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Stain removal smarts: How to get stains out of your clothes

Kelli Uhrich oversees the Home, Living, Pets and Holidays coverage on SheKnows.com. She is an Arizona native with the classic "small town girl moves to the big city" story, and has lived in the Phoenix-metro area since 2003. Professio...

Stain removal smarts

Barbeque sauce on that new white t-shirt, ice cream dripped down the front of your sundress, and grass stains all over his jeans... what to do? Don't consign your clothes to the rag pile before you try these simple tips to get the spots, spatters and splotches out of the fabric!

For all of your clothes

  • The earlier you catch a stain, the better. If you're out and about (and the item isn't dry-clean only), pre-treat the affected area with something like Spray-n-Wash's Stain Stick, Shout Wipes or a Tide Pen. (If none of these are available, you can at least wet the stain to keep it from setting as completely. An ice cube from your drink is the perfect way to wet the spot.) Then wash the item as soon as you get home.
  • After washing an item with a stain, check your wet laundry before drying it to make sure the stain is gone (the heat from the drying process will often make the stain permanent). If the mark is still visible, pre-treat as before or try another stain treatment process and wash again.

Types of stains

  • Dye stains: Fresh dye stains are the easiest to remove, but very hard to get out once they've set in. If possible, right when the stain happens, run it under cold water and then wash it in the hottest possible setting for the fabric. Dye stains are naturally occurring vegetable dyes found in many plants and acidic foods. If you can't get the stain out yourself, try the dry cleaner. These same cleaning methods should work for coffee, tea and ink stains—which are also dye stains.
  • Protein stains: Organic in nature, protein stains include things like vomit, sweat and blood. Treat them with alkaline stain-removal solutions which will digest the proteins. Enzyme presoak products can break down protein and help dissolve fats. Most detergents contain enzymes and can be used to clean protein stains.
  • Combination stains: Combination stains are stains from things like sauces (barbecue sauce, ketchup, hot sauce), makeup (lipstick, foundation, eyeshadow) and crayons. They are a combination of the other types of stains. First, rinse off any excess from the stain with cold water. Gently rub a detergent into the stain. Rinse out the detergent, apply a stain stick and launder.

Ice cream and other dairy product stains

Dairy stains are protein stains, because they are organic in nature (i.e., from an animal). Fresh stains should be soaked and agitated in cold water before washing. If the stain has dried, scrape or brush off any crusted matter. Soak for up to several hours in cold water with a detergent or an enzyme presoak (which breaks down protein-based stains like egg, grass and blood so your detergent can work more effectively). Launder in warm water.

If the stain remains, soak an additional 30 minutes and rewash. If a colored stain remains, launder with bleach safe for the fabric.

Fruit and fruit juice stains

Fruit stains are a dye stain. Launder with detergent in the hottest water safe for the fabric. Do not use soap (bar, flake or detergents containing natural soap), since soap-based products could make the stain permanent. Soak tough stains for 30 minutes in one quart of warm water and one teaspoon of enzyme presoak product.

Removal of old or set stains may require washing with bleach that is safe for that particular fabric. If all the sugars are not removed, a brown stain will appear when the cloth is heated in the dryer or is ironed as the sugar is caramelized. This effect is great for crème brûlée... not so wonderful for your favorite white blouse.

Grass stains

Grass stains are also a dye stain —a combination of protein and other organic matter mixed with chlorophyll, xanthophylls and carotenoids. For stubborn stains like grass, soak in a solution of cool water and a laundry product containing enzymes, like Shout Advanced Ultra Gel Brush, for at least 30 minutes (and several hours for aged stains). Don't use hot water, as it will coagulate the protein and make the stain more difficult to remove. If stains remain, soak an additional 30 minutes, then rewash. (Follow product instructions, and note that some laundry detergents already contain enzymes.)

After soaking, launder in warm water as usual.

