This question was actually answered a little
while ago on Scienceline here:
here to read
The answer borrows heavily from this online
do stain removers work
The long short of the science of stain removers is
that they can remove stains in four main ways
(dissolving, emulsifying, reacting, and masking)
and most cleaners use a combination of these.
Clorox’s website has a great interactive page on
how each of the ingredients in their products
If you look under “What’s in
it anyway?” you can click on each of the
ingredients individually and read what they do.
Try to label
each ingredient as either a solvent (something
that dissolves things), emulsifier,
Here’s another example of how the ingredients in a
famous stain remover work.
OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover (Powder)
Sodium Carbonate – Water softener that prevents
metal ions in laundry machines from interacting with
Sodium Percarbonate – This can be thought of as
“solid hydrogen peroxide”. When mixed with water,
this substance produces the oxidizer hydrogen
peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide
(H2O2) readily reacts
with the organic molecules that give stains their
colors, thus rendering them broken and colorless.
C12-C16 – This is a
surfactant, like soap. It helps to emulsify fatty
Sodium polycarboxylate – Prevents dirt and stains
from depositing back onto clothes.
Sodium metasilicate – I’m a little unclear about
what this does, but it seems like it helps to
to prevent solids from depositing back on to
Ghost of BILLY MAYS – Scares stain molecules out
of clothing. (Just kidding!)