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I've been trying to look up words for shampoo, conditioner, detergent, etc. However, I've only a few months of German under my belt and cannot distinguish the nuances between words that the dictionaries are giving me.

For example, for shampoo I've seen Shampoo, Schampon, and Haarwaschmittel. For conditioner, I've seen Pflegespülung, Konditionierer, Haarspülung, and Weichspüler.

All the words I'd like to translate are as follows:

  • shampoo (for hair)
  • conditioner (for hair)
  • laundry detergent
  • body wash
  • shaving cream

Also, would I be understood if I asked for "Seife/Waschmittel für die Haare" if I needed to improvise the word for, say, shampoo?

P.S. I've been using Linguee, Word Reference, and Leo.

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Welcome in the multilingual world of cosmetics! As it stands, there are German words for all these things, but sometimes the English (or "Denglish") word is used more often. So let me give you an overview:

Washing hair:
Shampoo (sometimes Shampoon or Schampon) has become the standard term, replacing the more oldfashioned Haarwaschmittel.

Softening hair:
Here a plethora of terms ares used: (Haar-)Spülung Pflegespülung, Conditioner or, more intense (Haar)-Kur. Marketing speak has come up with a few more fluffy terms like SOS-Repair. For everything that is beyond the apply-and-rinse kind, all bets are off and it's most likely some English phrase or English-German mixup like Leave-in Kur.

Cleaning your body:
There is the good old Seife (soap), that has seen a bit of a revival lately. But if the bar-shaped thingy is not genuine soap it may be called Waschstück or Syndet, both being rather medicinal terms. In liquid form it's either Flüssigseife or sometimes Cremeseife (in the dispenser on the sink) or Duschgel (for the body). And if the professional language maulers (aka advertisers) had a go at it, it may say Body Wash or something completely different on the bottle, leaving you to guess/infer the intended use. I just found two bottles in my bathroom that say "Dusche" and "Erfrischungsdusche" but contain shower gel, not a shower stall. Sigh.

Shaving:
Here it's mostly the texture that decides between Rasierseife, Rasierschaum and Rasiergel.

Laundry:
Surprisingly, this is where a simple Waschmittel will suffice, sometimes specifying texture again, like Waschpulver, Flüssigwaschmittel or Waschmitteltabs (the oversized "tablets") or detailing the use as Vollwaschmittel (for whites) / Feinwaschmittel (delicates) / Colorwaschmittel (Denglish rearing its ugly head again). If you like you can also add Weichspüler to soften your laundry (Caveat: this is not for your hair unlike you assumed in your question!) or Fleckensalz or Bleiche / Bleichmittel to remove tough stains.

Of course you may always make up phrases like "X to wash Y" - there may be the occasional smug salesperson, but mostly you will get the desired results and extra points for creativity!

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    This answer is very helpful! I admit that as a native German speaker, I can never remember and am constantly confused by whether products named "Shampoo" refer to something for the hair or for the body. I always have to check the small text on the packaging to find implicit hints, such as "anti-scall" (-> it's for hair). I so wish they could return to the term "Haarwaschmittel". – O. R. Mapper Jun 16 '15 at 16:00
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    I've never seen Shampoon yet, but otherwise I can wholeheartedly agree! +1 Note that Shampoo can also be written Schampoo. – Jan Jun 16 '15 at 16:13
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    Wow! Thanks for the thorough response. This is exactly what I needed. I may even print this and keep it in my pocket when I go shopping. – artificial_moonlet Jun 16 '15 at 16:59
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    @O.R.Mapper I've heard (but not read) Körper-Shampoo used for Duschgel (Shower gel). – Sumyrda - remember Monica Jun 16 '15 at 20:56
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    @Sumyrda: Come to think of it, I think I have also heard "Haarshampoo". Tautological in theory, but actually clarifying. – O. R. Mapper Jun 17 '15 at 14:22
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  • Shampoo - Shampoo or Schampu is definitely the most common. Haarwaschmittel sounds a bit more general, but can be used as a synonym for Shampoo. It probably just is the native German word. I have never heard Schampon.

  • Conditioner - (Haar)spülung or (Pflege)spülung feel equally common. Konditionierer sounds like a bastard anglicism.

  • Laundry detergent - Waschpulver or Waschmittel

  • Body wash - Duschgel

  • Shaving cream - Rasierschaum or Rasiergel

  • Weichspüler - softener

  • Seife - soap

Also, would I be understood if I asked for "Seife/Waschmittel für der Haare" if I needed to improvise the word for, say, shampoo?

You would be understood, but "Seife" sounds very weird here.

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• shampoo (for hair) — das Haarshampoo; das Shampoo; das Haarwaschmittel

• conditioner (for hair) — der Haar-Conditioner; die Haarspülung; die Pflegespülung;

• body wash — das Duschgel;

  • die Duschcreme (when added with extra skin moisturiser)

• shaving cream — die Rasiercreme; der Rasierschaum

by type:

  • der Rasierschaum (foam, usually in spray cans)
  • das Rasiergel (gel, in spray cans or tubes)
  • die Rasiercreme (in tubes or tubs)
  • die Rasierseife (old-style shaving soap)

• hand detergent/soap — die Handseife / Seife

• hand sanitizer/antiseptic (gel) — das Handdesinfektionsmittel

• laundry detergent — generic term: das Waschmittel;

types:

  • das Vollwaschmittel (for 'white' laundry, usually contains small amount of a bleaching agent)
  • das Buntwaschmittel, Farbwaschmittel (for coloured textiles, without bleaching agent, but usually containing optical brightener to make colours more lively)
  • das Feinwaschmittel (for fine fabrics, without bleach and optical brightener) There is also an extra type marketed for black-coloured fabrics.
  • das Wollwaschmittel (a type of Feinwaschmittel for wool)
  • das Daunenwaschmittel (for textiles with down/feather filling)

forms:

  • powder: das Waschpulver (Vollwaschpulver, Feinwaschpulver)
  • liquid: das Flüssigwaschmittel
  • tablets: die Waschmitteltabs (plural)

• laundry sanitizer (non-bleaching disinfectant) — Wäschedesinfektionsmittel

• fabric conditioner/softener — der Weichspüler

• fabric bleach — die Wäschebleiche; das Bleichmittel

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