Laundry stain removers

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Do they really work?

We put powder and spray fabric stain removers to work on 10 common stains including grass, blood, baby food and chocolate ice cream. Can they really remove that stain from your favourite shirt?

From our test

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The golden rules of treating fabric stains

  • Check your clothing’s care label.
  • Treat the stain as soon as possible.
  • To check it won’t affect the garment’s colour, always test a cleaner on an inconspicuous patch first. We advise doing this even if it’s not mentioned in the instructions.
  • Rinse with cold water, unless the stain remover’s instructions say otherwise. Hot water can set a stain.

How do they work?

Fabric stain removers are usually a combination of solvents, surfactants and enzymes. While each ingredient breaks down stains at the molecular level, how they achieve this differs:

Lifting the stain (surfactants)

Surfactants work by attaching themselves to a stain’s water-repellent (hydrophobic) and water-loving (hydrophilic) molecules, which lowers the surface tension of water, making stains easier to wash out.

Breaking down the stain (enzymes)

Enzymes work by breaking down or “eating” a stain’s molecules. Each enzyme breaks down different molecules. This means treating most stains requires a combination of different enzymes. Common enzymes used in stain removers are amylase, which breaks down starch; protease, which breaks down protein; and lipase, which breaks down fat. Note, enzymes can also break down natural fibres, such as woollens and silk, damaging the fabric.

Dissolving the stain (solvents)

Solvents work on a “like dissolves like” basis. This means solvents will dissolve a stain comprised of similar molecules. For example, eucalyptus oil is good at removing sticky marks, such as sap.

Hiding the stain

Whiteners don’t remove a stain, they disguise it by removing its colour. While whiteners work well on white shirts, some can be harmful to colours. Chlorine-bleach was once a popular ingredient in stain removers, but has fallen out of favour as it can strip all colour. If you’re treating a coloured garment, check your product uses colour-safe ingredients. Most stain removers state if they’re safe for use on colours, but we don’t test this. Optical brighteners are an alternative to whiteners. These products absorb a stain’s ultraviolet light and re-emit it in a harder-to-see light spectrum, effectively “hiding” the stain.

Claims

Stain removers often have claims on the packaging. We’ve listed some of these claims but, due to the complexity involved, can’t test them.

Surfactants can damage the environment, but “biodegradable” ones will break down naturally and have little effect. There is an Australian standard, AS4351, that some manufacturers may follow, but this only applies to a cleaner’s surfactants. There are no guarantees other ingredients in the product will be biodegradable.

Septic tank owners can have difficulty finding household cleaners that are safe to flush down the drain. Cleaners often contain harsh chemicals that can damage a septic tank. We suggest contacting your septic tank manufacturer to see what it recommends.

Some cleaners state they kill “X” percentage of bacteria, but there is little evidence antibacterial cleaners stop bacteria spreading in the home. There is also the risk they could contribute to antibiotic resistance in the environment.

Safety first

Keep cleaners away from children. Ideally, keep all cleaners stored away in a high or locked cupboard. If anyone swallows a cleaning product, immediately rinse out their mouth with water and phone your doctor or the National Poisons Centre (0800 POISON).

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