Mud stains

Mud stains are a protein stain. Let mud stains dry. Brush to remove the soil. Soak in a solution of 1 quart warm water, 1 teaspoon liquid dish detergent and 1 tablespoon white vinegar for 15 minutes. Rinse with water. Let stand for several minutes.

If the stain persists, sponge it with rubbing alcohol, then rinse with clear water and wash. You may also soak the stain for 30 minutes in an enzyme presoak, and you can add chlorine bleach to the load of laundry if the label says it's safe for the fabric.

Barbeque sauce stains & other tomato-based sauce stains

Barbecue sauce is a combination stain. Soak in cool water, 1/2 a teaspoon of liquid hand dishwashing detergent and 1 tablespoon vinegar for 30 minutes. Rinse. If stain remains, pre-treat area with a pre-wash stain remover, liquid laundry detergent or a paste of powdered detergent and water. Then wash in warm water. Air dry.

If the stain remains, soak in an enzyme product for anywhere from at least an hour to overnight. Some detergents contain enzymes. Launder in warm water. Do not use hot water or hot air drying or iron the garment until the stain is gone as heat will set it.

Coffee stains

A coffee stain is a dye stain, but the cream or milk in the coffee is a protein. Therefore, you will want to treat the stain as both if you like a little cream in your morning cup of joe. If the stain is fresh, immediately rinse with cold water. If you are at home (or once at home), remove the clothing and add laundry detergent directly to the stain and rub together with cold water. Soak in the water for 30 minutes, rubbing detergent together every 5 to 10 minutes. Next, wash clothing on the hottest setting. Ensure stain is out of clothing prior to placing in the dryer. If stain has not been removed, try repeating the steps.

For older stains, apply white vinegar directly to the stain and mix with cold water. Rub stain with a sponge until removed. You may also use baking soda as an alternative solution, applying with a wet cloth to scrub away the stain.

Removing stains from whites

The key to removing stains from white clothing is to attempt to remove the stain immediately. Scoop up or scrape food items off, while blotting up liquid spills from the outside in. Apply a liquid dishwashing soap directly to the stain and rub gently with a light-colored cloth or your fingernail. Do not use a darker colored cloth or terry towel as this may darken the stain. Soak garment in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes prior to washing.

New and older stains may also be removed with the use of corn starch or baking soda, gently scrubbing the powder into the stain with a cold wet cloth. White vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are also great pre-treatment solutions. With any white clothing, it is recommended that you wash separately and pre-soak in 1/2 cup of bleach and cold water.

Removing stains from darks

Like white clothing, it is important that you attempt to remove a fresh stain immediately. Scoop up any food residue while blotting away liquids. Avoid using bar soaps or terry cloth towels on stain. Soak in 1/2 cup white vinegar and cold water prior to washing the clothing on a regular cycle. If it is a tough or set stain, soak garment directly in 1/4 cup of vinegar and 1/4 cup water for 30 minutes prior to washing. Rinse item out prior to washing on a warm cycle to sterilize clothing.

To remove stains from jeans, apply hydrogen peroxide directly onto stain and allow to soak for 30 minutes prior to washing on a regular cycle. Grass stains can be removed by applying petroleum jelly directly to the stain and spreading with your finger. Wash on regular cycle after five minutes.

Removing stains from delicates

Remove set and new stains on delicates with the use of a salt-and-lemon-juice solution. Gently rub with the use of a non-invasive cloth or finger, and rinse with very hot water. Never rub garment harshly or with a rough cloth. Allow to dry in the sun. If stain has not been removed, attempt to soak item in two parts warm water, one part detergent and one part oxygen bleaching agent. Wash as recommended per garment instructions.

Another method of removing delicate clothing stains is by hand-washing the garment with the use of borax, baking soda and regular detergent. Lightly scrub the item together with its own fabric. Rinse with cool water and air dry to prevent stain from setting in.

More helpful laundry tips

Get that dry-cleaned look at home: Steam your clothes to perfection
Cleaning with vinegar
Master your laundry routine

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