I do not have a fleet of washing machines in which to conduct my tests. I don't have a radiation spectrometer for measuring the whiteness of whites the way Consumer Reports does. But I do have tools formidable in their own right at my service in my search for the best laundry detergent.
I have a laundromat right across the street from my apartment. I have skin sensitive to the faintest of soapy residues and an equally sensitive nose. But my biggest asset is New York City at my doorstep. The dirt, grime, spit, and fouler substances that regularly adhere to one's clothing here make this fine metropolis a veritable fantasia of filth.
But first let me rule out a few of the myths and scams of the laundry world.
Laundry Balls/Rings: Strange, hard balls or rings--$30 to $90 apiece--that purport to wash clothes without detergent by means of generating ions, or an undefined substance called "structured water." An apparently bogus product: Both Good Housekeeping and Dateline NBC have suggested that they wash clothes no better than plain water, and one manufacturer was sued for false advertising.
Ultra Concentrates: Remember how 10 years ago laundry detergent came in huge boxes? Don't they seem small these days? This was no technological advance. Under pressure from environmentalists, detergent manufacturers simply removed the fillers with which they'd been bulking up detergents to give an illusion of value. (The same thing happened with liquids--they just eliminated the water.)
Powder vs. Liquid: In 1995, a Consumer Reports study showed that powders outperformed liquids on all fronts. (The one exception: Tide With Bleach Alternative.) Conventional wisdom (as doled out on laundry Web sites and detergent hotlines) has it that powders are better in hard water and for ground-in dirt, while liquids are good for grease, but this was not backed up by CR's study.
Here's the dirt on detergent. There are two key ingredients: surfactants and builders. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of the water and increase its ability to rinse and wash. Whimsical chemists say they make water wetter. Builders create the proper pH balance and deactivate elements in the water that would reduce the effectiveness of surfactants. Detergents differ in the way they balance these two elements, and in their varying use of added ingredients such as bleach, enzymes, fluorescent whiteners, perfumes, foam control products, or fabric softeners.
This all presents an analytical conundrum. If each brand merely offers the same basic ingredients in different proportions, plus or minus a few bells and whistles, how was I to determine which was the best? I decided I'd take each detergent on its own terms. The most common label claims boasted of keeping colors bright, removing stains, eliminating odors, and being free of skin-irritating perfumes and dyes.
To the laundromat!
C olor Fastness Test: Since the arrival of detergents with bleach and bleach alternatives, color fading has been a concern of many launderers; various brands have accordingly begun to claim "color hold" bleaching or even that they "brighten brights while whitening whites." Normal chlorine bleach removes color indiscriminately: It attacks stains and dyes alike and converts them into particles that your detergent can easily wash away. It can also damage fabrics (especially protein-based materials such as silk and wool). In general, "color-safe" bleach just means oxygen bleach, which is much milder than chlorine bleach. It works by releasing hydrogen peroxide to break up or remove the color from organic materials but is gentle enough that it won't affect most fabric dyes. That stuff about brightening brights generally just means the detergent has some dye-transfer inhibitors, which help to stop bleeding dyes from staining other clothes. There's nothing in detergent that can make your clothes brighter, other that its inherent ability to get dirt out of them.
Of the detergents with color-safe bleaches, I tested All and Wisk (both in powder form), setting them against Liquid Tide With Bleach Alternative, which was rated the most effective detergent overall by Consumer Reports, but which made no claims to color safety or brightening. I hit the infantwear section of Kmart and picked up four cheap sets of clothing. Each included a tiny red T-shirt, a blue turtleneck, pink long johns, and two pairs of socks--one lime green, one vibrant purple. I felt as if I was the mother of Smurfs. I then washed three of the sets 14 times each, in hot water, with each of the fine household products I mentioned above.
After 14 washings, the washed sets of clothing had lost significant amounts of color as compared with the unwashed control set. The socks that started out a deep royal purple were now lavender and covered with whitish fuzz. The differences among All, Wisk, and Tide were not great, but they were noticeable and surprising. Tide, which made no claims to color holding, actually resulted in the least fading. All came in second, Wisk just a shade behind. These differences were only noticeable under bright light and on close inspection--indicative of the general irrelevance of the claims on detergent labels. One way to prevent this type of color loss is to wash clothes in colder water, but all detergents work poorly in cold water, and many bleaching agents are completely ineffective in cold temperatures. So while the colors may fade less, your detergent is also cleaning less.
