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Laundry Stain Removers

Stain removers abound, all guaranteeing spotless results on the first try. The reality? When it comes to getting out stubborn food stains, almost none of them work.

What We Learned

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-performin...