The Best Laundry Stain Removers for Chocolate, Tomato Sauce, Grass, and All Kinds of Kid Messes
When it comes to removing stains from our laundry, we either have a secret weapon or we’re on the hunt for one. No matter who or how adult we (think we) are, spills and stains happen, so it’s important to have holy grail products at the ready for when they do. And if you’ve got pets or kids, non-toxic products are the way to go whenever you can help it.
Our sister site Apartment Therapy tested stain removers — both household name brands and the lesser known, as well as solid, liquid, and cream formulas — for months to determine the best of the best. Whether you want a new reliable stain treatment to stock your laundry room with or want to know the best drugstore option next time you’re in the middle of a public stain emergency, the best laundry stain remover formulas they tested are all right here.
The Best Laundry Stain Removers
What to Consider When Buying a Stain Remover
Most stains fall into one of two categories: water based or oil based. Protein, tannin, and starch stains are examples of water-based stain-causing compounds. Essentially, water acts as a vessel for salts, acids, and/or particulate matter (dirt, for example), and its low viscosity allows it to penetrate fabrics, especially natural or unfinished fabrics, and cause those annoying, deep, set-in stains. “Flushing” these stains out with an enzyme-rich water-based formula, giving mild agitation to the product on the stain, and blotting (unless directed otherwise) is usually the way to go. Oil stains, on the other hand, benefit the most from non-aqueous or “dry” chemical treatment (hence “dry” cleaning) but can be treated with water-based formulas powered by enzymes like lipase, an enzyme family that catalyzes the hydrolysis of fats.
Types of Stains
Protein: Grass, dirt, blood, and milk are examples of stain causers with proteins that bond with the fibers in clothing and can become some of the hardest stains to treat.
Tannin: Coffee, tea, ink, and wine contain tannins, a natural dye (thus, a stain causer) found in bark, grape skins, tea leaves, and other plants.
Starch: Viscous and opaque stain causers like chocolate, tomato sauce, gravy, and bananas are sources of starch stains, which can often effect the texture of a fabric in addition to creating a visual stain.
Oil: Salad dressings, sunscreen, sweat, smoke, and cosmetics are examples of oil-based stain causers, which create the look of wet marks that don’t dry. Add pigment to the mix, and oil stains can be some of the most seemingly impossible to remove.
What We Look For in a Stain Remover
We tested a range of stain treatments for our best list, judging them on the following criteria:
- Effectiveness: Does it remove stains? How well does it treat them? What kinds of stains does it work on?
- Functionality: How does it work? What is the packaging like? Is it portable? Does it go in the washing machine or does it treat stains directly?
- Experience: Does the formula have a smell? Is it easy to use? If it’s portable, is it convenient to carry and use on-the-go?
Best Overall: Melaleuca PreSpot 4x Concentrate Stain Remover
Our number one pick goes to the editor-loved Melaleuca PreSpot Concentrate, a natural stain-blasting formula that relies on tea tree oil and three naturally derived enzymes to lift all types of stains so you can simply dab them away with a damp cloth. To explain why PreSpot is such a winner, allow us to get technical for a moment: The protease enzymes de-bond protein stains while the amylase enzymes work on starch stains and lipase enzymes attack oily stains. PreSpot is a concentrated liquid that’s meant to be diluted with water (don’t worry, the formula’s enzymes prevent any further water-based staining), but since it’s still a plant-based product, you can experiment to find your perfect ratio and apply multiple times without damaging your fabrics. Tested on red wine, coffee, turmeric, oil, paint, and some other mysterious stains on both untreated white cotton and colorful polyester, PreSpot is fast, consistently reliable, doesn’t require a wash after use, and dries quickly after you’ve blotted the stain away. Not only is it one of the most impressive stain fighting treatments we’ve tested, it smells beautiful.
- Enzymatic liquid concentrate
- Pre-wash treatment or no wash necessary for small stains; blot dry
- 8 fluid ounces; pack of 1
- All-natural botanical fragrance
Who It’s Best For: Those who want a single stain product for everything; those who prefer decanting an eco-friendly concentrate into your own vessels.
Good to Know: Melaleuca can be a hard brand to get your hands on if you’re not a member with the company, and there are only a handful of legitimate Amazon listings. Rest assured, though: This one’s tried and true.
Best Bar Soap: Zote Laundry Soap Bar
“I have never found anything that removes stains so well,” says AT contributor (and professional baker) Stella about our best pre-wash treatment: the Zote Laundry Soap Bar. A gluten-free cook of many years, she’s no stranger to experimentation with unconventional ingredients, plant-based food dyes, and other stubborn stain makers. “For someone as messy as me,” Stella admits, the Zote Soap Bar “is a must have. I’ve used it for coffee stains, turmeric, red sauce, wine, you name it.” Zote is a Mexican-made stain-fighting brand formulated with 66 percent fatty acid salts and optical brighteners which, when applied to dampened fabrics before washing and agitated a bit, lift and eliminate even the most stubborn, set-in stains.
- Fatty acid-based bar soap
- Pre- and in-wash treatment
- 7-ounce bar; pack of 6
Who It’s Best For: Those who want something budget-friendly; those who prefer the manual application of a soap bar.
Good to Know: One reviewer even crumbles their Zote bar soap to add to their laundry detergent for an extra stain-fighting boost.
