Do Diluted Detergents, Soaps and Shampoos Still Work?

The prices of cleaning products -- for yourself or your home -- can be steep, so it's tempting to water them down in order to save a buck or two. But here's the thing: do diluted detergents still work? For the most part, the answer is "yes". We asked several consumers with a penchant for the practice and turned to some experts to determine whether dirt-free and less product can harmoniously co-exist.

Detergents and Other Cleansers.

Frugal consumers tend to use multi-purpose cleaners rather than single-purpose products. Buying one cleanser instead of many is more cost efficient, and watering it down adds to the savings. According to experts at the Housekeeping Channel, dilution does not compromise the effectiveness of most cleaning products.

Products like Mr. Clean, Lysol, and Spic and Span clean non-wood floors as well as walls, tables, blinds, and most other hard surfaces. The primary ingredient in all three is water, so diluting them in a 1:1 ratio does not really alter their efficacy, many consumers assert. In fact, if using anti-bacterial products like Lysol to disinfect anything small children might put in their mouths, dilution is a must. That said, a better plan is to use diluted bleach -- 1 tablespoon of bleach in a quart of water -- because most commercial cleansers and anti-bacterial agents contain harmful chemicals.

In general, bleach and vinegar are alternative cheap cleaning agents that beg for dilution. A solution of equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle is a tried-and-true cleanser -- just avoid using on wood or marble floors because the acid will cause irreparable damage. Vinegar also can be used to clean a microwave (1/4 cup distilled vinegar to 1 cup water).

Products that come in concentrated form are meant to be watered down; using them at full strength is not only a waste, but requires extra effort to rinse off the excess. One example is Murphy's Oil Soap. The label recommends 1/4 cup Murphy's to a full gallon of water; a quart of the product (about $7) is sufficient to clean a floor 16 times. Murphy's is effective for a variety of surfaces -- wood, tile, laminates, marble, granite, and vinyl -- but there is a bit of a debate about whether it should be used on hardwood floors coated with polyurethane. Some flooring experts say don't do it; one we spoke with says Murphy's can leave a film that's hard (and costly) to remove if the floor is ever refinished. Colgate, the company that manufactures Murphy's, says it's fine.

If the uncertainty is paralyzing, you might try another diluted detergent that still works: Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds, a pricier all-purpose cleaner (about $11 for a quart) that's also super- concentrated and was recommended by one of our respondents. The dilution recipe calls for 1 tablespoon per quart of water to clean floors and practically everything else, including dishes, laundry, windows, cars, and boats. A note to the eco-minded: Dr. Bronner's is non-toxic and environmentally friendly.

Although the Housekeeping Channel experts say dishwashing detergent can be diluted and still work, consumers don't necessarily agree. We asked 10 people who had tried watering down detergent whether they would do so again -- half said they do it all the time and half said it seemed as though they were using so much of the watered down product that the potential savings washed down the drain.

Laundry Products.

Facts are facts: Most people use too much liquid laundry detergent. We asked our respondents how much they poured into a load and most said "a capful." The label, however, particularly on HE (high-efficiency) products intended for HE washers, specifies merely 1/4 to 1/2 capful per load; new machines use far less water than older models and thus call for less detergent. Consumer Reports notes that clothes won't get any cleaner by upping the volume of detergent, and you'll just be wasting product. (Note: Avoid using regular detergent in HE machines, but HE detergent still works in standard washers.) If you just can't get past the full-capful mindset, diluting a pour in a 1:1 ratio won't compromise the end results. Tip: Readers' Digest reports that adding 1/2 cup of baking soda to a load lets you cut back on detergent while brightening the washables.

Before you start splashing water here and there, though, note that some cleaning products should never be diluted. The New York State of Environmental Conservation cautions that mixing products like drain cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, and oven cleaner with water can cause a dangerous chemical reaction. A baking soda and vinegar combo is a good environmentally-friendly alternative for many of these cleaning chores.

Personal Care Products.

Liquid hand soap is really thick and sometimes slides off your hands before you even wash them. Dilution seems to hold great promise. Indeed, some posts on The Country Basket report good results by mixing one part liquid hand soap with three parts water; the brew turns to foam when dispensed from a container, which not only saves soap and money but adds an element of fun. One grandmother-tested recipe for liquid soap calls for scooping up all those little bar-soap remains and putting them in a jar of water until they melt in; pour the mixture into a soap dispenser and you're good to go.

None of our respondents report having tried to dilute shampoo, but we spoke with one stylist who says it's OK to do so. Moreover, diluted shampoo might be less drying. Many people use too much shampoo anyway, she notes, and putting it into an applicator bottle with a little water (no specified quantities) is totally acceptable.

Related: 24 Signs You Are Too Frugal

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