There are few worse ways to ruin an outing than spilling coffee, wine or a bright red tomato sauce on your favorite white T-shirt or a new pair of jeans. If you’re prone to spills and messes, you know just how hard it is to make those stains disappear during a regular wash cycle. A laundry stain remover can help, and the right one can mask any semblance of a stain, making your clothes look good as new.
But not all stain removers are formulated the same, and choosing one that actually does what it says can be tricky. To help, we spoke to cleaning experts and laundry enthusiasts about how exactly stain removers work and what makes a good one. We also rounded up their recommendations for the best stain removers, as well as Select staff-favorite options to consider.
How we picked the best stain removers
Though stain removers have a similar goal, they’re not all the same — many vary in ingredients and target certain types of stains. When shopping for the best stain remover, our experts recommend considering the following factors:
- Ingredients: There are a few main ingredients to consider in stain removers, depending on the type you purchase. Most are enzyme-based, which means they have enzymes that break the stain up into smaller pieces and are used in conjunction with surfactants — which are simply strong soaps — to lift and suspend stains, according to Marla Mock, president of home cleaning service Molly Maid, a Neighborly company. You’ll also find solvents like alcohol that help dissolve oil-based stains. Oxygen-based stain removers contain oxidizing agents like hydrogen peroxide and sodium percarbonate to remove color-based stains, says Mock. (We go more in-depth about enzyme-based vs oxygen-based stain removers below.)
- Type of stain: The type of stain you have will determine what type of stain remover you need and how to use it. For example, protein-based stains usually require cold water to avoid setting the stain and enzyme-based removers, while oil-based stains need warm water and oxygen-based remover, says Mock.
- Formulation: There are four main types of stain removers: powders, sprays, gels and spot treatments. Most modern stain removers are very concentrated liquids in spray bottles, according to Zachary Pozniak, vice president and operations director of luxury dry cleaning service Jeeves New York. There is no set formulation type that’s better at removing stains than others (this is usually determined by the type of stain and the ingredients), according to our experts. The type you choose is based on personal preference.
- Fabric type: Consider the type of fabric or color of the garments you’re treating. The most important consideration is color fastness, or how resistant the garment’s color is to fading or running. Make sure you’re testing the remover on a hidden part of your garment to see if there are any color changes, experts told us. For example, you should avoid stain removers with bleach if you’re washing non-white clothing. If you’re unsure, review the product label or seek professional cleaning advice, says Mock.
The best stain removers of 2023
Below, we compiled expert-recommended laundry stain removers that remove most stains from clothing based on our experts’ guidance. We also listed some Select staff-favorite options that we use on a regular basis.
Best stain remover overall: OxiClean
Since I’m extremely stain-prone, this spray is a staple in my laundry routine, and it’s a favorite among our experts and Select staff. Its spray bottle makes it easy to target even the smallest stains on clothes, and I’ve managed to get out tomato sauce, coffee, ink and other tough spills before my normal wash cycle. It’s also unscented and safe to use on both white and color fabric, in my experience. The brand recommends letting the product sit on your garments for five minutes before washing, or for up to seven days for tougher stains. Keep in mind that, despite the “Oxi” in its name, this is an enzyme-based stain remover, which means it uses enzymes to chemically break down stains rather than oxygen to camouflage it, according to our experts.
Formula: Spray | Application: Let sit for up to 7 days | Scent: Original OxiClean scent
Best spray stain remover: Grandma’s Secret
This stain remover spray comes recommended by personal stylist Samantha Brown, who sprays this on tough stains before her normal wash cycle. It can tackle stains from blood, grass, pets, coffee, chocolate, egg, grease and more, according to the brand. Grandma’s Secret recommends leaving the formula on the stain for five to 10 minutes before washing.
Formula: Spray | Application: Let sit for 5-10 minutes | Scent: Citrus scent
Best stain remover stick: Tide
Try to address stains as soon as possible — they’re harder to remove once they’ve dried or set into the fabric over time, according to our experts. The best way to do this if you’re on the go or don’t have access to a stain remover is using a spot remover, like this Tide To Go Pen. “I never leave home without this. I must have a dozen at this point because I stick them in every bag I own,” says Select associate updates editor Zoe Malin. This stain remover has gotten rid of coffee stains, salad dressing and even pen ink, she says. Like in most spot treatments, the main ingredient is hydrogen peroxide, which camouflages the stain and makes it less visible, according to our experts.
Formula: Spot treatment | Application: n/a | Scent: Original Tide scent
Best powder stain remover: OxiClean
OxiClean’s stain remover powder is recommended by Malin, who purchased it when she adopted her cat, Wanda. “I have a white comforter and her paws sometimes track dirt and dust from the litter box onto it. Now, whenever I wash it, I add OxiClean’s powder, which removes stains and brightens the overall white color of the comforter,” she says. She’ll also use this powder when cleaning the small machine-washable rug in her kitchen, which is prone to stains from splashes and drips while she’s cooking. To use, add a scoop to your washing machine and wash with laundry detergent as normal. You can also mix it with water (following the label instructions) to use as a pre-wash spot treatment or a cleaning solution on most surfaces, like kitchen counters, floors and more, according to OxiClean.
