The Basics of Laundry Stain Removal

Updated on April 21, 2018
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Catherine is a mom who has devoted many years to volunteer organizations including 10 years mentoring girls through Girl Scout programs.

Cranberries, Red Wine, and Gravy, Oh My!

We know all too well the frustration of having a favorite wardrobe item ruined by a stubborn stain. Let's say you're wearing that brand new blouse that you bought to wear to a friend's holiday party, and you cringe to find you've spilled a glob of cocktail sauce from the shrimp hors d'oeuvres right down the front! What do you do?

Act Quickly. Blot, Don't Rub

Ideally, it would be smart to carry a stain stick or wipes for these accidents, but too often this is an afterthought. The best approach is to carefully blot, never rub, the excess and wait until returning home to treat the stain more thoroughly. If the item is labeled "dry clean only," take it to the cleaners and describe the type of food stain. The most important thing, regardless of the stain type, is to take care of it as soon as possible before it has time to set into the fabric and oxidize. As tempting as it may be to remove irritating garment tags inside the side seams near the waist, this is where the laundering instructions and fabric content are located.

In a pinch, common things like a dab of hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, or a spritz of windex can be effective on grease and fat stains like lipstick, salad dressing and gravy. Cold water rinses are best for emergencies involving coffee, tea, wine, and fruit juices. Again, the important thing is to act quickly.

Once home, the best way to tackle a stain is to first carefully remove any hardened residue like grease, mud, spit-up, foodstuff etc. by gently lifting it off with a plastic knife, then dab the stain with cold water. Lay the garment on a clean white towel, and blot it with another soft white cotton cloth. Gently blot from the outside in so as not to spread the stain. A spray bottle of water set on the stream nozzle can be used with care here. Continue to wet and blot until most of the stain is loosened, then wash as normal with the recommended water setting for the particular fabric. Pre-wash stain removers like Spray&Wash, Oxi-Clean, or Shout can also be used on protein-based stains like blood and oil-based ones like salad dressings. It is important to remember that the clothes dryer will set any residual stain and make it permanent. The best approach is to remove the item from the wash and hang it to dry in case it should need additional stain treatment.

Stain absorption with dry substances is also effective especially on oily stains like fuel and difficult materials like suede and leather. Common household materials such as corn starch, talcum powder, or baking soda can be used. As the powders absorb the stains, they will become caked. At this point, carefully remove with a soft brush. Depending on the severity of the stain, this can take anywhere from a few hours to reapplications over a few days. Be patient. Once the stain is visibly gone, launder or dry clean as usual.

Dry Absorption Method

Difficult stains on shoes, handbags, upholstery, and motorcycle gear can be effectively removed with the dry absorption method.
Difficult stains on shoes, handbags, upholstery, and motorcycle gear can be effectively removed with the dry absorption method.
 Use concentrated laundry powder and work in with an old toothbrush
Use concentrated laundry powder and work in with an old toothbrush

Spot removal technique on whites w/ dilute bleach and a Q-tip

Pre-treatment with Oxi-Clean is great for tough stains on colors.
Pre-treatment with Oxi-Clean is great for tough stains on colors.

Effective Removal Must Include Both the Kind of Stain and the Type of Fabric

Stains can be categorized as dye-based, oil-based, water-based, protein-based, tannin-based, and wax-based. Many are combination stains such as chocolate which is both dye and oil or wine which is a water-base tannin.

  • Acrylic or latex paint: Apply rubbing alcohol to loosen paint. Remove with a plastic knife. If heavy cotton, use a soft brush. Rinse well and wash as usual.
  • Blood: Rinse in cold water and use a pre-wash treatment like Oxi-Clean.
  • Chocolate, lipstick, and make-up: Prepare detergent paste by adding a bit of water to powder or use a full-strength liquid detergent, apply to stain and rub or brush gently with soft toothbrush. Let stand for 5-10 min. and wash as usual.
  • Grass: Soak in milk and rub gently, wash as usual when stain is gone.
  • Grease and oils: Apply a degreasing detergent like Dawn with cold water to help break up the stain or try the dry absorption method described above. On fine apparel fabrics, apply a dry clean spray or dry stick, let set, and blot or brush as instructed. Any item having gas or diesel stains should be air-dried until all fumes or residues are gone. They're still considered flammable and should never be put in the dryer.
  • Ink and marker: Unless the marker is a washable water-base variety, start by blotting with rubbing alcohol. Hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes work well in emergencies. If ineffective, carefully try nail polish remover or acetone, rinse and apply a baking soda paste. Acetone is only safe for cotton. If in doubt, dry clean.
  • Pollen: Lift off the pollen grains with tape or a chenille pipe cleaner being careful not to rub into fabric. Use a pre-wash spray and launder as usual
  • Proteins like egg and cream sauces: Treat with cold water to loosen stain, Use a pre-wash spray, and wash as usual. Do not use hot water to treat as it will cook the stain into the fabric.
  • Sweat rings: Mix together 1/3 c baking soda, 1/3 c peroxide, 1/3 c water. Apply to underarm stains, let set, then wash as usual. Oxi-Clean works well too. Drying the shirts outdoors in the sun will increase the whitening effect.
  • Urine: Blot with cold water and club soda, then wash as usual.
  • Wax; Harden wax with an ice cube and scrape off as much residue as possible. Using an iron on low, cover and back the stain area with clean soft cloths. Iron over the area to melt wax and allow it to blot into the cloths. Reposition often until the stain is minimized. Treat with a citrus-base cleaner like Goo-Gone then wash in the hottest setting recommended for the fabric.
  • Wine: Apply common table salt to wet red wine stains until it is absorbed, then clear away with a brush. Spot cleaning on any residual stains with dilute bleach can be carefully done on white table linens.

Read Fabric Labels

Always read the laundering label for the item in question before treatment. Certain household products can ruin fabrics. Chlorine bleach is harmful to silk and wool. Nail polish remover will melt acetates and synthetics. Hot water will set protein stains. Chlorine bleach can be used as a spot treatment on white cottons and linens but will leave a yellow residue on polyester. A bleach-soaked Q-tip is a great tool for pinpointing the smallest areas and has allowed me to restore favorite pieces to "like new" status.

Stain removal doesn't have to be rocket science, but it does require thought and patience. Once the correct solvents are used, it's important to remember the following:

  • Treat a stain as soon as possible.
  • When home, read the fabric label and remove the stain.
  • .Hang the items to dry until sure that the stain has been fully removed.
  • . When taking a soiled garment to the cleaners, be prepared to describe the cause of the stain.

Relax, live life, get dirty. With prompt and proper stain treatment, your clothes will stay fresh looking, and your investment in your wardrobe will be a worthwhile one.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Catherine Tally

    Comments

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      • cat on a soapbox profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Tally 

        5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi ElleBee,

        Thanks for stopping by to read and comment! I'm glad that the dryer tip was helpful:)

      • cat on a soapbox profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Tally 

        7 years ago from Los Angeles

        I'm glad this hub was useful. Thanks!

      • gajanis786 profile image

        gajanis786 

        7 years ago

        Great tips indeed.....useful and handy.Thanks.

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