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Stroll your grocery store’s cleaning aisle and you’ll see a rainbow of products boasting Marvel hero-like superpowers—Ultra Oxi, Stain Fighter, Power Pods, O2 Blitz, Boombastic Clean. And that’s not even counting so-called natural or eco-friendly options.
How do you know which superlatives to believe and which detergent to choose? Some CR readers tell us they have strong preferences, especially when it comes to the detergent’s scent: “Great smelling,” one CR reader commented. “The scent is extremely strong,” says another—and they were both talking about the same formula. But generally, shoppers tend to fall into one of two camps: price-based—they buy what’s on sale—or brand-loyal, says CR market analyst Kelly Moomey.
However, our tests find that even within a single brand, performance varies from one formula to the next (for example, Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release scores higher in our tests than Tide Plus Bleach Alternative). And cleaning power also varies depending on the type of detergent. Our tests reveal there’s a chasm between the best liquids, pods/packs, and laundry detergent strips, which tested poorly in our labs. Strips are better for the environment by reducing plastic but seem to lack the ingredients or concentration levels to do the job. As for powders, you’re likely to find your choices have narrowed in recent years. “Most detergents sold today are liquid, and their popularity—plus the increase in sales of pods—means that few powders remain on store shelves,” Moomey says.
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Here’s how we determine which detergents fight the good fight: In the lab, CR’s test engineers launder fabric swatches that are saturated with blood, body oil, chocolate, coffee, dirt, grass, and salad dressing. We use stains that are exceedingly hard to remove so that we can detect real differences among detergents’ performance. (Even the best detergents can’t remove every stain completely.) Using cool water, we wash swatches in two identical washing machines with each detergent, then allow the swatches to air-dry. (We don’t use a dryer because the heat can alter the stains.)
Our testers use a colorimeter, a device that measures color intensity, to see how much of the stain remains on each dry swatch, then compare it with stained swatches that have been laundered using only water. The best detergents we’ve tested earn an Excellent rating for removing common stains like body oil and dirt, but they can also tackle tougher ones, such as grass and blood. The worst detergents? They’re barely better than water when it comes to removing most stains.
Hard water, which has a high mineral content, can reduce the effectiveness of some detergents. So we test to see which detergents perform best using hard water, as you’ll see in our ratings.
Below are our recommendations, based on our ratings, for the best liquid detergents and pods for a variety of laundry needs, from washing baby clothes to lifting tough stains. We’ve also included the three worst-performing detergents. Although we test detergent sheets, we don’t include them here because they are a niche market that’s not ready for prime time (as our laundry sheet ratings reveal). For more information, including details on other types of detergents, check out our laundry detergent buying guide.
A quick note about pricing: In our laundry detergent ratings, we calculate the price per load based on what we paid. The prices below, however, reflect package prices; in some cases, the prices listed are for multipacks.
CR’s take: Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean is about half the price of higher-scoring detergents from Persil and Tide. Kirkland cleans up nicely in our tests, earning an Excellent rating for removing stains from body oil, one of the chemicals in sweat (think sweaty workout clothes). But Kirkland doesn’t pack the same punch when it comes to blood and grass stains, so consider the types of stains you typically have to contend with. And this is one of the handful of detergents in our tests that cleans well in hard water.
Best for Baby Clothes
CR’s take: The American Academy of Pediatrics says that regular detergent is fine for washing baby clothes, unless your baby’s skin becomes irritated. Some baby detergents contain allergens such as fragrance, however, so consider a detergent meant for sensitive skin. Most major manufacturers say their hypoallergenic formulas do not contain dyes or perfumes, and Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean Free & Clear carries that claim. It earns a Very Good rating for removing dirt and is one of the least expensive of the hypoallergenic detergents we’ve tested—something to consider, given how much laundry you’ll be doing with a little one at home. (For an even better clean, consider the higher-rated Persil ProClean Sensitive Skin below, but you’ll pay a premium.)