Formula: Powder | Application: Let sit for 1-5 minutes before washing when used as a spot treatment, 1-6 hours when used as a soak | Scent: Original OxiClean scent
Best liquid stain remover: Method
This liquid stain remover comes in a squeezable bottle with a built-in brush tool to help better work the product into the stain, which our experts consistently recommend doing before washing. I’ve used this enzyme-based stain remover on tough stains like soy sauce and oils after the brand sent me a sample to try, and the formula has managed to get them out every time from even the lightest color clothes. Once the stain is saturated, let it sit for five minutes before washing as usual, according to the brand.
Formula: Liquid | Application: Let sit for 5 minutes | Scent: Fragrance-free
Best plant-based stain remover: Brooklinen
If you’re sensitive to certain chemicals or fragrances, this Brooklinen stain remover spray is hypoallergenic, fragrance-free and doesn’t have artificial dyes, according to the brand. It’s also plant-based and has surfactants made from naturally derived coconut, which experts told us are a more environmentally-friendly alternative to harsher chemical ones. This stain remover is a favorite of Malin’s, who says it’s gotten balsamic vinegar out of a white tank top and marinara sauce out of her favorite white sweatshirt. “I’m continuously amazed at how well it removes stains from fabric, even when I think I’m doomed,” she says. “Since it’s a spray, I can treat larger stains quickly, as well as target small areas.”
For the best results, Brooklinen recommends letting the formula saturate the stain for five minutes — and no more than 30 minutes –before throwing it into the wash.
Formula: Spray | Application: Let sit for 5 minutes, but no more than 30 minutes | Scent: Fragrance-free
Best stain remover wipes: Shout
These wipes are what Brown uses on her own clothing. “I keep these in both my purse and my styling kit,” she says. The textured, double-sided cloths help break up stains and are easy to swipe across individual stains, according to the brand. They come individually packaged, so it’s easy to throw them in your purse or backpack when you’re on the go. You also don’t need to wash your garments after using these wipes to see a visible difference, according to the brand (though our experts do recommend running your clothing through the washer to fully reduce the appearance of a stain). However, a little goes a long way, and keep in mind that these wipes do come saturated in liquid — personal stylist Allison Berlin says she typically blots off the excess solution on the back of her hand or a paper towel before applying it to a fabric.
Formula: Spot treatment | Application time: n/a | Scent: Original Shout scent
Best unscented stain remover: Seventh Generation
The Seventh Generation stain remover spray uses four plant-based enzymes to remove tough stains from grass, wine, ketchup and more, according to the brand. I’ve used this spray on some of my most common stains like makeup and coffee, and it has left my garments looking good as new. It’s also free from dyes or fragrances, so it’s a great option for those with sensitive skin, according to Seventh Generation. For the best results, the brand recommends washing your clothes within 24 hours of applying the stain remover.
Formula: Spray | Application: Let sit for 5 minutes or wash within 24 hours | Scent: Fragrance-free
How to properly use a stain remover
The following steps are recommended by our experts to ensure you’re using your stain remover properly and getting the most effective results:
- Address the stain sooner rather than later. The longer the stain sets, the harder it’ll be to remove, according to our experts.
- Before going in with a stain remover, blot the stain with a paper towel to get rid of excess food or liquid, says Berlin. Also, rinse your clothing item first if possible (consider how water temperature affects the specific stain you’re targeting), then treat it with your stain remover.
- Gently blot the fabric to work in the stain remover (avoid rubbing it). Let it sit for at least 15 minutes, an hour is more ideal, and overnight is best, according to Pozniak.
- Without rinsing, launder the item in the washing machine, adhering to recommended dosing instructions on the stain remover label, says Randall.
- Wash and inspect your item to see if the stain is still there before drying. If it’s still visible, do not put your clothing in the dryer and repeat the process using your stain remover.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Marla Mock is the president of home cleaning service Molly Maid.
- Zachary Pozniak is the vice president and operations director of luxury dry cleaning service Jeeves of Belgravia in New York City.
- Samantha Brown is a New York City-based personal stylist and founder of Samantha Brown Style.
- Allison Berlin is a New York City-based personal stylist at Style Made Simple.
- Trisha Andrew is a professor in chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
- Jessica Ek is the senior director of digital communications at the American Cleaning Institute.
- Darenton Randall is a scientist and laundry expert at Tide.
- Matthew F. Cain is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
- Allison Evans is the co-founder of eco-friendly cleaning brand Branch Basics.
Why trust Select?
Mili Godio is an editor at Select who has covered a wide range of home topics, including cooling pillows, vacuums and washable rugs. For this article, Godio spoke to eight cleaning experts and chemical engineers about how stain removers work, the different types of stain removers available and how to shop for one. She also rounded up expert-recommended and Select staff-favorite stain removers to consider.