Woman with coffee stain on blouse

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

Ice cream

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 juice

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

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

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

Barbeque sauce

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

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

Photo credit: James Woodson / Photodisc / Getty images, Fuse / Getty images

Tags: remove stains

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

M. AMIN March 02, 2014 | 3:27 AM

I washed a shirt and dried it without realizing there was stain in it and now i don't know how to get it out or if i can?

Alison January 08, 2014 | 7:54 PM

If you pour boiling water over any fruit stain it will immediately come out! Works every time :)

Vickie July 11, 2013 | 1:05 PM

I have a pair of light green shorts and orange short and a pair of dark navy blue short that have bleach on them from work . Is it possible to get the stains out ? please email me if you think that its possible . Thanks .

Noel July 24, 2012 | 12:41 PM

I bought theis 60 dollars shorts from hollister and I have tomato, lemon, and greas stains on them and I really want them out what should I do? !!!

denny June 24, 2012 | 9:40 PM

why are you all asking quesitions on here? No one is answering.

mimi June 10, 2012 | 9:12 AM

I have beautiful bras from victoria secret however when I wear the bras the clothing I wear always bleeds onto my bras n make the brs look diry

estelle May 20, 2012 | 12:57 AM

How do I remove a stain made by washing dark colours with a white t shirt. The white t shirt has pink stains on it

gigi May 08, 2012 | 2:22 AM

Same problem as Bobbie,red polo shirt with bleeding of dark spots.

john smith March 11, 2012 | 10:14 AM

I have spilt some white wine on my white cotton suit trousers !! i have had them dry cleaned , but the stains are still there , The dry cleaner say they cant get them out !! is there anything i can do to remove these stains .

rod March 03, 2012 | 12:15 PM

I have fabric adheesive stain on my material and I washed it and it still has not came out how do i get it out?

tyron October 22, 2011 | 7:27 AM

i was ing my white clhothes and i nocticed i had red bleach stains in my polo raph luren shirt can i get it out an how

katie September 17, 2011 | 10:05 AM

I washed a shirt and dried it without realizing there was stain in it and now i don't know how to get it out or if i can?

Dena Elder November 28, 2010 | 2:59 PM

Washed new red outfit with beige clothes and the dye ran onto clothes and now their pink. Please help.

Phyl January 26, 2010 | 2:48 PM

How to remove a coffee/with milk stain from white cotton?

Dawn December 24, 2009 | 8:20 AM

Well the best prevention for the case of the 'muddy socks' is not to let them get muddy to start with. All three of my girls have been raised to know they are not permitted outside in only their socks, they have a choice of pulling them off and going barefoot or putting their shoes on (usually too much effort for them). Solves the problem completely, as it never happens.

Anne Teal September 29, 2009 | 11:15 AM

Two of my dresses were ruined because the sticky part of name tags came off onto the dresses. The sticky stains did not come out after I washed them in the washing machine. What can I do? Anne Teal

Marlena September 09, 2009 | 11:25 AM

My husband has a red polo shirt, that I washed with like colors, only to see that after I had already dried it, it had gotten some dark stains from other clothes that had bleed onto it. I was wondering, is there any hope for this shirt or any others that this could happen to? Thanks.

Eric July 30, 2009 | 5:21 AM

How did you the detergent spots out of shirts from washing?

Betsy September 14, 2008 | 6:07 PM

How do you get tomato stain out of clothes after they have dried?

Colleen August 06, 2008 | 10:30 AM

First suggestion: Try mixing Woolite, powdered dishwasher soap and 1/2 cup warm water. Rub (repeat rubbing in 1 hour) and soak overnight. (NEVER use Stain Stick or Oxyclean with this, chemically the water will turn ugly brown or pinkish.) Second suggestion: Spray the spots with Tilex (mildew spray), but be very careful as the mist could bleach out anything you are wearing. Soak in some Woolite, a smidge of powdered dishwasher soap and soak overnight. It will whiten and brighten. Again, this is only if you did not use stain stick or Oxyclean. This will work, I always manage to get my whites back... and I tend to have lots of spots when I wear white. Experience has made me a master of the spots on white.

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