Laundry Stain Removers

From Country Ribs and Corn Muffins

Laundry Stain Removers

How We Tested

Bacon sizzles and spits and your favorite shirt gets a grease spot. Frosting a cake, you find chocolate smeared on a sleeve. Food stains are all too commonplace in the kitchen, so we bought seven top-selling laundry stain removers and prepared to make a scientific mess with the goal of finding a reliable weapon against permanent stains. Label after label on the bottles vowed to “get stains out the first time!” and even offered “guaranteed” results. We wondered if we’d come away with a record number of winners. There was only one way to find out. Sets of white cotton T-shirts and yards of blue cotton fabric designed for button-down shirts (selected since natural fibers are more prone to stain than synthetics) would be our canvas. In the past, we found that many common laundry stain fighters had no trouble with coffee, red wine, and beet juice, so we focused on tougher stains. To each T-shirt and piece of blue fabric, we applied measured samples of six foods that make stubborn stains: me...

How We Tested

Bacon sizzles and spits and your favorite shirt gets a grease spot. Frosting a cake, you find chocolate smeared on a sleeve. Food stains are all too commonplace in the kitchen, so we bought seven top-selling laundry stain removers and prepared to make a scientific mess with the goal of finding a reliable weapon against permanent stains. Label after label on the bottles vowed to “get stains out the first time!” and even offered “guaranteed” results. We wondered if we’d come away with a record number of winners. There was only one way to find out. Sets of white cotton T-shirts and yards of blue cotton fabric designed for button-down shirts (selected since natural fibers are more prone to stain than synthetics) would be our canvas. In the past, we found that many common laundry stain fighters had no trouble with coffee, red wine, and beet juice, so we focused on tougher stains. To each T-shirt and piece of blue fabric, we applied measured samples of six foods that make stubborn stains: melted dark chocolate, hot bacon fat, yellow mustard, black tea, a puree of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, and pureed blueberries. We would pit each stain remover against this array while noting its ease of use.

Promises, Promises

Most stain removers are applied in a similar way: Put the product on the spot, rub it in, wait briefly (each gives a specific wait time), and then launder. Two bottles featured built-in scrubbers to help the cleaner penetrate. Only one product worked completely differently: It’s a powder that you dissolve in water to presoak the whole garment before laundering.

We wanted to see if we could get away with minimal effort. After applying the stains (and waiting 15 minutes to let them soak in), we applied our stain removers and soaked or waited the shortest time frame each product recommended. We did only light rubbing with our hands (or scrubby caps when included) and then washed in color-safe cold rather than warm or hot water (all the product directions make vague suggestions like “wash according to care label instructions in the warmest water recommended”). When labels suggested it, we added an extra capful of the product to the wash (throughout testing, we laundered using a measured amount of ordinary laundry detergent). As a control, we also laundered a stained T-shirt and piece of fabric with detergent alone, without treating the stains.

So much for guarantees—while a few products successfully removed the bacon grease, most of the stains were still clearly visible. One consolation: The untreated control shirt and fabric looked worse than any that we had treated—that is, except for the lowest-performing product in this test, which blended the six stains into one giant brownish blot and turned the white shirt a sickly yellow. Clearly, the least-effort approach wasn’t enough. But two products stood out, lightening all the stains and completely erasing the tea and blueberries (one product also removed bacon grease) while leaving fabrics bright.

In the next round, we ran two tests at once: For the first, we reapplied stain removers to the old stains from the first round. For the second, we applied fresh stains to a new section of the same shirts and fabric pieces from the first test and took a more aggressive approach: After waiting 15 minutes, we applied the removers, but this time we scrubbed harder, waited (or soaked) for the maximum recommended time, and laundered in hot water.

Small changes made a big difference: While three of the products still failed across the board, the other four showed progress, erasing various stains. But one product, which had performed in the top two in the first round, pulled farther ahead of the pack. This time it removed all the previous stains and virtually all the newly applied ones.

But treating fresh stains isn’t always realistic; sometimes you don’t notice a spot until laundry day. So for our final round, we stained the pieces of fabric and shirts and waited a full 72 hours before treating them, scrubbing vigorously, and washing in hot water. Once again, the front-runner from previous tests outperformed the others, leaving the shirt and blue fabric looking bright and free of all but one stain. Only the adobo sauce left a faint orange mark on the shirt; however, even that virtually disappeared with one more round of soaking and washing.

So what about this product makes it work so much better than the others?

Stain Science

Our winner, a powdered product, was the only remover in our lineup to use sodium percarbonate, a combination of sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide. Activated when dissolved in water, the sodium percarbonate releases oxygen, which bubbles up and helps lift the stain from the fabric, while the hydrogen peroxide, a color-safe bleaching agent, decolorizes the stains. These ingredients are most effective on stains from natural substances, e.g., food-based stains. It also contains surfactants, which disrupt the surface tension of stain molecules, providing an entry for water and cleaning agents.

The rest of the products we tested attack stains using enzymes plus surfactants. Enzymes work by breaking down the stains’ big, water-insoluble molecules into smaller, soluble components and disrupting the stain’s bonds to the fabric. But each type of enzyme targets only a very specific type of stain, so manufacturers usually include a scattershot assortment of enzymes to make them more all-purpose.

This explains why enzymes were less effective than sodium percarbonate when tackling a broad spectrum of stains. For that reason, we can enthusiastically recommend only our winner. It takes a little more time and effort to use than the other products, which call for just a few sprays and some rubbing and waiting before laundering. But however convenient a product may be, the real goal is spot-free clothing. Next time we stain our clothes in the kitchen, we’ll reach for our winner.

Watch the Full Episode

Season 16, Ep. 22
Country Ribs and Corn MuffinsSeason 16, Ep. 22

Test cook Bryan Roof uncovers the secrets to making the ultimate Sweet and Tangy Grilled Country-Style Pork Ribs. Then, equipment expert Adam Ried reviews laundry stain removers in the Equipment Corne...