Stain removers and laundry detergent aren’t the same thing, although they work hand in hand. The best laundry detergents remove dirt and odors and the occasional light to moderate stain. Stain removers, on the other hand, pack a more concentrated punch and are typically applied directly to the problem area.
Although most people can live with a light stain or two on the garments in their wardrobe, what happens when you get ketchup on your favorite white shirt? Running it through the wash alone won’t solve the issue, and dry-cleaning or replacing the shirt entirely are options that are often out of budget. That’s when you turn to stain removers.
Stain fighters come in many different forms—sprays, bars, gels, and powder—and each has its pros and cons. For that reason, you might want to have a couple of the best stain remover options at the ready for different types of material and dirty stain sources.
All stain removers should tackle stubborn stains that detergent leaves behind. Take a look at our guide to better understand the different types of stains, along with our top picks for the best stain remover to keep on hand in the laundry room.
- BEST OVERALL: OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover Powder
- RUNNER UP: Zout Laundry Stain Remover Spray
- BEST BUDGET: Purex Fels-Naptha Laundry Bar & Stain Remover
- BEST NATURAL: Puracy Natural Laundry Stain Remover
- BEST PORTABLE: Tide To Go Instant Stain Remover
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Stain Remover
Stain removers fall into three basic categories, each type suitable for different applications:
- Pretreatment stain removers come in gels, bars, or spray bottles. They work for spot treatment, not for entire loads of laundry.
- Detergent stain removers come in liquid or powder form so you can add them to an entire load of laundry in your washing machine. These are all-purpose stain fighters.
- On-the-go stain removers are similar to pretreatment stain removers, just smaller. They are portable and can fit a purse.
Stains come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Various types of stain remover products contain different chemicals designed to break up the stain, neutralizing the chemical reaction that causes the stain in the first place. Before you select a stain remover, it’s important to understand the basic types of stains.
- Tannin stains include beer, wine, coffee, cola drinks, tomato juice, and real fruit juices. Tannins are naturally occurring vegetable dyes found in many plants, especially grape skin and tea leaves—they give red wine and tea their “bitter” taste. Only oxidation can lift the discoloration from tannin stains.
- Oil stains come from plant or animal oils and automotive oil. Spot treatment is necessary to effectively remove oil-based stains.
- Proteins are animal (and human) based. These include food items, such as gelatin, eggs and dairy products, and other animal-based proteins like those in urine, feces, blood, vomit, and sweat stains. Treating protein-based stains is best accomplished with an enzyme-based stain remover.
- Dye stains come from grass, inks, and felt-tip pens. Most dye stains require pretreatment and a wash with hot water along with regular or color-safe bleach.
Before pretreating any stain, start by considering the material holding the stain, along with its color. Most stain removers recommend first testing for colorfastness (whether the dyes in the fabric bleed or run) so you know if the dyes in your clothing will be ruined during the stain-removing process.
Stain removers with oxidizing agents like bleach work best on white clothes because they are designed to lift color from stains (and will remove color from dyed fabric). Colored clothes should be treated with color-safe stain removers.
For some fabrics, stain removal is best left to professional cleaners, such as silk, velvet, wool, leather, taffeta, and other delicate material marked for dry-cleaning only. These delicates do not react well to the water in the stain remover, and the fabric can shrink or change texture as well as show damage from the stain treatment.
Our Top Picks
The biggest benefit of our top stain remover pick is its versatility. OxiClean is safe for any type of laundry, and you can use it to spot clean upholstery, carpet, grout, and patio furniture. OxiClean is a gentle, slow-acting, oxygen-based bleach that won’t damage colored clothes. It’s even tough on set-in stains.
Use this stain fix along with your regular detergent for stain removal or as a household cleaner. It comes in a generous 7.22-pound box and can easily replace several cleaning products in your home.
Zout originally appeared in the 1960s as a professional cleaning solution for doctors’ and nurses’ uniforms. It features an advanced triple-enzyme formula to help break down protein-based stains such as blood and sweat, starch-based stains such as tomato and barbeque sauces, and oil stains from foods like butter and salad dressings.
Zout is effective at knocking out set-in stains as well. It’s designed for pretreatment stain removal and the label recommends letting the detergent soak into fabric for at least five minutes before laundering.
Having been around since 1893, this laundry bar soap has been put to the test by generation after generation. It’s effective for oil-based stains from makeup, butter, cooking oil, chocolate, and body oil. The product goes well beyond stain treatment, too—it actually removes poison ivy resin from clothing and skin.
Washing with the bar soon after exposure can prevent a rash. Even after a rash develops, this bar can remove any remaining oil and shorten its duration. What about stains? Simply rub the affected area with the moistened soap bar, let it sit for a few minutes, and then launder as normal.
Puracy’s stain remover is made from six plant-based enzymes and cleansers that safely remove grass, berries, blood, sweat, oil, tomato sauce, cosmetics, pet accidents, dirt, and hundreds of other stains and odors.
As an ultra-concentrated formula, the Puracy product takes only a few sprays to get the job done. It’s safe to use on all fabrics and textiles that come into contact with children and pets.
Spills and drops tend to happen at the most inconvenient times. While at work or driving around town, there’s no need to fret about spilled coffee on that new white shirt when you have a Tide Pen within reach.
This instant stain remover has a portable design and works best on fresh stains. It is safe to apply to most washable fabrics. Although comparatively more expensive per-ounce than some other options, the real savings is the convenience of treating stains on the go before they set in.