Best for Sensitive Skin
CR’s take: Persil ProClean for Sensitive Skin cleans very well in our tests, but it’s also among the priciest in our tests. It’s the best of the detergents that are marketed for sensitive skin at tackling grown-up stains like body oil, dirt, and salad dressing, snagging an Excellent rating in that last test. But heads up: Detergents that are supposed to be free of dyes and perfumes may still have some scent from the chemicals used to make the formula.
Best for Most Tough Stains
CR’s take: Stains from dirt and body oil? No sweat. Chocolate stains? Piece of cake. Persil ProClean Stain Fighter aces our pretreat tests—that means you can pretreat stains with a dab of this detergent, and the results are better than most spray-on stain removers we’ve tested. Of the dozens of liquid detergents in our tests, only two easily tackle stains from body oil, dirt, and chocolate, and earn a Very Good rating for removing tough stains such as blood and grass: Persil ProClean Stain Fighter and Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release. Tide and Persil both pack a punch and top our laundry detergent ratings, performing similarly and earning the same Overall Score, though Tide is slightly pricier.
Best for Tough Stains & Hard Water
CR’s take: If your home’s water quality is less than ideal, it’s a good idea to stock your laundry shelf with this top-rated liquid detergent. Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release is more than a superior stain remover. It also works impressively in hard water. Hard water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium that can leave residue on your clothes and mineral deposits inside your washing machine. So you’ll want to go with a high-performing detergent that minimizes hard water minerals and efficiently dissolves residue. In our tests, this concentrated detergent rates Very Good in hard water. In fact, in our ratings, nine Tide detergents (liquids and pods/packs) offer superb efficiency in hard water. Because most homes have some degree of hard water, it’s a brand worth trying if you’re having trouble getting your clothes clean.
CR’s take: Tide Power-Pods Heavy Duty 10X laundry detergent lives up to its superhero moniker as the top-rated of all pods/packs we tested. Body oil, salad dressing, and chocolate stains are little match for this detergent because it aces all three, rating Excellent. It also rates Very Good for dirt, grass, and hard water conditions. However, at 67 cents per load, this is the most expensive detergent in our ratings. So you’re paying for detergent performance and convenience (single load toss-and-wash pods are easy to use). But buyer beware: There’s another potential cost—safety. Concentrated liquid detergent packets should be avoided in homes where children under 6 years old or adults who are cognitively impaired may be present. Contact with or ingestion of the packet’s liquid contents may pose a risk of serious injury or death.
Worst Detergents From CR's Tests
CR’s take: Arm & Hammer 4-in-1 Power Paks OxiClean are the least expensive packs in our ratings. But you’d still be flushing time and money down the drain—this detergent struggles to eliminate basic stains like grass and dirt (gardeners, beware). In our laundry lab, it rated Good for cleaning body oils and blood; Fair for dirt, grass, and salad dressing; and Poor for chocolate and coffee stains. Plus, the powder inside doesn’t work well in hard water and doesn’t allow you to pretreat stains before washing. Arm & Hammer Plus OxiClean 5-in-1 Power Paks won’t do you much good either. The 5-in-1 does slightly better than 4-in-1 for coffee, chocolate, and grass, and slightly worse for dirt and blood.
CR’s take: Era 3X Oxibooster, from P&G, is near the bottom of our ratings, in part that’s because it’s one of the worst at removing stains from dirt and chocolate, earning a Poor rating in both tests. Grass and blood also proved tough to take on, but Era is better at removing body oil stains (though no match for most of the other detergents in our tests). So go ahead and sweat, but don’t get dirty.
CR’s take: Sun Triple Clean costs less than most detergents in our ratings and also performs the worst overall, earning the lowest Overall Score of the dozens of detergents in our tests. Henkel makes this budget brand, but it can’t match the cleaning power of Persil, Henkel’s premier brand. Sun Triple earns only a Fair rating in our tests for removing dirt and performs even worse when it comes to tougher stains like chocolate and coffee.
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