When it comes to clothing stain removal, there are so many nuances depending on the type of stain and the type of fabric. Below I have compiled the most common stains as well as associated stain removal techniques in an effort to demystify the art of pre-treating laundry.
General Clothing Stain Removal Tips
Act Quickly and Start with Water
- When it comes to stain removal, time is on your side – it is in your best interest to address the stain immediately if possible.
- In most cases it’s a good idea to dab the stain with water (ideally using a sponge or terry cloth towel to remove most (if not all!) of the stain right away) immediately after the stain occurs.
Be Mindful of Fabric Care Instructions
- Stain removal treatment largely depends on the fabric – for instance, you wouldn’t want to haphazardly blot untreated leather or suede with water or other fabric cleaning products.
Dry Clean Only
- If the care instructions of your stained item state “dry clean only,” be sure to point out the location of the stain when you drop the item off (and don’t delay – drop that item off ASAP!).
The Long Soak
- When all else fails, it’s time to try the long soak. Mix warm/hot water with a powdered stain removal product (like OxiClean or Borax), soak your stained item(s) for between 1 hour to overnight, then launder regularly.
Clothing Stain Removal Guide
Sweat (e.g. armpit stains)
- DO NOT BLEACH – it might seem intuitive to bleach a stained, white garment but in the case of sweat stains it will actually make matters worse. Don’t waste your time!
- Mix a powdered enzyme cleaner like OxiClean with warm water then soak your garment in the mixture for 1 hour (and up to overnight for severe stains). Rinse and launder regularly.
- Don’t have OxiClean on hand? You can also try soaking your garment in 1 part distilled white vinegar and 1 part water for 1+ hours (up to overnight) instead.
- Air dry outside in the sun or next to a sunny window if possible.
- Click here for a more details on how to remove sweat stains.
- Immediately soak in cold water.
- Use soap (bar soap, dish soap, or even hand soap – whatever you have on hand!) and lather the stain. Rinse clean under water then launder regularly.
- For lighter fabrics, rinse (or rub if super stubborn) the stain with hydrogen peroxide.
- Rinse out the hydrogen peroxide with cold water and repeat multiple times if necessary.
- You can also try cold water and lathering with dish soap on older stains and darker fabrics.
- Immediately remove the garment and cover the stain with baking soda or corn starch to soak up any excess oil.
- Let that sit for 15-30 minutes then brush off excess baking soda.
- Next, apply dish soap to the dry, stained portion of the garment. Lather in the dish soap and let sit another 5+ minutes (but not long enough to completely dry!).
- Rinse out the dish soap completely with cold water before laundering regularly.
- Air dry your stained garment to ensure the stain has been fully removed before applying any heat!
- Soak the garment in an oxygenated bleach (like OxiClean) for 1 hour up to overnight.
- Remove, rinse, and let the garment air dry completely.
- If the stain is still present, pre-treat the stain with a grease fighting product like Pine Sol or Lestoil (or even WD-40, if it’s something you have on hand).
- Launder as usual then air dry the garment to ensure the stain is fully removed.
- Repeat as necessary.
Grass / Mud
- Use a brush (like this laundry brush) to scrape away as much residue as possible.
- If the grass stains are minor, you can soak in a solution of one part vinegar, two parts water for 15+ minutes prior to laundering.
- If the grass (or mud) stains are pretty bad, pre-treat with an enzyme formula like Zout
- For deep-set mud stains, pre-treat by lathering with dish soap then rinsing completely with cold water.
- Lastly, if the stains persist the garment has been pre-treated and washed, soak in OxiClean for 1+ hours then launder again.
- Immediately flush the stain with cold water.
- Follow up by scrubbing with dish soap.
- Rinse the stain thoroughly again in cold water to remove any soap residue, then launder regularly.
Condiments (e.g. ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, etc.)
- Scrape off or blot any excess liquid from the fabric.
- Apply dish soap and lather into the stain prior to running the stain under cold water. Rinse the dish soap completely from your fabric.
- Sometimes isopropyl alcohol is a great follow-up, simply dab it on the stain repeatedly with a clean cloth to lift more of the stain from your garment.
- Repeat until until the stain clears completely.
- If possible, create a border around the stain with mineral oil or petroleum jelly to prevent the stain from bleeding outwards. Plan to work on stain removal within the confines of this border.
