How to Treat Clothing Stains

To get out tough and messy stains, learn what products and methods to use.

Stain: Adhesive tape, chewing gum
Product: Prewash stain remover
Method: Rub the stained area with ice to harden the gummy residue; gently remove as much as possible with a dull knife. Saturate the stain with prewash stain remover. Rinse thoroughly before laundering.

Stain: Baby formula
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak
Method: Soak the stained item in a solution of enzyme-based presoak and water for 30 minutes to several hours.

Stain: Blood and bodily fluids
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak; chlorine, nonchlorine or oxygen bleach product; hydrogen peroxide (3 percent solution, sold in drugstores for wound care)
Method: Soak fresh stains in cold water for 30 minutes or until the blood is gone. For dried stains, presoak the garment in a solution of enzyme-based presoak and water, then launder. If the stain remains, launder the garment using nonchlorine bleach, chlorine bleach or oxygen bleach, as appropriate for the fabric type. To remove set stains on a colorfast garment, apply hydrogen peroxide to the stained area using an eyedropper. Reapply until the stain is dissolved, then rinse and launder the garment. [Note: as hydrogen peroxide is a bleach, test the garment for color-fastness first.]

Stain: Coffee, tea, soft drinks
Product: Prewash stain remover or liquid detergent; nonchlorine bleach
Method: Use prewash stain remover or liquid detergent; soak garments with fresh stains in cold water before laundering. For set-in stains, apply a prewash stain remover or liquid detergent; allow to stand for 15 minutes before laundering. Wash the garment using nonchlorine bleach where appropriate for the fabric type.

Stain: Candle wax, crayon marks
Product: Paper towels and iron; chlorine or nonchlorine bleach
Method: Apply ice to the stain to harden it, then remove as much wax as possible with a dull knife. Place the stained fabric between two layers of paper towels and iron with a warm iron to remove wax. Repeat with fresh paper towels until the wax is removed. Launder, using chlorine or nonchlorine bleach where appropriate for the fabric type.

Stain: Chocolate
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak
Method: Presoak in an enzyme-based laundry presoak before laundering as usual.

Stain: Dye transfer
Product: Color-remover laundry additive
Method: Use commercial color-remover laundry additives as directed to remove dye transfer stains from light-colored or dye-magnet fabrics, such as light-colored garments and synthetics.

Stain: Eggs
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak
Method: Presoak egg stains in an enzyme-based laundry presoak for 30 minutes to several hours. Launder as usual.

Stain: Fruit or fruit juices
Product: Prewash stain remover or liquid detergent; chlorine or nonchlorine bleach
Method: Soak fresh stains in cold water before laundering. For set-in stains, apply a prewash stain remover or liquid detergent directly to the stained area; allow to stand 15 minutes before laundering. Wash garment using chlorine or non-chlorine bleach where appropriate for fabric type.

Stain: Grass
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak
Method: Presoak grass-stained items in an enzyme-based laundry presoak for 30 minutes to several hours. Launder as usual.

Stain: Grease or oil
Product: Prewash stain remover or liquid detergent
Method: Apply a prewash stain remover or liquid detergent directly to stained area. Allow to sit for 15 minutes, and then launder in the hottest water appropriate for the fabric type.

Stain: Mildew
Product: Chlorine or nonchlorine bleach.
Method: Launder mildewed garments in the hottest water appropriate for the fabric type, using the bleach product safe for that fabric. Mildew stains may be permanent.

Stain: Milk and dairy products
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak
Method: Presoak stained garments in an enzyme-based laundry presoak for 30 minutes to several hours. Launder as usual.

Stain: Mustard
Product: Prewash stain remover
Method: Pretreat mustard stains with a prewash stain remover; launder as usual.

Stain: Perfume
Product: Prewash stain remover or liquid detergent
Method: Apply a prewash stain remover or liquid detergent directly to the stained area. Allow the item sit for 15 minutes, and then wash as usual.

Stain: Rust or iron stains
Product: Commercial iron remover
Method: Treat rust or iron stains with a commercial iron remover, according to package directions. Do not use chlorine bleach to try to remove iron stains, since bleach will set them permanently.

Stain: Sauces (ketchup, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce)
Product: Prewash stain remover or liquid detergent; chlorine or nonchlorine bleach
Method: Apply a prewash stain remover or liquid detergent directly to the stained area; allow to stand 15 minutes before laundering. Wash the garment using chlorine or nonchlorine bleach where appropriate for the fabric type.

Stain: Tobacco
Product: Enzyme-based laundry presoak
Method: Presoak in an enzyme-based laundry presoak before laundering as usual.

Treating Stains on the Run

In a perfect life, spots and stains would occur right there in the laundry area, where the means to treat them was close at hand. In reality, stains love life on the fly: while traveling, eating out or away from home. Try these ideas to deal with stains on the run:

  • Duck them! Simple as it sounds, avoiding stains prevents the need to treat them. Sit down to eat, when possible, instead of juggling drippy burgers behind the wheel (and wearing the ketchup for the rest of the day). Tuck napkins into children's T-shirts to soak up the inevitable restaurant spills.
  • Carry a first-aid kit for stains. Whether it's car travel or just the daily commute, tuck an emergency stain kit into the car. Fold a few paper towels into the bottom of a plastic food storage bag; they'll help you soak up spills and blot fresh stains with cool water. Add a disposable plastic knife for scraping away solid materials. Some prepacked stain-removal towelettes will also come in handy.
  • Be ready for vacation mishaps. Pack a travel-sized bottle of liquid detergent or pre-packed stain-removal towelettes so that you can treat a stain on the spot. In an emergency, try using talcum powder from your washbag to treat an oily stain. Cover the stain with a layer of powder, then leave it for at least half an hour for the powder to absorb the oil. Brush the powder away with a clean, dry washcloth, if there's still some staining, repeat the procedure until the mark has gone.

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