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Which brand can tackle the toughest stains?

We put 28 washing powders and liquids to work on 10 common stains including grass, blood, baby food and chocolate ice cream. What did we find?

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Get instant access to 28 laundry detergent test results

We put 28 washing powders and liquids to work on 10 common stains including grass, blood, baby food and chocolate ice cream. What did we find? Join Consumer and use our expert test results and recommendations to find the model that's right for you.

About our test

We washed specially stained swatches attached to a load of bath towels and pillowcases.

The swatches we use for measuring “everyday grime” are stained with nut oil, milk and a colour pigment. Other swatches test the detergents’ enzyme action on 9 common stains: collar and cuff grime, grass/mud, olive oil, tomato, make-up, chocolate ice cream, baby food, motor oil and blood.

We measured the recommended amount of detergent for a normally soiled load and used this to wash the test loads at a temperature of 20⁰C.

For this test, both the front and top loader were set on “normal” wash cycles – the type of wash cycle an average consumer is likely to choose to wash an everyday load. The front loader had a wash time of 43 minutes (and a total cycle of 73 minutes), while the top loader had a wash time of 13 minutes (and a total cycle time of 48 minutes).

After washing, we measured how much dirt was removed from each swatch. We did this with a spectrophotometer (which measures how much light reflects off the swatches). It’s more accurate than the human eye.

Each detergent was tested on 3 loads.

What we found

Find out which washing powders & liquids topped our test by becoming a paying Consumer member.

Ingredients

What’s in your laundry detergent?

  • Phosphates have been disappearing from laundry detergents. All products in our test were low-phosphate or phosphate-free.

  • Enzymes target stains such as milk, grass and blood. Enzymes can cause irritation – so avoid them if you have sensitive skin.

  • Optical brighteners are supposed to make clothes look whiter and brighter. They help minimise greying of white fabrics but they don’t actually remove dirt. People with sensitive skin should avoid detergents with brighteners.

  • Surfactants lower the surface tension of water. This lets the water penetrate cloth more easily and so it helps remove oil and grease. Specialist front-loader detergents sometimes contain silicon compounds or special surfactants to reduce the amount of foam.

  • Builders help surfactants work better by softening hard water and raising alkalinity. They hold dirt in suspension so that it’s flushed away with the water and not re-deposited on your clothes.

  • Fillers stop washing powders clumping in the pack (so it makes them easy to pour).

  • Fragrance is for cosmetic reasons and to mask the smell of the ingredients.

About our scores

We test using pre-stained fabric swatches. The stains need to be particularly tough to show up differences in detergent performance. So the scores shown are an indication of each detergent’s relative wash performance, not a measure of the amount of soil removed from the fabric. At home, you can expect detergents to remove more of each stain, especially if you get to them quickly.

Dealing with dirt

If you're faced with a challenging wash – like a machine load of muddy football jerseys – try these tips.

  • Increasing the dose above the recommended level will get really dirty clothes cleaner but it won’t make much difference in a normal load. There’s a point at which adding more detergent produces no improvement: you’re simply discharging more chemicals into the environment and wasting your money. With concentrated 2X detergents, an extra teaspoon adds several cents to the cost of a wash.
  • A warmer wash could help when something’s really grubby … but check the garment’s care label first. Higher temperatures soften dirt and oily stains, making it easier for the mechanical action of the washing machine to remove them. But cold washes are just fine for regular washing and they save on power bills.
  • You can improve the results of a normal wash by pre-soaking clothes. This helps loosen dirt so it can be removed more easily. Rubbing a little detergent into especially soiled spots will also help. Again, check the care label first.
  • To keep your whites really white look for a detergent which contains optical brighteners. They give fabrics a cleaner brighter appearance by coating them in a reflective solution. Wash your whites separately, because dye can transfer between clothes during the wash.

Cold vs warm water washing

Each year, we re-test a handful of detergents using warm water (40°C) to check whether there’s any difference in performance.

Overall, there’s a small improvement in dirt removal when using warm water but it depends on the type of stain you’re trying to remove. Some detergents perform better in cold water than warm with some stains. For example, blood stains tend to set in warmer water so you’re better off tackling these with a cold wash.

Accreditation schemes

Manufacturers can back their claims by applying for accreditation to an environmental labelling scheme.

The Environmental Choice tick

The Environmental Choice programme is endorsed by the government and run by the independent New Zealand Ecolabelling Trust. It's a member of an international eco-labelling network which sets standards for products that are environmentally preferable.

To meet the standards for a laundry detergent, a manufacturer must provide test reports and evidence that its product doesn't contain ingredients that are harmful to the environment or unnecessary for removing dirt. As well, the test evidence must show that ingredients are readily biodegradable. Environmental Choice allows phosphates but limits the amount that can be used; and it places a limit on the pH (alkalinity) of the detergent.

Products approved by Environmental Choice must also meet criteria for consumer information, packaging and cleaning performance.

The Green Tick

Green Tick is a New Zealand company that audits manufacturers' processes against independent standards for sustainability and quality management.

To achieve accreditation, the manufacturer is assessed by an independent auditor who reviews documentation, inspects the factory, and checks with government agencies that there are no health and safety or environmental issues. Some products in the manufacturer's range are also randomly selected for assessment.

Green tips

Here are some tips for reducing the impact of washing on the environment.

  • Follow the dosage instructions.
  • Use concentrates – you get more washes per pack. This reduces the amount of packaging and means they're more economical to transport and store.
  • Use the lowest acceptable wash temperature to save energy.
  • Do full wash loads. Some washing machines use the same amount of electricity and water, whether they're full or half empty.
  • Recycle containers.

Wash water on the garden

You can reduce the impact of chemicals by using only rinse water.
You can reduce the impact of chemicals by using only rinse water.

If your garden is suffering during a dry spell you might be tempted to use water from your washing machine.

But there are health issues in collecting and recycling grey water (that’s the wastewater from the sink, bath, shower and washing machine but not from the toilet or bidet). If you’re diverting the grey water to a tank you should ask your local council whether you need a consent. You won’t need one if you’re simply collecting the water in containers to water the garden straightaway.

Chemicals are also an issue. The components of wash water most likely to cause problems are:

  • Salinity/sodium (the sodium in salts harms plants and affects soil structure).
  • Phosphorus (when this gets into waterways it can cause excessive algal growth).
  • High pH (laundry detergents that have a high pH can harm plants).

You can reduce the impact of chemicals by using only rinse water.

Don't use any type of recycled grey water - wash or rinse – on acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, daphnes or camellias.

Don’t use grey water on anything you may eat raw – such as lettuces.

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