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March/April 2015

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.

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.

Methodology

We tested seven top-selling national laundry stain removers, chosen from data compiled by Chicago-based market research firm IRi. We stained plain white cotton T-shirts and blue cotton shirt fabric with 1 teaspoon each of melted bittersweet chocolate, warm bacon grease, yellow mustard, pureed blueberries, black tea, and pureed chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. We applied stain removers and washed the clothing in separate wash loads with two large towels, using a measured amount of identical laundry detergent (one without special stain-fighting ingredients or claims). Results from the tests were averaged and products appear in order of preference. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets.

CLEANING AGENTS

Ingredients in the product designed to remove stains were obtained from product websites and labels; not a complete listing of contents.

PERFORMANCE

We conducted three rounds of stain treatment in three different areas on white T-shirts and blue cotton shirt fabric. Products that removed stains under all conditions rated highest. We broke performance into three categories.

1. FRESH STAINS: We treated fresh stains after 15 minutes in two rounds. We first used minimal effort, laundering in cold water after the minimum recommended wait time; when products instructed to “rub in” the product, we scrubbed lightly with our hands or with scrubby bottle tops, if included. We then repeated this test but vigorously scrubbed the stains and waited the maximum recommended time before laundering in hot water.

2. LAUNDERED STAINS: We re-treated any stains remaining after the first test using maximum scrubbing effort to remove the stains and laundering in hot water.

3. OLD STAINS: We left stains to dry for 72 hours before treating using maximum scrubbing efforts to remove the stains and laundering in hot water.

EASE OF USE

Products received higher marks if they were simple and comfortable to use, were not messy to apply, and offered clear directions.

Stain-Fighting Enzymes and Foods They Target

All the products we tested, except for our winner, 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. Each type of enzyme targets only a specific type of stain, which is why many manufacturers include an assortment of enzymes. It also explains our scattershot results, where some stains almost disappeared while others seemed untouched. Here are some common laundry enzymes found in stain-removing products and the type of stains they target:

Amylase breaks down starches by breaking the acetal bonds between sugars.

Lipase attacks fat and grease, breaking down ester bonds to release fatty acids.

Mannanase attacks guar gum, a common food and cosmetics texturizer, which can leave a glue-like residue on clothing that attracts soil. (Guar gum is found in foods such as tomato and barbecue sauces, ice cream, and salad dressing.)

Pectinase fights fruit- and pectin-based stains.

Protease digests protein stains such as blood and grass (but harmful to protein-based fibers like wool and silk).

Subtilisin attacks protein stains and is more effective than protease at high temperatures.

The Toughest Stain Sources We Could Find

For this testing we settled on six foods and drinks that left particularly pernicious stains. We melted bittersweet chocolate and heated up bacon grease; both of these contain fat that binds to fabric, especially with heat. We chose yellow mustard, which gets its bright color from turmeric, and melted and pureed frozen blueberries because freezing breaks down cell walls and releases even more of the acidic dye locked in the berries’ deep blue skin. Strong black tea and tomato-based sauces (like that in chipotle chiles in adobo) are acidic and contain tannin that leaves a brownish-red residue; the adobo also contains oil, vinegar, and corn syrup. Its combination of staining ingredients has been the bane of many a home cook’s favorite clothes.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.