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Red wine, grass, ballpoint pen or grease: common stains, but can anything remove them? Our panel finds out
EVERYONE has their own stain disaster story: the leaking pen in the pocket of the white suit, the brand-new blouse ruined by over-enthusiastic consumption of Indian food, red wine spilled over the lace tablecloth that has been in the family for generations. The next stage is agonised rummaging through cupboards for the ancient stain remover, unused for years, or a dash out to the shops to see if deliverance can be bought in a bottle or tube.

Stain removers come in several forms: sprays, liquids, creams, soap bars and powders. Each of our testers applied a selection of removers to one of four common stains: red wine, grease, ballpoint pen or grass. They also washed them in their usual detergent only, without using any stain remover. It didn't prove difficult to bust the wine and grease; virtually all the stain removers worked, as did detergent on its own. Ballpoint pen and grass were much harder to shift. On ballpoint pen stains, detergent worked just as well as some removers.

It seems that stain removers may not always be necessary. If you do use one, it should be stressed (at the risk of stating the obvious) that you must read the instructions carefully first. Some products cannot be used on certain fabrics. Using a stain remover on these can lead to an even worse fiasco.


For ballpoint pen stains: Terry Dowdall, butler; grease: Sheila Kaufman, teacher; red wine: Jane Clinton, journalist; grass: Ann Francis, mother.


We did our best to stain l00 per cent cotton fabric samples with the four notorious substances. After applying the stain removers as instructed, our panellists washed the samples. They also washed one of them in their usual detergent, without any pre-wash soaking. Marks were awarded for how clear the instructions were, ease of use, effectiveness and value for money.


General purpose powder; pounds 1.85 for 500g

This product, which uses enzymes to break down stains, produced excellent results on grease and wine (as did almost all the methods, including washing in ordinary detergent). It was less successful on grass and ballpoint pen. Biotex is probably most useful if you have a number of stained items, less so if you have only one and no use for a quick clean-up job at a party. It comes in powder form, and is made up into a solution in which the garment is soaked or pre-washed, and was not the quickest or easiest to use. The instructions were unclear, and preparation entailed measuring out precise quantities of water and powder, and testing the water temperature. "It's too much palaver," said Sheila Kaufman, our grease stain tester. "I had to consult a baby book to remind myself how to test the water temperature by dipping my elbow in - which I hadn't done for 35 years."


General purpose spray; pounds l.25 for 500ml

Shout, a stain-removing spray, got rid of grease and wine stains completely. It was also one of the few to be effective on ballpoint pen. Terry Dowdall, our ballpoint pen specialist, declared it "excellent, a very fast worker" and said he would use it on his shirts. Grass was more of a challenge. Ann Francis, our grass expert, said: "A stain was left on the material, but it was quite faint. I would use this for less stubborn kinds of stains." It couldn't be easier to use - just point and spray - though the instructions don't explain whether or not to leave it on before washing the garment. Jane Clinton, who tried Shout on red wine, commented: "A convenient method as it emits an even spray and does not require excessive rubbing of the fabric." In general, testers thought this product was good value for money and they liked its smell too.


Designed for dry-clean only fabrics; pounds 1.45 for 100ml

Of the stains we tested, this product is suitable only for grease. Sheila Kaufman greeted it with cries of recognition: "Forty years ago, this was the only stain remover. The fact that it's been going all these years presumably means it works." In fact, it was the only product that failed to shift the stain, leaving a greasy patch on the fabric. It was also very smelly.


General purpose gel; pounds l.99 for 150ml

This was one of the best products for grass stains, but the least effective for ballpoint pen. "The only thing to vanish was the gel, not the stain," said ballpoint pen man Terry Dowdall. Like almost all the removers, it worked well on grease and wine. Its main advantage was simplicity of use - the gel is squeezed on to the stain, rubbed in with a built-in brush and left for one or two minutes before washing. Ann Francis liked it: "Very nice and easy to use, not a bad smell and good value for money." Jean Clinton had mixed feelings : "A good product, though the coarse brush could prove harsh on certain fabrics. It was also very difficult to squeeze out an even amount. Invariably, too much was emitted, leaving a very soapy patch."


General purpose cream; pounds 4.95 for l00g

This product, which combines a solvent and a bleach, was the most successful in terms of effectiveness. It was the only one to get full marks for grass stains, and one of only three to get rid of a ballpoint pen stain completely. But there were major disadvantages, including price, smell and instructions in such tiny print that they could scarcely be read. "Messy to use," said Ann Francis, "not a very nice smell, and the most expensive - but it left no stain. I suppose it's worth the mess and money if it does the job." Depending on the nature of the stain, hot or cold water can be used. "The instructions say grease needs hot water," Sheila Kaufman noticed, "so it couldn't be used on a fabric that can only be washed in cold." The manufacturers stress, too, that this cream must be used only on colourfast fabrics.


Range of 12, designed for different stains; pounds l.45 for 50ml

To deal with the full gamut of stains, you have to buy several of these products. Each of our testers used the one that was suitable for his or her particular stain. Their results, however, indicate that it's not worth spending money to buy specific stain removers. While grease and wine were successfully shifted, ballpoint pen only faded rather than disappear completely, and the Stain Devil was one of the least effective at getting rid of grass stains.

Some of the Stain Devils weren't particularly easy to use either (the method varies according to the product). Jane Clinton used the one designed for wine, fruit and jam stains. "The instructions were far too complicated," she said, "and you need to have a thermometer to check the temperature of the solution; you also have to mix the powder with water and wait for the fabric to soap. I didn't think the Stain Devil was very good value, considering its size. Not one for a party, either, as it would mean spending an hour away from the guests." Terry Dowdall commented that the solution had "a dreadful smell when used in an enclosed area".


General purpose bar (with or without brush); pounds l.99 for 75g with brush

This product, which looks like a bar of soap and comes with a brush to use on stubborn stains, got rid of wine, grease and ballpoint pen marks completely but left a faint stain of grass. This was a favourite with Terry Dowdall, our ballpoint pen expert. "It's simple to use, and the brush is great," he said. "After 10 minutes, the stain on the sample had almost completely gone. I also used it to get rid of an ugly stain on a pair of white trousers."

Jane Clinton pointed out that the brush (which could double up as a scrubbing brush) would be unsuitable for delicate materials. "It proved very harsh," she said, "and affected the fabric sample quite severely. Otherwise good results, and no need for soaking." Sheila Kaufman found the instructions confusing.


Range designed for different stains; pounds l.65 for 75ml

This is another "family" of stain removers, albeit smaller than the Stain Devils clan. We tried out No 1 on grease, ballpoint pen and grass stains and No 2 on wine. They are both liquids, so there was no need to make up solutions. The remover was only moderately successful on both ballpoint pen and grass, though effective on wine and grease. Sheila Kaufman liked it: "Extremely easy to use; the grease came out on an absorbent cloth. Funny smell, though." Jane Clinton thought the smell was pleasant. "Quite a good product all round," she said. "Very easy to use, with the minimum of mess as it had a special pad to distribute the solution." Terry Dowdall said he was "not impressed at all". There is also a third, slightly more expensive, product in the range for dry-clean only fabrics.