Coming clean with laundry detergents

Consumer Reports testers washed hundreds of cotton swatches to find out which detergents are best at vanquishing wine, grass, and other tough stains and soils.

When it came to delivering the cleanest clothes, Tide outshone a plethora of other brands of laundry detergents in Consumer Reports’ latest tests. CR’s tests of more than 50 detergents show that you can pay far less for comparable cleaning — or waste your money on a celebrity brand that washed about the same as plain water.

CR tests all laundry detergents on seven common stains and soils, using a color-sensitive instrument called a colorimeter to analyze how much stain remains after washing. Both conventional and high-efficiency washing machines are used during the testing procedure and the laundry detergents are used as directed on the container. All detergents are measured against washing with nothing but water, which provides minimal cleaning.

CR’s findings:

• Conventional laundry detergents. Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water and Tide 2X Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers, both 23 cents per load, topped the charts. Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water cleaned best and because it is formulated for cold water, consumers can save roughly $60 per year in water-heating energy costs. Tide 2X Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers, is also a solid pick, but despite its stain scrubbing name, it did not excel at removing blood and grass stains.

• High-efficiency laundry detergents. Front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loading washing machines require high-efficiency laundry detergents. CR tested 23 formulas and eight performed well enough to recommend, including formulas from Tide, All, Gain, Up & Up (Target), Kirkland Signature (Costco) and Seventh Generation.

Tide 2X Ultra with Color Clean Bleach Alternative HE, 24 cents per load, topped CR’s ratings for cleaning best overall and was noted for being very good on grass stains. Gain Original Fresh HE, which costs 6 cents per load, is a CR Best Buy. It was impressive at cleaning, costs far less, and was the top pick among powders for its fine performance on grass and bloodstains. Kirkland Signature Environmentally Friendly Ultra 2X HE (Costco), 12 cents per load, and Seventh Generation Natural Powered HE, 36 cents per load, are mostly plant-based and cleaned best among detergents with green claims.

Martha Stewart Clean Laundry Detergent, 21 cents per load, finished last-place among laundry detergents in both categories. Like water, it provides minimal cleaning, leaving behind more of the wine, chocolate, grass, ring around the collar, and other common stains and soils in CR’s conventional top-loading washer tests. It cleaned only slightly better in front-loaders.

How to choose

Start by picking the right detergent for your washer; high-efficiency formulas produce less suds, a must with front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders. Also consider washing in cold water, which could slice $60 a year off your energy bill. Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water is a top pick among conventional detergents. Then keep these points in mind:

• Look beyond the claims. The Biokleen, Oxydol 2X, and Martha Stewart detergents are among those that promise to work in conventional and high-efficiency washers. But they weren’t impressive.

• Don’t buy strictly by brand. Manufacturers often tweak formulas to improve performance or to lower cost. That means the detergent you loved last time may not do well this time. Tide 2X Ultra with Color Clean Bleach Alternative conventional detergent dropped several notches from the top after its formula changed.

• Be wary of ultra-concentrates. Two-X detergents continue to top CR’s ratings. But none of the 3X products made its winner’s list. While Method’s 8X Concentrated HE yielded more than 50 loads from just 20 ounces, its cleaning was only so-so.

• Don’t overdo it. Sixty-two percent of Americans read the directions on detergents compared with just over 50 percent back in 2003, according to a recent survey by the American Cleaning Institute. That’s good news because using too much can waste money and water by requiring additional rinse cycles.