Stain Removal Tips

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March Mending Month
A few years ago, I wrote a stain removal article for our sibling publication, MAKE magazine, and I thought I’d re-post it here with some updated tricks in the spirit of Mending Month!

Both absent-minded and a klutz, I have had my fair share of debilitating stains over the years, and have had to cultivate every stain tip I could get my hands on, even trying tricks from old, dusty, out-of-print books. Growing up, my dad always had the answers, often passed down from my grandmother, but calling home every time I spilled started to get ridiculous. The internet has made all this hugely easier, so now every time I run into something new, I go online and see which tips make the most sense to me. I still remember the awe of watching blackberry juice vanish as if it had never been under a stream of boiling water, or nervously dousing a splotch of olive oil with talcum powder on my favorite shirt and having it come clean in the wash the next day. Removing stains doesn’t have to be hard; usually it’s just a question of knowing the right chemistry.

Different types of stains are more soluble in different temperatures: hot water, for example, dissolves sugars more easily, while it will set many proteins, like blood. If water alone will not dissolve the stain, detergents may be able to attract the oil or grease from the fabric and suspend it in water so that it can be removed. Enzyme detergents will break up long chain molecules, and are more successful at getting rid of protein stains like grass. At the very worst, you may have to try a solvent.
Of course, this may all become an obsolete problem as more and more stain-proof fabrics come on the market. (“Mommy, what were stains?”) So far, there are still issues with breathability and flexibility, but nano-fibers and other high-tech solutions may solve that problem. While in the past, stain- and water-proof fabrics were made with a coating, now the fibers themselves are coated, so that the material can breathe, but the fibers are protected. While once the domain of sportswear, such high-tech fabrics are starting to appear in more fashionable clothing as well. I had to stick my arm under the faucet before I’d believe that a spring coat I bought was truly water resistant.
A few general hints: Greasy stains should be soaked up with an absorbent powder first (talcum powder, baking soda, or cornstarch) and then laundered with dishwashing detergent — it’s formulated to get rid of oil! If you’re worried about using bleach, lemon juice, white vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide are much milder bleaches. Try to scrape off as much of the stain as possible before washing, and wash from the back so the stain is forced off the fabric.
And remember: Always test for colorfastness if you’re worried about damaging a garment. Test out the cleaner on a spot that isn’t easily noticed, and make sure to read the cleaning label instructions. Many things that say “dry clean only” will do fine if they’re hand washed in cold water, but not everything can take that, so sometimes a knowledgeable dry cleaner is your best ally. For the rest of the time, it’s just a matter of knowing what to do. After all, there’s still something wonderful about wearing white linen in summer, or a wool sweater in winter, so as the rest of the world goes high-tech, stains will probably be around for quite a while. The following are a few of my favorite tricks, old and new:
Berries/jam/honey: Boiling water, especially when poured from a distance. This sounds like madness, but it is absolutely miraculous. Makes berry picking fun again.
Grease/oil/butter: Talcum powder or unscented baby powder applied thickly, left overnight. Brush off powder in morning (I use a toothbrush to clear off the caked powder on the stain); if there is still a mark, reapply powder, if not, launder. Alternatively, a paste made from baking soda or cornstarch and water works well, as does ironing a paper towel or bag on the stain. The paper towels soak up the grease.
Red wine: In a pinch (ie you’re stuck at dinner for a few hours and won’t have a chance to deal with the stain for a few days), pour white wine onto the red wine! This is best used when you really have no other options as it doesn’t always work. If you don’t have white wine, soda water will do. After, pour salt onto the stain to absorb the liquid.
But the best thing I’ve found was passed onto me by my father-in-law, a textile engineer who is also fond of his glass of red. If you can remove the garment within a few hours, just soak it in very cold water for a bit and then scrub with regular soap. The stain will turn blue and then slowly fade away…
Coffee/tea: Borax mixture 3-to-1 (for carpets, use a non-gel shaving cream and scrub with a toothbrush). Glycerin also works magic.
Baby-related stains: You know what I mean: babies make a mess! Whether it’s food that didn’t make it in the mouth or coming out of the digestive tract, treat these as you would any protein stain. Scrape off as quickly as possible (without mashing further into the diaper or T-shirt), and soak in cold water. White vinegar, lemon and sunshine are all your friends here, and Borax and Oxi Clean take things to the next level for particularly disastrous explosions.
Gum/Wax/Tar: Rub with ice and scrape off once hardened. With wax, if any excess remains, iron a paper bag over it, which will absorb the wax. Glycerin, eucalyptus oil, or turpentine work well on tar as well.
Blood: Cold water and soap — not hot! Hot water will set the stain. For old stains, try an enzyme detergent or dish soap.
Avocado/tomato: Use dish soap or an enzyme detergent and a mild bleach (lemon, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide). Let sit in the sun if possible.
Beets: Lay white bread soaked in water on stain. Then launder with an enzyme detergent.
Rust: Mild bleach (lemon juice), then salt. Put in sun and then wash.
Lipstick: Use bar soap.
Perfume: Use enzyme detergent or dish washing liquid.
White out/crayon: Use WD-40 and rinse, or try acetone. Dishwashing liquid and hot water help, too.
Ink: Use rubbing alcohol, turpentine, or acetone. Soak in milk or rub with toothpaste.
And here’s a list of stain removal links that I’ve found particularly helpful. You can usually get rid of almost any stain if you try hard enough, and if not, check out the other Mending Month posts for ideas on how to cover them up!

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