The Effect of Different Detergents on Stain Removal from Cotton Cloth

Photo of Michelle at Mid-Columbia Science Fair

Researched by Michelle B.


The purpose of this experiment was to compare the effectiveness of different brands of detergent in removing stains from cotton cloth.

I became interested in this idea when I got stains on my white cotton t-shirts. My mom washed them but the detergent she used didn’t always get the stain out.   T-shirts are expensive to replace and I wondered if I could find a better detergent. 

The information gained from this experiment would help homemakers, laundry services, hotels, hospitals, and others make better choices on which detergent to buy.


My hypothesis was that Tide would remove the test stains most effectively.

I based my hypothesis on the recent studies in “Consumer Reports” (October 2005, page 6) that showed Tide was the most reliable detergent/stain remover.
I also based my hypothesis on a study by Carrie Jo Nevue, a former 7th grade student.  She also tested detergents and concluded that Tide detergent worked the best.  Terri Bauman, a homemaker for 21 years, also believes that Tide Detergent works the best in stain removal.


The constants in this study were:
•    The amount of detergent used (100 ml.)
•    The temperature of water used
•    The ingredients in the stain: Chocolate syrup, black coffee, purple grape juice, ravioli sauce, ketchup and mustard.
•    The method of washing in-a washing machine.
•    The method of drying-in a drying machine.

The manipulated variable was the type of detergent.

The responding variable was whiteness of cloth. 

To measure the responding variable, I used a Hunter Reflectance Spectrophotometer (Colorimeter) to determine the “L” value (brightness.)


Washing Machine
Drying Machine
100 ml
100 ml Mustard
100 ml Purple Grape Juice
100 ml Ravioli Sauce
Plastic Spatula
1 Large Mixing Bowl
100 ml Tide
100 ml All
100 ml Arm & Hammer
10 x 10 cm squares of 100% White Cotton
Pair of Scissors
100 ml
Black Coffee
100 ml
Chocolate syrup


1.     Buy white 100% cotton fabric from a fabric store
2.     Wash fabric three times in washing machine to remove factory treatment
3.    Lay out the material and cut the cotton into 49  10 cm X 10 cm squares
4.    Leave one 10 X 10 cm square of 100% white cotton fabric out from getting stained
5.    Label the squares
a.    A.1-A.12
b.    H.1-H.12
c.    T.1-T.12
d.    W.1-W.12
e.    White control (no stain)
6.     Prepare stain, mix well for five minutes:
a.     100 ml. of ketchup
b.     100 ml. of mustard
c.    100 ml. of purple grape juice
d.    100 ml. of ravioli sauce
e.    100 ml. of chocolate syrup
f.    100 ml. of black coffee  
7.    Stain the 48  10 cm X 10 cm squares
a.     Let fabric soak for two days (wait for 48 hours before performing the next step)
b.    Let the stained fabric dry after taking out of the bowl
8.    Set the Washing machine to Permanent Press with cold water wash
9.    Wash cotton squares as followed:
a.    T.1-T.12 with 100 ml. of Tide
b.    A.1-A.12 with 100 ml. of All
c.    H.1-H.12 with 100 ml. of Arm and Hammer
d.    W.1-W.12 with Water (no detergent at all)
10.    When cycle is done carefully place in the drying machine (keep the drying machine on the same cycle as the washing machine)
11.    Repeat step #8 and #9 with a different detergent for other three groups
12.    After all washing and drying is done take the material to Tree Top’s Colorimeter.
13.    Carefully measure the “L” level of each piece of fabric under the Colorimeter
14.    Record results.


The original purpose of this experiment was to compare the effectiveness of different brands of detergent in removing stains from cotton cloth.

The results of the experiment were that Tide’s “L” value was 81.49, Water Control’s “L” value was 79.40, All’s “L” value was 78.33, and Arm and Hammer’s “L” value was 78.98.  Tide with 81.49 was clearly the best.

See the table and graph below.


My hypothesis was that Tide would remove the test stains most effectively.
My hypothesis should be accepted, Tide worked the best as shown by the Colorimeter.

After thinking about the results of this experiment, I wonder if any if the affect results:
•    Different type of cloth (silk, linen, and wool)
•    Washing temperature (cold vs. warm)
•    Amount of detergent used (would 1/2 work as well)

If I were to conduct this project again I would use more cloth samples.  I would only use one stain at a time.  One group would be stained with only one thing and be washed with one specific detergent. 

I would test more detergents, including Tide, All, Cheer, Arm and Hammer, and Kirkland Signature detergent. 

I would use the stains: butter, ketchup, mustard, purple grape juice, and black coffee.  I wouldn’t do the ravioli sauce and the chocolate sauce because they aren’t really things you eat on an everyday basis. 

I would also have one more control group, a stained cloth with no washing to show how much the stain had actually been removed.


Cleanliness is an important factor in human health and comfort.  Many people stain their clothes and don’t know the best way to take the stain out.  It would be a good idea to find out what type of detergent is the most effective on stains.

Textile Materials
Textile originally meant a woven fabric, but almost all fabrics today are considered  textile materials.  Textile mills can produce huge rolls of all sorts of fabrics like cotton, wool, nylon, and many others.  The material comes from plants such as, cotton, flax, hemp, jute, and ramie.  The fiber from these help produce textile materials. 

