Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” laundry stain remover, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
So you spilled an entire iced latte on your brand new white tee. What’s new? Enter: laundry stain remover. The magical liquid (or powder, or stick, or spray) that lifts even the worst of messes off of our favorite clothes. It’s our Hail Mary when things get messy with the kids. It’s our knight in shining armor for those days when we just can’t keep the wine in the glass.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
If you’re anything like us, you’re well acquainted with stains. There are four main types that you may come across depending on your lifestyle:
Think blood, grass, and chocolate. For these types of stains, choose enzyme-based stain removers. They’ll help break down proteins, starches, and fats by breaking large insoluble molecules into smaller, soluble ones.
Think tea, coffee, and red wine. These stains are best tackled with bleach, which will oxidize colored substances to colorless ones by breaking down the chemical structures that cause coloration.
Think oil, collar stains, and butter. These are best handled by surfactants, which help oil and grease dissolve in water.
Think mud. This one’s for the gardeners out there -- get your hands on a stain remover with builders. Builders help soften hard water by removing calcium and magnesium ions. Since soil molecules are often bound to fabrics by calcium ion bridging, they do the dirty work for you. They also help surfactants work super well.
Good news: it’s not just you. In 2020, the stain remover market was worth $20.64 billion. In 2026, it’s expected to reach $27.84 billion. If your jaw is dropping at the sheer size of this industry, you’re not alone (though the laundry detergent market is about 7.5 times larger, if you can believe it).
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Whitening & Brightening
You’re looking to whiten and/or brighten a full load of laundry. While many people reach for chlorine bleach to do the job, we actually recommend steering clear of the stuff. Bleach is commonly used as an antimicrobial in water treatment setups -- if it wasn’t, we would all be getting sick from microbe filled water. However, in water treatment systems, bleach can react with molecules to produce “chlorinated byproducts” or “disinfection byproducts” (DBPs). DBPs can contribute to human health issues like bladder cancer, and chlorinated byproducts are known to harm fish. Scientists and groups like the EPA suggest that treatment facilities avoid using chlorine bleach for exactly this reason, and have put rules in place to make sure the water you drink is free of DBPs.
That being said, the bleach used in your laundry machine has basically no impact on waterways, since it and its byproducts are removed by wastewater treatment facilities before entering natural waters. Rather, the impacts of using bleach are in the air and fabrics. A 2013 study found that using bleach in washing machines can cause organochlorines (which are nasty in all kinds of ways -- think endocrine disruption, cancer, developmental issues, and nervous system disruption) to be absorbed by fabrics. Some of these organochlorines lasted on the fabric for months, and some lasted over a year. Chlorinated bleach can also interact with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals produced in dryers and washing machines. When this reaction happens, CI-VOCs are created, which hang in the air above your clothes in the washing machine. When you pull your clothes from the washer and you breath Cl-VOCs in, or get them on your skin in really high concentrations, they can impact almost all of the systems in the body. Yikes. So what’s the solution? Enter: peroxide-based bleaches and brighteners. Hydrogen peroxide is widely regarded as the safest oxidant imaginable. We here at Finch adore the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, and Green Chemists have endorsed hydrogen peroxide as a green solvent and green reagent for more than 20 years. It is even called “the ultimate ‘green’ reagent”. While some find chlorine bleach to be a more effective stain remover, we’ll opt for hydrogen peroxide any day.
Our favorite cheap hack is 3% hydrogen peroxide, the stuff that comes in a brown bottle at the pharmacy. The Spruce has a great guide on how to use it for laundry -- check it out here. You can also buy a pre-mixed version from Seventh Generation, though it’s a bit more expensive.
We love ECOS Oxo-Brite Whitener & Brightener, or this kind of OxiClean (which contains the power of enzymes and surfactants but doesn’t have some of the harmful chemicals that other OxiClean products have).
Most spot cleaners combine a variation of enzymes, surfactants, bleaches, and builders to increase their effectiveness across a variety of stains. Based on the type of stain you’re dealing with, we recommend the following stain removers.
Tea, coffee, and red wine
Chlorine bleach is a popular solution for oxidizable stains like tea, coffee, and red wine. But as we’ve discussed, it has a host of negative health and environmental impacts that we try to avoid at all costs. Instead of chlorine bleach, use 3% hydrogen peroxide. Check out the Spruce’s hydrogen peroxide laundry guide here.
Pretty much any other kind of stain
Spray: Shout, Zout, and OxiClean Max Force are popular spray stain removers that work on a variety of enzymatic, particulate, and greasy stains. But do you know what’s inside? All three contain borate, which requires boron mining. This mining degrades the local landscape, destroys wildlife habitats, pollutes the air, and consumes tons of water. Not to mention, there is evidence that borate is an endocrine disruptor and that it may damage fertility. Yeah, we’ll pass. Instead, we recommend using ECOS Stain + Odor Remover, which has pretty mild ingredients.
Stains on the go
If you’re a frequent spiller, we highly recommend carrying some Tide To Go in your bag. It works well on all kinds of food and drink stains, and is chlorine bleach and borate-free. It does contain a potentially harmful surfactant called 1,4-dioxane (a likely human carcinogen that does not readily biodegrade in the environment), but sometimes function trumps ingredients, and this is one of those cases. Here us out: the sooner you deal with a stain, the more likely you are to eliminate all traces of the stuff. If you’ve got Tide To Go in your bag or at your desk when you spill that cup of coffee, you’re able to deal with the stain right away. When you get home and throw your shirt in the wash, there’s a pretty good chance the stain will come out completely. Alternatively, if you wait until you get home to apply a spray stain remover, you might have to use more stain remover, and possibly even wash the garment multiple times, to get the same effect. If too much time has passed and the stain cannot be removed, you might throw the garment away and buy a new one. The impact of a small amount of 1,4-dioxane is likely preferable to the impact of using a lot of spray, liquid, or powder remover, running the washing machine multiple times for one stain, and having to buy a new garment.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS:
When we’re dealing with nasty stains, we often get some pretty nasty chemicals involved. in general, avoid borate and chlorine bleach. Carrying a Tide To Go pen may be the least impactful option if it means that you are able to immediately deal with stains, use a smaller amount of stain remover, run your washing machine only once, and avoid having to replace a garment.
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but the reality is that only about 9% of plastics are recycled in the U.S., so the chances that your stain remover container makes it through the recycling process is slim, even if you wash it out properly and get it into the right bin. There is a solution here, if you’re up for trying something that we haven’t: stain remover sticks. Ethique, Ovella Wool, and SoulShine Soap Co make options with pretty good reviews.
End of life
While your stain remover container might not be suited for circularity, you can repurpose your stained garments. Giving our clothing a second life is always a good idea, but stained items are difficult to donate. If you can’t seem to get that stain out of your favorite tee, repurpose it into a cleaning rag or dish towel.