Best and Worst Laundry Detergents From Consumer Reports' Tests

Tide and Persil prevail, while some other detergents can barely clean clothes

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detail of 2 detergent bottles being poured Photo: iStock

Walk down the cleaning aisle of any grocery or big-box store and the sheer number of laundry detergent choices can feel overwhelming.

The detergent names and descriptions only add to the confusion: Ultra Stain Release, Turbo Clean, Simply Clean and Fresh, Simply Clean and Sensitive—and that’s just a handful of detergents from Tide.

In terms of types, however, the laundry detergent market has narrowed: “Most detergents sold today are liquid, and their popularity—plus the increase in sales of pods—means that few powders remain on store shelves,” says Kelly Moomey, a senior market analyst at CR.

Some CR readers tell us that they buy what’s on sale, but others 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 detergent, in this case, Persil's Pro Clean 2-in-1.

Lab-Tested for Your Washer
Most major detergent brands are reformulated at least once a year, says Moomey, as manufacturers keep looking for ways to improve stain removal. That keeps our test engineers busy.

First, they 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. Even the best detergents can’t remove every stain completely.

Using cool water, we wash swatches in two identical washers with each detergent, then allow the swatches to air-dry. (A dryer is out of the question because the heat can alter the stains.)

Testers use a colorimeter, a device that measures color intensity, to see how much of the stain remains on each dry swatch, compared with stained swatches that have been laundered using only water.

The best detergents we’ve tested earn an Excellent rating in removing body oil and dirt—common stains—but they can also tackle tougher ones, such as grass and blood. Hard water, which has a high mineral content, can reduce the effectiveness of some detergents. We test for that, too, as you'll see in our ratings.

The worst detergents? They're barely better than water when it comes to removing most stains.

Below, a closer look at five of the best liquid detergents we tested, listed alphabetically—along with the two worst.

In our laundry detergent ratings, we calculate the price per load based on what we paid because detergents vary in the number of ounces in each container. The prices below, however, reflect overall 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 cleaned up nicely in our tests, earning an Excellent rating in 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 tested that cleans well in hard water.

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 in removing dirt and is one of the least expensive of the hypoallergenic detergents we’ve tested. (That’s something to consider, given how much laundry you’ll be doing with a little one at home.)

CR’s take: Persil ProClean Power-Liquid for Sensitive Skin is the best of the detergents we tested that are marketed for sensitive skin at tackling grown-up stains like body oil, dirt, and salad dressing, snagging an Excellent rating in that 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.

CR’s take: Of the dozens of liquid detergents we tested, only two easily tackle stains from body oil, dirt, and chocolate, and earn a Very Good rating in removing tough stains such as blood and grass. Persil ProClean Stain Fighter is one of those detergents. You can also use it to pretreat stains. Our tests found it's better than most of the spray-on laundry stain removers we tested.

CR’s take: Procter & Gamble's Tide is widely sold, which is why you’ll see 10 liquid Tide detergents in our ratings, including Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release. Stains from dirt and body oil? No sweat. Chocolate? No problem. Tide Plus Ultra aced 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 tested. And Tide works impressively in hard water. Tide vs. Persil? They both pack a punch and top our laundry detergent ratings, performing similarly and earning the same Overall Score.

CR's take: Era 3X Oxibooster, from P&G, is near the bottom of our ratings, in part because it's one of the worst at removing stains from dirt and chocolate, earning a Poor rating in both tests. Grass and blood proved tough to take on, but Era was better at removing body oil stains (though no match for most of the other detergents tested). 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 it’s also the worst overall, earning the lowest Overall Score of the dozens tested. 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 worse when it comes to tougher stains like chocolate and coffee.

Kimberly Janeway