What is the Difference between Soap and Detergent?

difference between soap and detergent

Is there a difference between soap and detergent? Both clean what they are made to clean. But, yes, there are  differences. They come from different sources. They are different chemically. And they are put to different uses. An example of each is provided, below.


There are a variety of soaps. A soap is the metal salt of a fatty acid.

The metal may be an alkali metal such sodium (Na) or potassium (K). These metals are found in the first column of the periodic table of the elements. Or, the metal can be an alkaline earth metal, such as calcium (Ca) or magnesium (Mg). These metals are found in the second column of the periodic table of the elements.

A fatty acid is an organic compound most often of animal or plant origin. A fatty acid contains a long-chain aliphatic carbon skeleton (with or without branches) with a carboxylic acid group (-COOH) at its end.


Detergents have some similarities. But are often of synthetic origin. They are not made insoluble by mineralized (or hard) water. Also, instead of a carboxylic acid group, a detergent contains a more highly ionic group. It may have a sulfate or a sulfonate group (-OS(O)₂-OH).

difference between soap and detergent

In addition, detergents can include one or more aromatic rings. Detergents offer added properties. They can be used as surfactants and foaming agents.

There are even detergents that dissolve in solvents other than water, such as gasoline. These often include nitrogen in their formulation. The nitrogen compound often includes a ring as part of its structure. Such compounds are not only detergents, but dispersants.

Example Difference Between Soap and Detergent

An example of a soap is potassium palmitate:

CH₃(CH₂)₁₄-COO⁻ K⁺

An example of a detergent is sodium lauryl sulfate:

CH₃(CH₂)₁₂-OS(O)₂-O⁻ Na⁺

Note: You might also enjoy Ammonia and Bleach – Why a Bad Choice?


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  • Barbara Reply

    I did not know these facts. Quite fascinating.

  • MegL Reply

    In the UK, most shampoos and shower gels are detergents, as is what we term “washing up liquid”, which I think Americans call “dish soap”. Mt granddaughters love bubble bath (detergent) but it is so hard to get the bubbles to drain after the bath but I have found that washing your hands with a piece of soap in the detergent water helps get rid of the bubbles. They seem to work against each other!

  • Styra Avins Reply

    I wish there were more information here. In my experience, detergent is much better at dissolving fats, without leaving any residue. If you wash your hair with soap, you will find it very difficult to rinse thoroughly. If you have been in poison ivy and need to wash the irritant oil off your skin, detergent is far more effective than even soap made with lye. (East coast of the USA, I have years of experience on this point!). On the other hand, soap is much nicer! I use brown soap for wiping my kitchen sink and surfaces. But my question is still, in what way does detergent work differently from soap? What is the mechanism of the soap molecule vs. the detergent molecule?
    Thank you.

  • Tim Knight Reply

    I don’t care for detergent but this article gave the right information on what the difference between the two are.


    It was really helpful to know what is the difference between soap & detergent in a simple way.

  • Neba Kalvin Reply

    is it advisable to use a detergent just after production?

    • Vincent Summers Reply

      Please elucidate (explain further). Just after what is produced?

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