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The Best Laundry Stain Remover

If the stained garment is one you would dry clean, the safest approach is to take it to professional cleaners. Some stain removers claim to be safe for dry-clean-only garments. Experts suggest that you first apply any stain removal product to a hidden part of the garment, even with washable fabric. Stain removers have been known to fade colors or even leave holes in fabric.

Disappointingly, tests show that no one product removes all (or even most) stains. Rather, experts say you should try to match the product to the stain — a proposition that can get expensive. According to the Martha Stewart website, “There is no single technique or product that takes care of every spot and spill, but with the right information and supplies, many stains can be removed.” In several of the reviews we found, testers complain when a product does not do well against all of the stains they could come up with. Some products seem to work best within a narrow range of stains. For example, Tide to Go (*est. $4) , an instant stain removal pen, works best only on specific fresh food stains (tomato juice, ketchup, barbecue sauce, grape juice, coffee, wine, tea and chocolate syrup). It does not work very well on greasy stains.Janie Dry Spot Cleaner (*est. $5.50) is intended for use on oil-based stains. The Martha Stewart website also points out that you may need to use different stain removers for the same stain, since a single stain may have more than one component; for example, with lipstick, you have to remove both oil and color. As you can see, removing stains is as much an art as a science.

We found one scientific approach to stain removal. A 2000 article from the British Medical Journal tests methods to remove blood stains from clothing. Blood stains on white pillowcases are pretreated with one of three thrombolytic drugs (which dissolve blood clots), or one unidentified commercial stain remover before being laundered. A control set of stained pillowcases is laundered without any pretreatment to the stain. In the test, none of the pretreatments work better than washing in water alone. The author finds that washing sooner (within five hours) gives better results than washing later (at nine hours). Washing in hot water is better than washing in cold water. So at least for blood stains, your best bet is getting to the stain quickly and keeping it wet until you can wash the garment.

Laundry pre-treatments

Some stains will simply come out in the wash, although stain removal ability varies among laundry detergents. Most reviews identify Tide laundry detergent as best overall, and if you buy the liquid form, you can use it as a quick pretreatment for stains. See our report on laundry detergentfor more.

Stain removal products can also be added to a load of laundry, where they work with your detergent.OxiClean (*est. $6 for 24 ounces) is the most frequently tested add-in product, and it receives mostly positive results. In a report for the television station KCB in Lubbock, Texas, stains made by grass, mustard, sherry wine and ketchup are tested against OxiClean, Clorox’s Oxygen Action (*est. $7 and available at Amazon.com, but superceded by a line of products called Clorox Oxi Magic) and two other oxygen-based products that have since been discontinued. Although none of the products completely remove all of the stains, OxiClean works the best. In a test for the television station WTNH in Branford, Connecticut, OxiClean does well against stains made by make-up, grape juice and dirt. It does not remove spaghetti sauce stains, however.

In a report on About.com, the housekeeping writer Sarah Aguirre adds OxiClean Free (which doesn’t contain dyes or fragrance) to a load of her son’s laundry. The product does well, removing stains made by grass, mud and popsicles. In addition, it does not irritate her son’s sensitive skin. We read over 50 user reviews of OxiClean products. Most consumers say they have good luck overall with OxiClean, but among the raves are some laundry horror stories about ruined clothing. It is especially important to follow the directions with OxiClean products. You probably do not want to leave the product on the fabric for longer than instructed.

Carbona Stain-Seeking Tabs (*est. $5) are featured by Good Housekeeping in a video on stain removal products. In the test, fabrics are stained with coffee, fruit punch, egg and grass. Results from the Carbona tabs (which are added to the load of laundry) are evaluated against results achieved with Shout Prewash Spray (*est. $5) and with laundry detergent alone. Both the Carbona and the Shout are superior to the laundry detergent alone for all of the stains. Carbona is better on the egg, and Shout is better (though not by much) on the coffee. Shout and Carbona are equally effective on the fruit punch and grass.

There are many products specifically made to use as a pre-wash treatment. Dan Crane at Slate.com tests seven of these (plus the Tide to Go instant stain remover stick) against six stains: blood, coffee, salad dressing, mustard, lipstick and barbeque sauce. Overall, Zout (*est. $3.50) does the best. It completely removes the salad dressing and barbecue sauce and renders the blood stain “nearly imperceptible.” Shout also does well; it nearly removes all of the barbecue sauce and some of the blood. Shout pre-wash products also receive generally good reviews from consumers.