*Honorable Mention: When it comes to pre-wash treatments that you can find fairly easily in U.S. grocery, drug, and hardware stores, AT contributor Karen relies on the Spray n’ Wash Stain Stick, calling it an “unfussy…all-in-one” pre-wash formula that “works like a charm.” Because it’s lidded, it’s a solid (as it were) option if you travel and still need to do laundry.
Best for Emergencies: Tide-To-Go Instant Stain Removing Pen
“This is the OG of to-go stain removers,” AT contributor Amy reveres of the Tide-To-Go Instant Stain Removing Pen, “and it still does the job.” Packs of these bad boys also happen to be widely available (you might even have a rogue one in a drawer somewhere yourself), which makes them our best option for those emergency stains that always seem to happen in public. “It’s easy to use and travel with,” Amy continues, “and I like to keep it handy when I’m on-the-go.” Tide’s proprietary stain-fighting liquid is applied directly to the fresh stain via a felt-tip clicker pen, but don’t forget a clean, dry cloth (microfiber recommended!) for blotting the stain away after it’s been lifted.
- Felt-tip clicker pen with bleach-free liquid formula
- No washing necessary; blot dry
- 10-20 applications per unit; pack of 3
- Botanical fragrance
Who It’s Best For: Those who commute or travel often; those who need something quickly that’s effective and easy to find.
Good to Know: This on-the-go stain remover is most effective on fresh food and drink stains and isn’t meant for large or set-in stains.
*Honorable Mention: Wine Away holds fast to the promises in its name and is the only thing AT contributor Taryn tends to reach for when there are bigger emergencies and fresh spills. “As long as you’re fast,” she says, “Wine Away seems to dissolve any stain you spray it on.”
Best Heavy Duty: Amodex Ink & Stain Remover
Ink stains are only the start of what this serious stain-fighting (yet non-toxic!) formula by Amodex can treat. After AT contributor Ashley was able to completely remove chocolate stains, old and new (thanks to her rather creative 6-year-old) from her sofa, she decided to “roll the dice with a scarier stain.” She then “took a Sharpie marker to a light gray storage ottoman in our entryway.” After a few moments of panic passed, Ashley “then took a deep breath and applied the Amodex over the entire marker line.” After two applications and 30 total seconds of agitation to the stain, it was gone (see for yourself!). “Parenthood is definitely full of surprises,” she says, “but ‘Yes, I’d leave my 6-year-old alone with a Sharpie’ is truly something I never thought I’d say.” Thank you, Amodex, from messy, creative kids everywhere (read: us).
- Dropper bottle with cream soap formula
- No washing necessary; blot dry
- 1 fluid ounce; pack of 1
- Botanical fragrance
Who It’s Best For: Those with kids and/or pets; those who handle ink, oil paints, glue, and other craft materials that cause stubborn stains.
Good to Know: Despite its heavy-duty stain-fighting power, this Amodex stain fighter is cruelty-free and even safe on skin. The brand is also a women-owned family business.
Best Multipurpose: SallyeAnder Hogwash Bar Soap
The SallyeAnder Hogwash Soap is for the eco-conscious among us and a solution to a multitude of cleaning needs. Assistant shopping editor Britt says, “It’s made with all-natural ingredients, has a nice scent, and it’s versatile because you can also use it as a hand scrub, and some have even used it as body wash!” Yep, it’s a powerful fabric and surface-stain remover that doubles as skin care. “Removing stains with Hogwash soap is super easy,” Britt continues.”Prior to tossing the garment into the washing machine, you simply wet the Hogwash soap and the stain, then work the soap into the spot. I used it on an ink stain on one of my favorite T-shirts and it was highly effective in getting the dark blue out of a white stripe on my shirt. My shirt looked just as good as new after washing it!”
- Castile bar soap with cornmeal scrub
- Pre-wash treatment
- 6-ounce bar; pack of 1
- Botanical fragrance
Who It’s Best For: Those who prefer natural products; those with curious kids and pets; those with allergies or sensitive skin; those whose work involves plants, food, paint, or other hand- and garment-staining trades.
Good to Know: All SallyeAnder products are handmade. We also advise preparing a soap dish or container to air dry and store your Hogwash between uses.
Best All-Natural: Cleancult Stain Stick
“It was the Cleancult Stain Stick versus set-in cranberry juice,” Britt says of the situation that introduced Cleancult to us as our winning natural pick. While we feature a number of natural formulas in this list (what can we say, plants are magic), it’s Cleancult’s true biodegradability, recyclable packaging, carbon-neutral shipping, and other planet-friendly efforts that set this brand apart. It’s also easy to use: “I wet the fabric and rubbed the stick onto the stains on my sheets and mattress protector,” says Britt. “After going out to run errands for a few hours, I came home and threw my linens in the wash. Once everything was clean and dry, I couldn’t even tell where the stains had been!” For this, we can thank Cleancult’s own CocoClean technology, which harnesses the gentle but effective cleaning power of coconut derivatives, like the biodegradable cleansing agent sodium cocoate. Harmful chemicals, who?
- Sodium cocoate-based soap bar
- Pre-wash treatment
- 2.4-ounce bar; pack of 1
- Fragrance free
Who It’s Best For: Those who don’t want anything with fragrance; those who prefer to shop sustainable and eco-friendly brands.
Good to Know: You can also subscribe when shopping Cleancult products, save money, and stay well prepared for messes whenever they come your way.
This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it here: The Best Laundry Stain Removers for Everything from Turmeric to Tomato Sauce