Common Clothing Stains and How To Remove Them



That’s the sound of BBQ sauce landing on your brand new blazer coat as you’re chowing down on some mouthwatering ribs.

Dadgummit. You need to wear that jacket to a business presentation at the end of the week. What to do?

From sliding into first base to finding a leaky pen in your pocket, everybody stains their clothing from time to time. But stains aren’t just common annoyances; if you can’t get them out, they can cut short the life of otherwise perfectly nice (and sometimes expensive) duds.

The key to preventing yourself from throwing money out the window along with your stained clothes is to learn how to tackle stains as soon as possible and in the right way. Today we’re going to show you how to treat and remove common stains so you can get as much mileage out of your wardrobe as possible.

Key Steps to Prevent Setting

The most important thing, no matter what kind of stain you’re dealing with, is to prevent it from setting. “Setting” is an informal term that refers to the staining material forming a chemical bond with the fabric. At that point it is effectively permanent. Removing the discoloration will require removing the discolored fabric itself. Sometimes you can remove a set stain by scrubbing until the stained fibers are worn off, leaving unstained ones visible; other times the stain will remain in the fabric unless you physically cut the stained fabric out and put a patch in its place. To prevent having to throw away a garment with a permanent stain, follow these general guidelines:

  • Treat any stain immediately with water, or with the proper solvent if it is available (different types of solvents are discussed below, but water is always better than nothing).
  • Avoid direct heat. Heat will speed most types of stains’ bonding. Do not place stained clothing near radiant heat sources, and try to only use room temperature or lukewarm solvents.
  • Avoid pressure. Apply solvents gently, dabbing them onto the stain and letting them soak in rather than scrubbing forcefully.

If the stain occurs at home, you can go straight to treating it. If you’re out and about, get to a restroom and gently dab water onto the stained area with tissue paper or paper towels until the stain is thoroughly saturated. Yes, it may be more visible with water dabbed on it, but it will prevent the stain from becoming permanent, saving you garment repair or replacement in the long run.

Detailed Stain Removal

Acting at once to prevent the stain from setting is necessary, but not sufficient. Most common stains won’t be removed completely just by dabbing some water on them and going about your business.

There are three basic steps toward effective stain removal, regardless of the nature of the stain:

  1. Select the appropriate solvent.
  2. Use the appropriate application method.
  3. Seek necessary after-care.

For most household stains this doesn’t require too much research or investment. Common commercial products (and even some basic food supplies) will treat a large percentage of stains. It’s simply a matter of knowing which product to put on the stain, and how to put it there without damaging the cloth.

Selecting the Appropriate Solvent

Picking the right solvent requires you to know two things: 1) what will dissolve the stain in question, 2) and what is safe to use on the cloth you’re working with.

What Each Fabric Requires

Use the wrong product and you can end up damaging your cloth worse than the original stain. Most clothes are made from fairly sturdy materials, but they all have their strengths and weaknesses.

Always check the label. It’s your best guide in most cases. If it doesn’t provide any specific instructions, go by fabric type:

Cotton: can endure soaking, drying, and heat (though you want to avoid the latter for most stains — warm water is fine, but dry heat just sets the stain). It’s easy to bleach white cotton, but very hard on the fabric, so use chlorine bleaches as a last resort, and dilute them well. The best stain treatments for cotton are detergents and light acids (lemon juice, vinegar, etc.).

Wool: is much more heat-sensitive than cotton, and needs to be treated gently. You can soak it, but you have to lay it flat as it dries to prevent distortion. Use only wool-safe detergents and lukewarm (not hot) water — bleaches and acidic treatments will damage the wool permanently. Treat with water or a wool detergent as soon as possible, and then get the garment to the dry cleaner at the first opportunity.

Synthetics: vary depending on the material. Rayon and polyester can be washed and scrubbed more harshly than cotton, but will be destroyed by oxidizing bleaches like hydrogen peroxide. It’s usually best to clean them with a standard laundry detergent, or with dish soap for grease-heavy stains.

Silk: is exceedingly temperamental. You can treat stains on silk with water, but rather than letting the wet spot dry on its own, rinse the whole garment thoroughly — otherwise you’ll get water spotting, nearly as bad as the original stain. Glycerin stain remover is also effective and neutral.

No matter what you’re using, test the stain remover on an inside patch of the cloth or an unobtrusive seam before applying it to the stain to make sure it doesn’t do anything damaging to the fabric. Water is the only thing you can automatically apply — and even then make sure it’s the right temperature.

Types of Solvents (And the Stains They Remove)

Here are the major families of stain removers and solvents, and the kinds of stains they’re most effective at cleaning:

Water: Universal, safe to use on basically everything, and cheap. Effective as an immediate treatment to prevent stain setting. Needs prolonged soaking to have much effect on grease/oil stains, but reduces the effect of dyes (lipstick, hair dye, bleed from other clothes, etc.) considerably. Usually not a 100% effective treatment all on its own.

Salt: Cheap and almost everyone has it. Can be applied on top of a wetted stain to give the chemicals something to leech into. Effective on sweat/deodorant armpit stains, red wine, and blood stains.

Vinegar/Lemon Juice: Mild acids are great against coffee and tea, grass stains, and sticky residues like tape and glue. Vinegar is also effective against mildew — perfect for laundry that sat wet too long. Remember, though, don’t use on wool.

Detergent: Laundry and dish detergents are similar enough to use interchangeably in most situations. Dish detergent is usually harsher, and may make very delicate fabrics worse if you don’t wash it out thoroughly. Both are particularly effective against grease stains, so use them on everything from gravy and burger juice to chocolate smears.

Oxidizing Bleaches: Hydrogen peroxide is the most common example here. They’re effective at removing color, making them ideal for makeup stains, grass stains, and other pigment-based damage. They’re less effective against grease, and can damage delicate fabrics. Dilute as needed for a milder treatment.

Glycerin: A neutral, commercially available treatment that helps to draw stains out of fabrics. Good on ink and dye stains. Many commercial “stain sticks” are glycerin, or a combination of glycerin and detergent.

Mineral Spirits: An intense treatment for very stubborn greases (asphalt/tar stains, etc.). Too strong for delicate fabrics. Wash the clothing thoroughly after treatment and air-dry.

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