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

Methodology

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.

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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.

Ease of use: 0
Effectiveness: 8
Total: 8

Tide to Go, $3.99

Claims to clean: "Works well on fresh food and drink stains, including tomato juice, ketchup, BBQ sauce, grape juice, coffee, wine, tea, chocolate syrup. (It does not work well on greasy stains.)"

As its name suggests, the Tide to Go stain pen is an on-the-spot stain treatment (rather than something applied to laundry before washing) meant to be carried on one's person at all times and used immediately after stains occur. Like an invisible ink pen, Tide to Go is supposed to magically draw your stain away. But I quickly discovered it was virtually useless on blood, coffee, mustard, and lipstick. Also, after going to work on just a few stain adversaries, the pen tip quickly became dirty and discolored. Then the hard felt tip dropped out of the pen, disappearing on my apartment floor. Its greatest victory was against the salad dressing, and, of course, whatever that mysterious liquid was at the dinner party.

Ease of use: 1
Effectiveness: 7
Total: 8

Schweppes Club Soda, $1.59

Claims to clean: This article in Scientific American discusses club soda's efficacy on red wine.

Like me, you've probably heard that club soda can get stains out. Since club soda doesn't come in a spray bottle, I tried mounting a sprayer gun on top of my 1-liter bottle. This turned out to be—much like the club soda was at fighting stains—not so effective. It was, however, better than nothing in fighting the barbecue sauce (2 points). Based on the Scientific American article, it seems that club soda is best on wine stains, and best when used quickly and in somewhat large quantities; hence, I'll admit that my spray-and-wash methodology was probably faulty.

Ease of use: 1
Effectiveness: 8
Total: 9

Shout Wipes, $3.29

Claims to clean: Consult the Shout Web site's interactive and very fun to use Stain Solver.

I like Shout Wipes. They make sense. Similar to the wet-naps you receive after a big lobster dinner, Shout Wipes are individually wrapped, and like the Tide to Go stick, are meant to be carried by reckless eaters like me at all times. I was, however, surprised and disappointed to find the wipes had little luck with coffee, mustard, or lipstick (to be fair, no product was successful against the mustard or the lipstick), and they had very limited success with the blood (1 point) and the barbecue sauce (2 points).

Ease of use: 2
Effectiveness: 8
Total: 10

OxiClean, $4.19

Claims to clean: "wine, blood, dirt, tomato, grass—even set-in stains."

OxiClean "starts to work before your eyes," reads the bottle. It's true! When I sprayed it on my blood stain, the formula's hydrogen peroxide fizzed away—giving the impression that serious stain eradication was in progress. As it bubbled, I imagined the peroxide erasing the blood away, but in fact, it barely eliminated it (earning only 1 point).

Ease of use: 2
Effectiveness: 9
Total: 11

Spray 'n Wash, $3.49

Claims to clean: "Greasy foods, grass, tomato sauce and a wide variety of others."

Spray 'n Wash was the stain remover of my childhood. I can recall my mom drawing it like a gun from a holster against the multifarious messes I'd make on my clothing. Its packaging declares Spray 'n Wash has "powerful stain fighting ingredients that penetrate, loosen, and eliminate the toughest stains." It earned 3 points for nearly removing the barbecue sauce, and also a 2 for ease of use. What's easier than spraying and washing?

Ease of use: 2
Effectiveness: 9
Total: 11

Shout, $4.99

Claims to clean: A call to Shout's 800 number (800-991-7468) revealed that while Shout Wipes and the Shout trigger bottle do have slightly different ingredients (both are detergents) and are designed to be used differently, they are intended to be effective on the same stains.

The No. 1 stain remover (according to AC Nielsen data), Shout claims that its "triple acting formula clings, penetrates, lifts stains away!" The product does have my favorite absurd instruction on the back of the bottle, which reads, "1. Do not operate when tip is in OFF position." The test results? The blood was partially removed (2 points) and the barbecue sauce was nearly eliminated (4 points), for an overall score of 13.

Ease of use: 2
Effectiveness: 11
Total: 13

Zout, $3.49

Claims to clean: "Ground-In Dirt, Collar Grime, Grease, Makeup, Tomato Sauce, Cooking Oils, Lipstick, Fruit Juices, Chocolate, Food, Baby Formula, Salad Dressing, Ketchup, Dirty Motor Oil."

Before launching my experiments, I asked Nancy Steiner—a Los Angeles-based costume designer who has worked on films such as Year of the Dog, Little Miss Sunshine, and Lost in Translation, and frequently finds herself on emergency stain-removal duty for careless actors—for her stain combatant of choice. "Zout is the best thing for me—hands down," she told me. "That's the one that gets everything out." She clearly knows what she's talking about: Though it had much of the same difficulty as the other products with the mustard, lipstick, and coffee, Zout totally took care of the salad dressing and the barbecue sauce, and rendered the blood stain nearly imperceptible (4 points).

Ease of use: 2
Effectiveness: 14
Total: 16

Did I find the catchall cleaning solution to my problems? Have I found salvation from slovenliness? Not really. Maybe I need to join the Queen of Clean's Priority Club after all. Until then, I'll stick with Zout.

Full results chart.

Dan Crane is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He is the author of To Air is Human: One Man's Quest to Become the World's Greatest Air Guitarist.