In the Good Housekeeping test of stain removers,Red Erase Red Stain Remover (*est. $10), a pre-wash spray, and Shout Prewash Spray are tested on stains made by red Jell-O, grape juice and fruit punch. The Red Erase outperforms the Shout for the red Jell-O and grape juice, but the results are equal for the punch. In a video on Good Housekeeping, Carolyn Forte of the Good Housekeeping Institute states, “Through the years we’ve tried lots of prewash products, many with not much success. We were thrilled at how easily the Red Erase removed these stains from our test fabrics.” The catch is that this stain remover is tough to find in stores.

In another Good Housekeeping study of pre-wash spray oxygen cleaners, Shout Oxy Powder (discontinued), Clorox Oxygen Action, All OxiActive (discontinued) and OxiClean Multipurpose Stain Remover (*est. $4) perform well against stains made by ketchup, grass, blood and eggs. The Shout Oxy Powder is the best overall. Good Housekeeping notes that the products may need to be left on the stain for up to half an hour before the fabric is laundered.

Good Housekeeping also recommends Afta Dry Cleaning Solvent (*est. $6) and Afta Cleaner Degreaser Solvent (*est. $4) for grease and oil-based stains, Carbona Color Run Remover (*est. $2.50) for dye stains on washable white and colorfast fabrics, and Wine Away (*est. $6) for stains caused by grape juice, coffee, grease and pet urine. According to the report, these products “aced our tests,” although test details are not provided.

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“Instant” spot removers

Among the products that promise to remove stains immediately, Tide to Go (est. $4) is the most widely tested. It seems to work better in anecdotal reports than in more formal testing. This difference may have arisen because the product only seems to work on a few specific stains, and professional studies tend to judge products on how well they work overall. Unfortunately, the Tide to Go package does not specify the stains it will remove, only saying that it “helps eliminate many fresh food & drink stains.” In addition, in professional tests, stains may have more of a chance to set before the product is applied, whereas in the anecdotal reports, the user often is able to apply the product immediately. A study from the television station KLTV in Jacksonville, Florida seems to support the importance of using Tide to Go as quickly as possible after a stain is made. In this study, the product is used on stains from ketchup, grape juice and coffee in two rounds of testing. In the first round, some of the stains have time to set, and the results are “not great.” The stains fade, but “appeared to just spread out to the edges” leaving a faint circle of stain. In the second round of tests, a stain is made and then immediately treated. All of the stains are completely removed.

In Dan Crane’s test of pre-wash stain removers on Slate.com, Tide to Go receives the worst critique — it is better than nothing and worse than club soda. It slightly improves a barbecue stain but does not remove coffee, and during testing, the felt tip fell out of the pen and rendered it useless. In the accompanying video of the test, we see Crane applying a total of 60 stains to a T-shirt. It seems like the stains have time to set, whereas the key to stain removal, especially with this product, is to work on the stain as soon as it occurs.

These tests are representative of the mixed results in reviews for Tide to Go. In the end, it seems that the stain remover works well on some stains as long as you can get to them immediately. Tide to Go seems less effective on stains that are allowed to set in. It doesn’t work on everything, but it might save your clothes if you act fast.

Other instant spot cleaners include OxiClean Spray-A-Way (*est. $3.50) , StainEraser (*est. $4) and Janie Dry Stick (*est. $4) . In an article from the Los Angeles Times, Catharine Hamm tests these three along with Tide to Go. She ranks Tide to Go as the “best overall.” It completely removes coffee, and does the best job at removing salad dressing. OxiClean “left an oily-looking ring around the coffee stain and didn’t begin to get the color out of the dressing.” The StainEraser and Janie Dry Stick remove the coffee, but leave the salad dressing.

Another instant stain remover, Shout Wipes Portable Stain Treater Towelettes (*est. $3.25) , receives good reviews from consumers. On Drugstore.com, about a dozen users give it good comments. Shout Wipes Plus also do well in a test of nine portable instant stain removers from RealSimple.com. It is the best product tested, along with the Carbona Stain Roller (*est. $5) .

The Black & Decker Tide Buzz Ultrasonic Cleaner (*est. $30) can be used to remove a stain without laundering the garment afterwards. This small appliance looks something like a handheld vacuum. It has a wand that, when applied to the stain, uses “ultrasonic technology” and a special cleaning fluid for stain removal. This product performs better in professional testing than in the day-to-day experience of consumers. In a video on GoodHousekeeping.com, the product removes stains from wool and silk garments that would otherwise have to be dry cleaned. The Buzz cleaner completely removes lipstick from wool. To test this product against pre-wash stain removers, the testers use cotton and polyester garments. On these fabrics, however, it is not any better than the pre-wash treatments.

