detergents are not all the same. It turns out that some brands pack more of a cleaning punch than others. That means some are better than others at lifting stains and purging fabric soiled by food, wine, grease and other common contaminants. And even the form of the detergent, liquid or pod, can affect how clean your laundry will get.
After comparing the options from various retail outlets including
, Walmart and Costco, we settled on nine detergent brands. We chose them since they're top sellers at those sites, and because they're all-purpose detergents meant for mainstream wash-day use. We intentionally did not include specialty products designed to primarily tackle baby clothes or delicate items.
We then systematically put these detergents through our washing machine test lab. The process entailed weeks of washing, over 100 hours in all. In other terms, that's more than 80 washing machine cycles plus dryer cycles to match. We also painstakingly examined 135 fabric stain strips with an industrial-grade reflectance colorimeter to precisely determine the effectiveness of each detergent. And when all was said and done, the clear winner was Tide HE Turbo Clean liquid. It was far and away the best at eliminating a host different types of stains and soils.
The second best cleaner in our group was another Tide product, Tide Pod 3 in 1 HE Turbo pods. Its stain-fighting abilities came close to liquid Tide. It cleaned with consistently good results from load to load too. That's something the other detergent pod in our test group, All Mighty Pacs Free and Clear, failed to do. In general, All's laundry pods couldn't remove stains as well either.
The tech behind our washing machine testing (pictures)
Scientifically evaluating the effectiveness of detergent is a rigorous, labor-intensive process that's similar to the method we use to test washing machines. There's a few key differences though. First, we stuck with one washing machine. In this case we used the Whirlpool WTW7500GC. We chose this appliance partly for our own convenience. It was already sitting in a berth inside our test lab. And since we thoroughly tested the washer during the review process, its performance was a known quantity. Using the same washing machine throughout testing also controlled for any appliance-related variables.
For each brand of detergent, we performed three test runs. With nine specific detergent brands, that comes to a minimum of 27 washing machine cycles. And after we finished the test cycles, we ran additional wash cycles with just water to purge any residual soap. We didn't assess the mechanical action of the washing cycle, like we do when we test individual
. That's because how physically hard or gentle a machine is on fabric is a characteristic of each individual washer, not the detergent it's using.
Otherwise, our methodology is identical. Inspired by guidelines laid out by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), we use 8-pound loads of laundry, with the same test items in each run. That includes a mix of "filler materials" such as fitted sheets, hand towels and pillow cases, plus specially calibrated cloth stain strips. These strips, which we buy from Swiss test material company Swissatest, meet AHAM's strict guidelines for soil consistency.
Each cloth test strip has five stain areas, each soiled by a different mixture of contaminants. The stains are as follows: sebum (skin oil), carbon (black), blood (pig's blood), cocoa (chocolate and milk) and red wine (aged). Each is designed to represent the chemical and physical properties of numerous similar substances.
For instance sebum mimics the natural oils produced by your skin. Carbon represents petroleum byproducts like motor oil and mineral oil. Blood is a good predictor of protein-based pigments including grass stains. Cocoa simulates a range of organic pigments, such as stains caused by coffee and chocolate.
We score the results for each load with the help of a reflectance colorimeter. The sensitive tool allows us to measure the percentage reflectance of each test strip stain, both before and after washing. Comparing these two values then gives us the percent change that has occurred. From there we can calculate a percentage of how much stain a detergent removes (and leaves behind).
The best detergent for everything
Hands down, Tide HE Turbo Clean liquid is the best detergent. Across the board, Tide got our test loads cleaner, and with the least stains remaining, regardless of the substance. It really shone when it came to stains for wine and cocoa. Only an average of 36.6% of wine stains remained after washing. That number might sound high, but overall it's actually pretty good, especially compared with the other detergents.
For instance, the worst detergent for removing wine stains was Arm & Hammer Clean Burst. The liquid laundry soap left 52.3% (average) of its wine stains behind on our test cloth strips. And on average Tide left just 40.2% of cocoa stains behind. All Free and Clear liquid was the least effective at ridding fabric of cocoa. After washing, 79.6% (average) of cocoa stains still remained on its test strips.
Across all five tough stains, Tide left 52.1% (average) of staining behind. That makes it the best overall performer in this group of detergents. Tide doesn't come cheap though. Priced at $11.97 for a 100-ounce container (12 cents per ounce), it's the most expensive of the liquid detergents we tested.
The best detergent pod
Tide triumphed here again. Each little Tide Pod 3 in 1 HE Turbo got test loads virtually as stain-free as Tide liquid did. With an average of 53.5% of stains remaining, it was second best. The Tide Pods were also proficient fighters of red wine (43.6% remaining) and cocoa stains (44% remaining).
More impressive though was the consistent clean these pods provided. Across three test runs, the Tide pods notched stain removal results that were essentially identical (52.8%, 53.5% and 54.2% stain remaining). The other laundry pod in our group (All pods) fared much worse. Not only did it leave clothes dirtier on average (58.2% stain remaining), performance was wildly inconsistent between each wash (57.1%, 63.2% and 54.3% stain remaining).
If saving cash is your motivation, however, look elsewhere. At $20 for container of 81, these pods are pricey. They work out to about 25 cents per pod (one pod per load).
The best budget detergent
Rounding out our list of top three detergents is the Costco Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean HE Liquid. It came in third in our group with an average of 56.9% stain remaining. It did leave more of our test wine stains behind (45.3%). The same is true for cocoa stains with 54.8% of those still clinging to our test strips.
However, you can grab a huge 194-ounce container for $13.59. That calculates to just 7 cents per ounce, the most affordable detergent in this group. Despite its rock-bottom price, the detergent came close to matching Tide's stain-removing power.
Here's the full list of laundry detergents in our test group
Decades ago, washing machines consumed a lot more water than today's high-efficiency (HE) models. According to Energy Star, modern HE washers use 14 gallons of water per load. Standard washing machines, on the other hand, need 20 gallons. Because of this difference, you can't use ordinary detergent in an HE washing machine. Instead, these appliances require specifically formulated HE detergent. Most washing machine models sold now are high-efficiency though. The popularity of HE detergents has risen as well, which is why we chose HE instead of standard soap for our test group.