S tain Removal Test: For the stain removal I needed a way of getting the clothes to be tested as dirty as possible, and what is dirtier that the streets of New York? I figured I'd throw the test subjects in the street and let cars run over them. But this presented a new testing challenge, namely that anything in the street in New York City is fair game. I was faced with either standing guard over the clothing and shooing away would-be thieves, or picking as my test candidates attire that was a natural people repellent. I picked underwear, both men's and women's, in the most gargantuan sizes Kmart carried and, with the help of a friend, threw 20 pairs into Second Avenue under cover of darkness. Unfortunately, while no one wanted the clothing, the act of tossing it into the street drew no little attention. Questions from the crowd that gathered included "What the hell are you doing?" "Are you guys artists?" "Can I have your number?" "I'm in a band called 'Bag of Panties.' Will you take a picture of us with the underwear for our album cover?"
It was all very diverting, but it wasn't getting our underwear any dirtier. So we dragged each pair through the gutter (which was still full of street runoff from a rainstorm earlier in the day). This combined with the occasional big rig and regular Thursday night taxi traffic did quite a number on the briefs. After an hour they were gray and covered with skid marks and street custard.
But they still weren't dirty enough. So into a plastic sack they went, and into a cab we hopped, headed for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a Western-themed restaurant in Greenwich Village. The cooks there were kind enough to donate a large platter and a vat of spicy barbecue sauce, but balked at putting BBQ-Brief sandwiches on the menu. Even sitting on the platter thoroughly sauced, the briefs still looked like they needed one more good stain. So off we went to Krispy Kreme for a dozen raspberry jelly doughnuts to squirt all over them. With that final abuse, we called it a night, and I sealed the subjects in a large plastic bag and left them to fester in the corner of my room for two days.
After dividing the briefs into four equally soiled piles, I washed one set in Cheer, one in Tide, one in Dynamo, and one in American Fare (a Kmart store brand). After one wash and a spin in the dryer, I compared the results. Cheer worked the best overall: It removed the road grime the best, and there was little trace of the orange grease left in the waistband by the barbecue sauce. There was no visible raspberry jelly doughnut filling remaining at all. Tide did a good job on the grease but was not quite as effective as Cheer on the road grime, which was still visible in patches. It also completely removed the jelly stains. Third place went to Dynamo, which did a poor job on the jelly, and whose heavy scent couldn't completely mask the odor of barbecue sauce. Worst of all was Kmart brand: When I opened the dryer, the spicy smell of barbecue sauce almost knocked me over, and the briefs were still covered in splotches of orange grease and jelly stains.
O dor Removal Test: For this test I enlisted the help of a friend who is a fitness instructor. She was kind enough to donate three loads of sweaty, crusty clothes to my cause. Using my incredibly sensitive nose, I divided her clothing into three piles of equal stink factor (and threw in the still-spicy undies from the Kmart detergent load). I then washed each in a detergent marketed as odor removing: Gain, Surf, and Fab. Aside from just having more fragrance than other varieties (which the companies admit), could they actually remove serious stink from clothing?
Fab and Gain both did a great job and removed the odors completely. There was no difference in stink-removal effectiveness between these two, aside from the perfume left in the clothing. Fab's was plain--a light, clean scent--while Gain's was vaguely vanilloid. Surf came in last. It did not completely remove pit stink, and the perfume was a cloying grape scent. Worst of all, the toxic underwear from the barbecue sauce ordeal still smelled spicy.
My conclusions? Tide faded colors a bit less, but it was not enough to make me want to switch brands. Cheer did a great job removing dirt and grease, but how often are my clothes run over by cars and slathered in barbecue sauce? About once a year.
The differences among the name brands were negligible. The various claims on the packaging are not so much false as true of all the detergents: With the exception of the cheap store brands, they all remove odors, stains, and dirt well. You're better off picking your detergent by its scent (or, if you ask me, lack thereof) than you are judging it by what's on the label. But among the top-shelf brands, it doesn't really matter which one you choose: It'll all come out in the wash.