Fiber from the seed pod of the cotton plant, was used in India and South Africa before 2,000 B.C.  The cotton bush is a tropical or subtropical bush/shrub producing soft white pods with downy fibers and oil-rich seeds.  The fiber is spun into thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile.  Cotton is a valuable crop because only about 10% of the raw weight is lost in processing.  In addition to the textile industries, cotton is used in fishnets, coffee filters, tents, and bookbinding. 

 The flax plant produces the bast of the fiber used to make linen, yarn, and cloth.  It originated in the Mediterranian region by Swiss Lake Dwellers, around 8,000 B.C.

Silk is a continuous protein filament secreted by silkworm larvae in order to make their cocoons.  The species Bombyx mori is the variety most commonly cultivated, as it produces especially fine, lustrous, white fibers. Silk was developed in China c. 2700 B.C.

Washing Machines and Washing Clothes
Washing machines are automatic and motor powered.  The most common washing machine is called the Agitator Washing Machine. 

About 100 years ago they didn’t use washing machines, instead people used washboards.  Usually washboards are make out of tin and glass.  They also had to use two washtubs, one would have warm soapy water and the second one would have clean water inside.  The soapy water tub would be the one to wash the clothes and the clean water tub would be the one to rinse the clothes.  The soap in the tub would usually be made of melted pig’s fat and lye.  Most rich families would buy perfume to add with the soap so their clothes also smelled good.

A stain is a dirty or discolored area on clothes caused by oil, grease, dirt, food, or dye.  Several stains were used in this project:
•    Ketchup-red is usually made out of tomatoes.
•    Mustard-yellow and is made out of powdered mustard seeds.
•    Black coffee-black and made out of water and ground coffee beans.
•    Purple Grape Juice-purple and made out of purple grapes
•    Chocolate syrup-brown and made out of melted chocolate and other sugars.
•    Ravioili Sauce-red and made of tomatoes and parsley.

Boosters advance the soil and stain removal, brightening, buffering, and water softening of detergents.

Bluing is blue dye taken up by fabrics in the wash or rinse.  Bluing absorbs the yellow in the light spectrum interacting with the yellow of many fabrics.

Bleaches whiten and brighten whites and help remove stubborn stains.  They convert soils to colorless stains and then wash them away.  Liquid chlorine bleach can also disinfect fabrics.  Oxygen bleach is gentler and works safely on most washable materials.


Enzyme pre-soakers are used for soaking items before washing to remove stains and soils.  When they are added to wash water it increases cleaning power.

Fabric Softener

Fabric softeners added to the final rinse or dryer make fabrics softer, fluffier, and decrease static cling, wrinkling, and drying.  They also make ironing easier.

Soap is a solid, liquid or powdered preparation that is made by potassium or sodium hydroxide reacting with animal or vegetable oils.  Soaps are usually used with water and may contain scents/perfumes and other additional ingredients.

Detergents are put on materials to help remove dirt and other stains.  The ingredients in detergents are usually called surfacants, and they are made up of big molecuels.  When detergents were first made they weren’t soluble and biodegratable.  Liquid detergents disolve easily.  Solvents are the part of detergent that does the dissolving and solute is the one that dissolves. 

Liquid detergent is most commonly used in washing machines.  Detergent that is factory made has different chemical makeup than soap.  A detergent molecule will have one end cling to the dirt or stain while the other end will cling to the water.

Hunter Reflectance Spectrophotometer (Colorimeter)

A colorimeter is a special machine that identifies/measures the color of an object such as 100% white cotton material.  The Colorimeter uses scales L, A, and B values to measure the whiteness and darkness of an object.  The ‘A’ values measure green (negative values), and redness (positive values).  The ‘B’ values measure blueness (negative values), and yellowness (positive values).  The ‘L’ values measure the lightness and darkness of an object (0 is black and 100 is white). 

Cleanliness is an important factor in human health and comfort.  Many people stain their clothes and don’t know the best way to take the stain out.  It would be a good idea to find out what type of detergent is the most effective on stains.

“Colorimeter” World Book Encyclopedia, 2001

“Detergents Washday Winners.”  Consumer Reports August 2003

"Detergents," World Book Encyclopedia, 2004.

Graf, Sue,  Personal interview. December 15, 2005.

“Laundry Detergents Washday Winners.” Consumer Reports October 2005

Nevue, Carrie Jo, “The Effect of Different Detergents on the Removal of Stains” November 9, 2005
“Products and Ingredients,”
“Textile Materials and Technologies.” Cotton, flax, and Silk, 1/18/06

“Which Detergents Clean Without Cleaning Out Your Wallet?” Consumer Reports August 2004

Wilson, Kierstin.  “Which Laundry Detergent is Most Effective in Removing Stain?” November 9, 2005.


I would like to thank the following people for helping make my project possible:
•    My parents for helping me purchase the materials for this project and for helping me along the way and as needed.
•    All of my classmates at S.O.A.R. for helping me find the information I needed.
•    Mr. Newkirk for helping me with my project and my report and helping me with all of my formatting along the way.
•    Mrs. Viernes for helping me with my formatting, report and spelling/grammar.  I would also like to thank her for helping me with my graphs.
•    Sue Graf for helping me use the Colorimeter at the Tree Top Technical Lab.  She helped me use and record my results from the Colorimeter.

Top of page

Menu of 2005-2006 Science Projects

Back to the Selah Homepage