- Dab stain with isopropyl alcohol repeatedly using a clean cloth until the stain is lifted from the fabric.
- Again, soaking overnight in OxiClean works well on very old or stubborn stains.
- Blot the stain repeatedly with isopropyl alcohol using a clean cloth.
- Repeat again and again until the majority of the stain has been lifted from the fabric.
- Use dish soap to scrub the remainder of the stain, rinse soap completely from the fabric in cold water, then launder regularly.
- For oil-free makeup, treat stains with shaving cream. Rub shaving cream into the stain then rinse under cold water. Repeat as necessary and add a drop or two of isopropyl alcohol if it’s a stubborn stain.
- For oil-based makeup, wash with dish soap and water.
- For powdered makeup, blow away as much product as possible (a hair dryer works great for this), then follow up with dish soap and water.
- Be sure to fully rinse any cleaning product (soap, shaving cream, or otherwise) from your garment before laundering regularly.
- Start by blotting the stain with water (seltzer water is ideal). If you can remove the garment, flush the stain under cold running water.
- Follow up with dish soap rubbed into the stain. Completely rinse the soap from the fabric with cold water.
- Scrape off or blot any excess chocolate from the fabric.
- Apply dish soap and lather into the stain prior to running the stain under water.
- Rinse dish soap completely from fabric then if the stain persists soak the fabric in an oxygenated bleach (like OxiClean).
- Rinse and launder fabric regularly.
How to Handle Persistent Stains
If you have a very persistent stain, and you have tried all of the gentler stain removal techniques with little to no success, it’s officially time to try the overnight soak.
Most of the products for this job come in a powdered form that you first need to mix with warm water to dissolve. Any basin will work for this – an empty sink, bathtub, bucket, etc. Make sure it’s large enough to hold the necessary amount of water per stained articles of clothing.
Sometimes with kids (aka endless stains) it’s easiest to batch this process at the end of the week in their bathtub right before bedtime. Drain the tub when they wake you up in the morning, rinse the clothing items completely (no soapy residue!) and PRESS them to remove excess water, never wring your clothing.
See below for my favorite products that help get the job done.
Soaking Stain Removal Products:
- OxiClean – Different from regular bleach, oxygen bleach is a compound of natural soda crystals and hydrogen peroxide and is usually considered to be safe on colors. Other great options include Biz or Clorox Oxi Magic.
- Borax – A boron compound that also does well with long-soaking stain removal (I used this for baby poop stains a LOT during our newborn months).
- Powdered Cascade – For seriously stubborn stains on lighter colored fabrics, Powdered Cascade works shockingly well. Be sure to limit use to white or light colors only (learned this particular tip from Jolie Kerr of the Ask A Clean Person podcast)
- Engleside Restoration – For use on delicate items (e.g. antique fabrics, lace, etc.).
Sensitive Skin Considerations
If you’re removing stains from baby or kid clothes (or anyone with sensitive skin for that matter) using harsher stain-removal products, consider running a second rinse cycle (or a second cycle sans detergent) to thoroughly remove any lingering product from clothing.
Stain Removal On-the-Go
If you tend to be a messy eater (or have kids who are messy eaters…) sometimes it’s helpful to arm yourself with on-the-go stain removal products that are compact enough to fit in your purse, your car’s glove compartment, or your desk drawer at the office.
Eco-Friendly On-the-Go Products:
The most eco-friendly, non-toxic, travel-sized option would be to stock up on small glass spray bottles. Fill and label them (I use an oil-based pen for labeling) with the following natural stain fighters:
- Diluted Dish Soap (for oil-based stains)
- Distilled White Vinegar (for flushing out coffee, wine, or other food stains)
- Isopropyl Alcohol (for ink-based stains)
- Hydrogen Peroxide (for persistent stains)
With those 4 ingredients on hand, you can basically tackle any stain! Fun fact: many of these natural ingredients can double as first aid solutions.
Conventional Travel-Sized Products:
- Grandma’s Secret Spot Remover – Great on oil, ink, and makeup stains
- Mini Tide Pen – Great on tea, coffee, wine, and other food stains
- Shout Wipe & Go – Easily fit one in the smallest of bags or a few in the car to handle kid stains.
- Dryel Pen – Helpful if you’re wearing dry clean only fabrics
Now you are officially armed with the knowledge and tools required to tackle any clothing stain removal project!