Sussing out the best stain removers.

Sussing out the best stain removers.

Sussing out the best stain removers.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 28 2007 7:10 AM

Will It All Come Out in the Wash?

Sussing out the best stain removers.

I'm a slob. More often than not, my food winds up dribbling down my shirt instead of landing tidily in my mouth. (In fact, moments ago, I spilled a fair amount of coffee on myself.) Sure, there are stain gurus out there like the Queen of Clean, who offer all manner of stain expurgation voodoo. But I am merely an average slob, unwilling to join the Queen of Clean's "Priority Club" just so I can get that coffee stain off my shirt. Also, my patience and abilities in these matters are somewhat limited to "spraying" and "washing." Can home laundry stain removers really do the job?

Given my propensity to spill during meals, a dinner party seemed the perfect occasion to begin my field tests. So I recently attended one armed with a secret weapon: the Tide to Go stain stick.

Forty-five minutes into dinner, a woman sitting to my left excused herself to go to the rest room. I looked down and lo and behold, there was a stain on her seat! Bubbling with excitement, I whipped out my Tide to Go stick: "Look everyone!" I pointed enthusiastically to the rhomboid-shaped wet spot. "I'm testing this Tide to Go stick on this stain for a piece I'm writing for Slate!" I fastidiously got to work "erasing" it.

Watch a video of Dan Crane's stain test from Slate V.

The woman who had left the table—wearing, I should mention, an unbelievably short skirt—looked back at me in horror.

"It's working!" I announced with joy.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that this stain had not originated from the table. The wet spot was the reason for the woman's excusal. "There," I said. "It's gone." I avoided the other guests' stunned looks and tried awkwardly to change the conversation. Luckily, I haven't seen that woman since.

It was clear I needed a more controlled experiment to determine the best stain remover—one less publicly humiliating to others.

I thus began my research. This article by Janis Stone, a textiles and clothing specialist at Iowa State University, suggests that common stains can be broken down into the following categories:

Protein stains: urine, blood, egg, vomit, feces
Tannin stains: coffee, wine, fruit juice, tea
Oil-based stains: salad dressing, bacon grease, butter, mayonnaise
Dye stains: cherry, blueberry, felt-tip pen, grass, mustard
And combination stains that usually have a dye/oil or tannic/oil combo:
Group A: lipstick, candle wax, eye makeup
Group B: barbecue sauce, ketchup, chocolate


I decided to pit nine popular stain removers against the following stains: coffee, salad dressing, mustard, lipstick, barbecue sauce, and blood. Watch the video to see how I obtained the blood. Warning: not for the squeamish. Unfortunately, one of the stain removers I tested, the Tide Brush, seems to have since gone out of production. (It's a shame, too—it got second place. I've kept its scores in my charts of the results below.) I applied a quarter-sized amount of each liquid to an American Apparel off-white cotton T-shirt, and then applied each of the stain removers. The finished product resulted in an appealing work of abstract art.

Fabric with stains. Click image to expand.

(Note: a previous and exhaustive battery of tests involving large swaths of three types of fabrics—wool, cotton, polyester—purchased from a textile store also culminated in admirable artwork, but produced inconclusive results. All of the stains except lipstick and permanent marker came out completely. So, I decided to try again with something I'd wear—enter the T-shirt.)

After applying the stains and the stain removers, following the appropriate instructions for each, I laundered the tee in hot water with Earth Friendly ECOS Liquid Laundry Detergent and rated the results.


While I was looking for the best all-purpose slob assistant, bear in mind that not all stain removers are meant to conquer every stain—so I have also listed each product's claims to clean.

Each stain remover could receive up to two points for ease of use, and up to five points per stain for stain-removal muscle. If the stain vanished altogether, the stain remover earned five points. If the stain looked nearly the same as it did prewash, it earned zero points.

Here are the scores, from soiled to sparkling:

Nothing, $0

As a control for the experiment, I made a set of stains on which no stain removers were employed. As with all the products tested, the salad dressing came out completely after the laundering (5 points). The barbecue sauce was slightly lighter (1 point), but everything else remained. 

Ease of use: 2 (out of possible 2)
Effectiveness: 6 (out of possible 30)
Total: 8 (out of possible 32)

Ecover, $3.75

Claims to clean: "Perfect for all grease and protein stains:  blood, egg, grass, mud, milk, sweat, ice cream ..."

I had high hopes for Ecover, the environmentally friendly stain fighter. According to the label, Ecover "uses the most natural (95 to 100 percent) and least toxic ingredients available," and it's the only one I tested that lists its ingredients: "water, vegetable-based soap, sugar based surfactant, glycerin, natural acids and salts derived from sugar." Unfortunately, Ecover lost significant points in the ease of use category. When I tilted the bottle to apply it, a deluge of liquid promptly poured out of the plastic scrub-brush top, rendering the brush useless—I couldn't stop the liquid from coming out fast enough to bother with any scrubbing. The results were poor as well: Ecover earned only one point for blood removal and two for barbecue sauce.