We put powder and spray stain removers to work on 10 common stains, including tomato, baby food, make-up and motor oil.
Stain remover types
For large areas or entire loads, pre-soak laundry in a solution of powder and water or add the powder directly to the washing machine. For small areas, make a paste to use as a spot treatment, or choose a spray, gel or bar.
You might be tempted to use undiluted household bleach to treat persistent stains, but we don’t recommend this. Household bleach contains chlorine (often listed as sodium hypochlorite) and can ruin fabrics.
If you do want a stain remover with bleach, choose a product containing sodium percarbonate (oxygen bleach). Oxygen bleach does not disinfect laundry, but it is gentler than household bleach and can safely be used on most washable fabrics, including colourfast items. Although it is less corrosive and environmentally harmful than chlorine bleach, it takes longer to work (let laundry soak for at least an hour).
Another alternative to household bleach is to use a stain remover that contains hydrogen peroxide.
“Biologic” or “enzymatic” stain removers contain enzymes. Enzymes can be effective on tough stains made of starches, proteins or fats, but they can cause irritation, so avoid them if you have sensitive skin. Ditto for dyes and fragrances.
Do not use enzymatic products or bleach of any kind on silk, wool or leather garments. Also, not all products can be used with a septic tank system, so check the labelling first.
How we test
We test stain removers, including “laundry soaker” powders, as spot treatments. With powders, we mix 30g with 90ml of water to make a paste. We also test how well stain removers compare to washing with:
water (no detergent)
a paste made from 30g of a mid-performing laundry detergent mixed
with 90ml of water.
We use cotton material swatches stained with substances including ground nut oil (to simulate everyday grime), grass and mud, olive oil, and chocolate ice cream.
Before washing, our experts apply a set amount of each stain remover to the stained swatch and let it sit for five minutes.
Following the wash cycle, we measure the degree of stain removal. The stains need to be tough to show up differences in product performance, so the scores are an indication of each product’s relative performance, not a measure of the amount of soil removed from our test swatch. At home, you can expect pre-treaters to remove more of each stain, especially if you get to them quickly.
If someone ingests a cleaning product:
immediately wipe their mouth out
retrieve the bottle for identification purposes
phone your doctor or the National Poisons Centre (0800 POISON).
Always keep laundry detergents, fabric softeners and stain removers out of reach of children and pets — ideally in a high or locked cupboard.
For advice on stain-removal covering everything from beer to red wine, as well as dry-cleaning, garment care and dealing with stains on carpets, see our Stain Removal A-Z.
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