, if they can be found at all.
The scene is quite different at, say, the giant Idumota Market in Lagos, Nigeria. There, economical powdered detergents dominate. They come in sizes ranging from cheap single-use packets to multikilogram bags. In rural areas, powdered detergents are often sold out of large sacks by the cup to buyers who bring their own containers. Liquids are nowhere to be found.
These are the two ends of the global laundry detergent market. Consumers in the US, accustomed to liquids or newer unit-dose pod products, may not be aware that powders are alive and well in Africa, India, China, Latin America, and elsewhere in the developing world. Powders also persist in highly developed western European countries, where families prize them for their whitening ability.
Liquids, with their bold hues and connotations of upward mobility, are steadily taking market share from powders as standards of living improve around the world. Still, demand for powdered detergents continues to grow. Momentum may be on the side of liquid detergents, but for now liquids and powders coexist in laundry detergent markets around the globe.
David Cumming is associate R&D director for the North American fabric care business of Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest detergent producers and by far the North American leader. He points to P&G research showing that liquids and powders are “neck and neck” in sales around the world. The firm reckons that they each have 40–45% market share by value, with pod products taking up the rest.
But by volume, powders lead comfortably. Some 14 million metric tons of powdered detergents were sold around the world last year, double the tonnage of liquids, according to the ingredient supplier Lubrizol. “Powdered detergents still dominate volume-wise, especially in emerging markets,” says Steven Carbone, the firm’s strategic marketing manager for fabric care.
Laundry detergents based on synthetic ingredients are a relatively recent innovation. For centuries until World War I, people washed their clothes with soaps that were made by saponifying fats and oils into fatty acid salts. P&G’s Ivory Snow was a popular US laundry soap.
German chemical companies developed an alkyl sulfate surfactant, a synthetic version of the fatty acid salts, during the war when Germany was unable to obtain the fats and oils needed for soap. After the war, P&G brought samples back to the US, recreated the surfactant in its labs, and in 1931 launched Dreft powder, the first synthetic detergent in the US.
Dreft was an improvement over soap, Cumming says, because it didn’t leave a scum on clothes washed in hard water, but it still didn’t clean heavily soiled clothes. “The breakthrough came when P&G scientists cracked the question of ‘How do I clean but also control hardness?’ ” he says. The answer was liberal amounts of sodium tripolyphosphate, a surfactant “builder” that helps remove soil.
Armed with the phosphate, P&G launched a new detergent, Tide, in 1946. It was a hit, and within a few years, P&G’s output of synthetic detergents was outstripping its soap production. By the early 1950s, Tide had captured more than 30% of the US laundry market, and it remains the best-selling detergent in the US today.
Although competitors launched liquids in the early years of the detergent era, P&G wasn’t confident to introduce a liquid Tide until 1984, Cumming says. “The elements of a detergent are easier to formulate in a powder,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about their inherent stability with each other because you can create discrete particles and then mix them together.”
To shift to the liquid form, the firm’s researchers had to reexamine every ingredient: surfactants, enzymes, brighteners, and polymers that prevent the redeposition of suspended soil. “You have to make everything function in the wash but also be compatible with each other in a liquid form and be stable through manufacturing, storage, shelf life, and eventual consumer use,” Cumming says.
A challenge for sure, but P&G couldn’t ignore the appeal to consumers of a product that is easy to dispense, dissolves quickly, especially in cold water, and can be dabbed on to pretreat stains. No doubt the firm also considered the premium it could charge.
Since the 1980s, most R&D by detergent makers and their raw material suppliers has been directed at liquids. “When we’re out talking to our customers, it’s very dominated by the liquid space,” says Jena Kinney, head of consumer care in North America for the specialty chemical maker Clariant.
In part because of this difference in emphasis, liquids and powders have significantly different formulas today, explains Shoaib Arif, manager of applications and technical service at Pilot Chemical, a surfactant maker. “Powders were easy and economical,” Arif says. “Liquids are more technical. You need more chemistry knowledge.”
