It’s inevitable: After a wine tasting, spaghetti dinner, or spirited rib-eating contest, your white shirt will look like the fledgling stage of a Jackson Pollock painting. A more dignified alternative to wearing a bib? The Tide To Go stain releaser pen, a handy detergent highlighter you rub on blotches to make them disappear. For this magical weapon of stain destruction to tackle an array of food threats, the chemists at Tide enlisted ingredients that attack different stains in different ways, working in combination to erase everything from coffee to ketchup. Out, damn spots!
This common household product is here to delete stains. The chemical tends to produce free radicals–yes, the ones that people battle with antioxidant-rich superfoods–but here their electron-stealing, cell-damaging powers are used to destroy chromophores, the molecular structures that give red wine and BBQ sauce their eye-catching hues. Once the structures are disrupted, the color vanishes, and it’s like the stain was never there.
Hydrogen peroxide’s free radicals are effective color busters, but they can react with molecules they’re not supposed to, frittering away their power on nonstain distractions. So the benzoic acid acts like a sort of hall monitor, scooping up rogue radicals and containing their chaos to the stains they’re decolorizing.
Alkyl Dimethyl Amine Oxide
Water sucks at getting grease off, so Tide uses compounds called surfactants that mix well with both. Alkyl dimethyl amine oxide’s water–loving head grips the H2O in this solution, and its alkyl chain latches on to oils, prying off small chunks of stain and surrounding them, where they remain imprisoned until you do your laundry. That way, the hydrogen peroxide can perform its bleaching work more thoroughly, and those globs of penne alla vodka don’t end up back on your clothes in the wash.
Sodium Alkyl Sulfate
Compounds in this class of surfactant molecules are known for their foaming and emulsifying prowess. Found in everything from shampoo to dish detergent, here SAS emulsifies stains, pulling them away from your precious fabric.
The ingredient that makes lemons and limes sour, this acid lowers the pH of the solution toward neutral, which helps the active ingredients work correctly and keeps this stuff from irritating your skin. It also does double duty by snapping up magnesium and calcium ions that might interfere with the surfactants.
The booze molecule has useful properties other than getting you shwasty–it’s also one of the best solvents out there. Here, it keeps all the other ingredients in liquid form so the surfactants can get to the stain properly instead of gunking up inside the pen. Once the stuff is applied, it evaporates.
Also known as lye, this caustic compound has been used for everything from unclogging sinks (as a main ingredient in Drano) to giving traditional Bavarian pretzels their crusty exterior. Since its pH is so high, the base can work alongside citric acid to tweak the (often acidic) food stain back to neutral, which helps the hydrogen peroxide and surfactants work more effectively.
Dipropylene Glycol Butyl Ether
A cleaning solvent that, like ethanol, helps keep the surfactants liquid so they can infiltrate and remove the stain from your clothes’ fibers. But it also one-ups ethanol by dissolving oily material from the stain itself and doesn’t evaporate into so much vapor as soon as it leaves the pen.
After you’ve erased the offending spot from your fancy dress shirt, this substance helps dry the solution so it doesn’t leave a telltale wet spot while you’re out and about. Magnesium sulfate is also called Epsom salt, and its manufacturers claim that, dissolved in a bath, it relieves everything from muscle aches to stress. We don’t know about that, but at least here it dissolves the stress of a stained shirt.