In a report on HousekeepingChannel.com, the Black & Decker Ultrasonic Cleaner receives a high rating. It is tested against chocolate, coffee, ink and grape juice. It removes all of the stains, although the ink requires several attempts. The type of fabric used for these stains is not specified, however. The writer also tests stains made by ground-in dirt, blood, grass and snack foods on cotton and polyester. Buzz removes the stains from the cotton easily, and after a few attempts it removes stains from the polyester as well. These positive results differ from those obtained by owners on Amazon.com. About ten reviewers give this appliance a mere two stars out of five. It works fairly well on stains, but it breaks down after just a few uses, according to many owners.

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Household stain removers

We found the most tests for laundry stain removers, but we also found a smattering of test reports that measure performance of other types of products intended to remove stains from carpet, upholstery and walls.

In a report on carpet stain removers, Consumer Reports concludes, “Most commercial stain removers and scrubbers aren’t any better than inexpensive homemade cleaners.” However, a variety of products claim to remove carpet stains, and some studies support their efficacy. In a video report on GoodHousekeeping.com, four spray carpet stain removers do well against common stains such as chocolate, wine, coffee, mud, salad dressing and shoe polish. Resolve Spot Magic (*est. $4.30) , Woolite Instant Power Shot (discontinued, but replaced by a new line of products called Woolite Oxy Deep), Spot Shot (*est. $5) and Orange Eliminator (*est. $6) are sprayed onto a stain, allowed to dissolve, and then blotted up with a clean white towel. Because these products are not rubbed into the stain, they are said to be less likely to damage the appearance of the carpet. Good Housekeeping also recommends the Prochem Carpet Spot Removal Kit, which is a set of four bottles: one for sugar/sticky stains, another for protein stains and two finishing rinses. (This kit is available for purchase through professional cleaners.)

Oxygen cleaners do well against carpet stains, according to the Good Housekeeping test of the pre-wash spray oxygen cleaners on carpet. In a video report, Carolyn Forte states that these products are “especially effective at removing tough carpet stains” and are “quicker than traditional carpet cleaners.” Three of the four cleaners tested have now been discontinued, but OxiClean Powder is still available, and it did the best job in the test. Another Good Housekeeping report recommends the Woolite POD (*est. $4), a handheld squeeze bottle filled with an oxygen detergent that is attached to a brush and a pad. The product is shown removing a popsicle stain from carpet.

OxiClean makes a product specifically for carpet stain removal. OxiClean Carpet Stain Remover (*est. $5.30) is well-reviewed by Sarah Aguirre on About.com. Aguirre states, “OxiClean Carpet does a great job on fresh stains, and a good job on set-in stains.” The OxiClean that is added to laundry can also be used to clean other areas of the house, including carpets. In a report for the television station KFVS in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a mother of four tries OxiClean on a carpet stain that had resisted dozens of other clean-up attempts. Although the stain is not entirely removed, the woman is so pleased with the improvement that she pre-treats the entire carpet with OxiClean, and then shampoos it.

To remove candle wax from carpets or fabric, Good Housekeeping recommends Un-Du Candle Wax Remover (*est. $8) . In a video report, this product achieves better results than the traditional method of removing wax by heating it with a warm iron. Un-Du is recommended by a writer at MrsClean.com, who also notes that Un-Du Candle Wax Remover can be used to remove ChapStick from clothing, an assertion echoed by two reviewers on Amazon.com. (In July 2007, the entire line of the Un-Du products was discontinued, but you might still be able to find the wax remover in stores.)

Walls can be a frequent spot for stains, especially when there are children in the house. The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (*est. $3.30) receives strong reviews from professionals and consumers. An article on HousekeepingChannel.com features advice from Don Aslett, “one of America’s most diverse cleaning experts and the author of more than 40 books on the subject.” Aslett’s professional cleaners use Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to remove marks from walls. On Amazon.com, this product receives high marks from about 30 users, who report a seemingly endless list of places where it can be used to remove most any kind of mark or grime. Another well-reviewed product for cleaning walls is De-Solv-it Citrus Solution (*est. $5) . In a test of seven cleaning agents by Good Housekeeping, De-Solv-it works the best overall on stains made by ink, markers, crayons and lipstick on painted and wallpapered walls.

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Important Features: Stain removers

Experts say the following about stain removers.

  • Treat the stain as soon as possible. If you do not have any stain removal products nearby, use cool water to keep the stain wet.
  • In general, stain removers work better on non-greasy stains. Greasy and oily stains seem more impervious in testing.
  • Follow the directions for each product. Some products can damage fabric if they are left on too long.

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