In powdered detergents, the main surfactant is linear alkylbenzene sulfonate. Known as LAS, it’s an inexpensive ingredient that, Kinney explains, is effective on dirt but less so on greasy or oily stains. In contrast, most liquids also contain alcohol ethoxylates, which are effective on challenging oily stains, she says.
Moreover, Arif says, liquids tend to include a broad range of surfactants, including LAS, alcohol ethoxylates, ether sulfates, and amine oxides. Some, such as amine oxides, which are effective on grease, are liquids themselves and can’t easily be formulated into a powder.
Packing all those surfactants into a liquid isn’t easy, Arif acknowledges, particularly in a concentrated formula. “In liquids the major issue is how to make these things compatible,” he says. “You must pick and choose the right surfactant category and structure.” Detergent makers often turn to viscosity control agents such as sodium xylene sulfonate, which Pilot sells as SXS-40.
Other ingredients present their own challenges in liquids. For enzymes to be stable, liquids must contain an additive like borax or calcium formate. And while formulators of powdered detergents can reduce soil redeposition by adding a simple acrylic homopolymer complexing agent, acrylics don’t blend well in liquids. Liquids rely instead on expensive complexing polymers like polyethyleneimine ethoxylate.
Finally, powders contain copious amounts of cheap builder. Phosphates were long ago removed from laundry detergents because they can promote excessive plant and algae growth in lakes and rivers, but powders still bristle with sodium carbonate and zeolites that tie up hard water ions like calcium and magnesium. To build liquid detergents, especially for hard water, formulators must turn to alternative builders, such as sodium citrate, and pump up surfactant levels.
The result, Arif says, is that liquids are quite effective but typically more expensive than powders. An analysis of US laundry detergents published last year by the Wirecutter, a consumer product testing service owned by the New York Times, chose Tide Ultra Stain Release liquid as the best product overall. The Tide variety was also among the most expensive detergents the service tested. Tide Plus Bleach powder was the Wirecutter’s top pick in years past, but it no longer makes the grade.
The situation is different in Germany, where a leading testing service, Stiftung Warentest, consistently ranks powders above liquids for heavy-duty cleaning of whites. In October 2018 the firm published a test of 18 powdered detergents and 5 liquid-containing pods. Its conclusion: bleach-based powders are markedly better than the pods, which occupied the last five places in the test.
The different conclusions of the US and German tests highlight differing wash conditions in the US and Europe as well as a key advantage of powders over liquids: the ability to add a bleaching agent.
Most premium powdered laundry detergents contain the oxygen-based bleach sodium percarbonate plus a chemical, usually tetraacetylethylenediamine (TAED), that activates the bleach at low temperatures. Sodium percarbonate isn’t stable in liquid detergents, so formulators do their best to replicate its effect with enzymes and optical brighteners—additives such as disodium diaminostilbene disulfonate that makeclothes appear brighter by absorbing ultraviolet light and reemitting it in the blue region. The labels of such products often refer to “bleach alternative.”
Detergent powders sold in the US sometimes contain oxygenated bleach as well, but it’s in Europe where they are most effective because washing machines feature hotter and longer cycles than in the US. Those conditions yield noticeable whitening, says Joël Gény, market development manager for peroxides at Solvay, a leading producer of sodium percarbonate. “You can see a huge difference in cleaning performance.”
Thus, unlike in the US, where powders have all but disappeared, powders continue to command sizable market share in Germany and other European countries. Overall, according to Desmet Ballestra, an Italian designer and builder of chemical plants and detergent-making equipment, powders have a 30–35% market share in western Europe.
Even in Europe, though, the market share of powders is falling. Thomas Mueller-Kirschbaum, who heads R&D for laundry and home care at Henkel, a leading detergent maker, says the decline is roughly 4–5% per year. In eastern Europe, where powders are still in the majority, liquids are catching on as well, he notes. Last year Henkel added a liquid production line at its detergent plant in Racibórz, Poland, to meet growing customer demand in central and eastern Europe.
“People are wearing more dark clothes,” Mueller-Kirschbaum says, “not the typical white shirt or blouse of 20 years ago.” And while powders are good for whitening and removing dirt, liquids, he says, are better at tackling the “stains we always have with us—the bodily oils we cannot avoid.”
Unfortunately for firms like Solvay, about 60% of sodium percarbonate produced in Europe goes into laundry detergents. “Over the past 10 years it’s been a declining market,” Gény says. During that period, Solvay closed two percarbonate plants in Europe, and other firms closed at least three others.
The decline is slowing, Gény says, and Solvay continues to invest in its plant in Germany. He sees potential for growth in the e-commerce market, where powdered detergents promise less risk of messy leaks during shipping. Yet, rather than turn to powders, both P&G and competitor Seventh Generation recently responded to pressure from Amazon with versions of their liquid detergents that are highly concentrated and packaged for sending through the mail.
Paul Baxter, global business development manager for home care and new markets at Lubrizol, is bullish on powders for a different reason. In 2015, Lubrizol acquired Warwick Chemicals, a Welsh firm that is the world’s largest producer of TAED, the bleach activator. About 90% of all TAED is used in laundry detergents and stand-alone bleaching products, Baxter says.
Baxter, a longtime Warwick executive, is realistic about global trends. “There has been a shift from powders to liquids,” he acknowledges. “But it’s a fairly slow shift. There’s still a very big powder market.”
In fact, Lubrizol sees the global powdered detergent market growing at about 2% annually as consumers in places like Africa and India acquire appliances and shift from hand to machine washing of clothes. And importantly for Lubrizol, most of the detergents consumed in the developing world are simple formulas that don’t contain bleach but could as people begin to demand more from their cleaning products. “We see that as our big opportunity,” Baxter says.
The selling point of bleach varies by region, Baxter notes. In the Middle East and North Africa, where white garments are popular, bleach can help detergent makers make whitening claims. In Asia, he says, detergent makers are interested in using bleach to make a “hygienic” claim. He points to research showing that more than 25% of new laundry products launched in Asia make a hygiene or sanitizing claim, versus less than 5% in North America and Europe.
“We realize we’re not going to get bleach into all laundry powders in Asia,” Baxter says, “but in top-tier brands, bleach ought to be essential.”
Moreover, Lubrizol sees an opportunity to spread the sanitizing message, particularly in regions where front-loading washing machines are popular.
On its website, the firm has posted a video demonstrating how using liquid detergents in front loaders can lead to microbial growth in the detergent-dispensing drawer and under the door’s rubber sealing ring. The problem is mostly eliminated by using a machine-cleaning product containing percarbonate and TAED and then washing clothes with a bleach-containing powdered detergent, according to tests summarized in the video.
Baxter is enthusiastic, but executives at Desmet Ballestra, which claims to have built two-thirds of the powdered laundry detergent plants around the world, are more measured in their view. They have been watching the detergent business for decades and are resigned about the slow shift to liquids.
Lately, the shift is particularly pronounced in Japan and South Korea, according to Corrado Mazzanti, the firm’s sales director for surfactants and detergents. “Ten years ago powders dominated,” he says. “Now they are 10–15%.” It’s also happening in Latin American countries like Brazil, where P&G spent $120 million in 2015 to build a liquid detergent plant and subsequently stopped selling powdered versions of its popular Ariel and Ace brands in the country.
Detergent company executives like P&G’s Cumming say investments in liquids are a response to consumer wishes, yet Mazzanti contends that big companies actively promote them because they are more profitable. “The cost of each wash done with liquids versus powders is much higher,” he says.
Still, Desmet Ballestra continues to build two or three powdered detergent plants a year. In October, for example, it announced plans to build one for the cleaning product maker Aspira in the Kano region of Nigeria.
And even in the most modern US cities, powders have their niches, particularly in neighborhoods where people may have grown up elsewhere. “The cleaning process is really ingrained in individuals since their childhoods,” Clariant’s Kinney notes.
Thus in the big Target store in downtown Brooklyn, New York, liquid detergents line the cleaning product aisle. But deeper in the borough, in a dollar store that serves a neighborhood with many Hispanic residents, one can still find bags of laundry powders, including P&G’s Ariel imported from Mexico. Powders may be down, but they’re not yet out.