Anybody who tells you that they can get any stain out of any clothing is very likely trying to sell you something, and that something just plain won’t work. If the stain has been given a chance to set or has been baked in by being run through a dryer, there really isn’t much anybody can do. With most stains, the main issue is going to be what you do in that first minute after the stain vector meets the stain host, i.e., ketchup meets white dress shirt. Every fabric is different, as is every potential stain-causing substance. If you are prepared, the chance of a major permanent stain is reduced immensely.

The first step is to prevent further staining by removing excess ketchup from the shirt with a napkin. The second step is to remove yourself to the bathroom where you are going to get that spot under cold water immediately. Rinse it as well as you can, using water pressure to blow the ketchup out of the fabric from the back. Next, take out your pretreatment product and apply as directed on the bottle. Now rest easy that you’ve done everything you can for now—and maybe you should bring a bib next time. There are a variety of stains out there, though, as we’ll see. Ketchup is one thing, liquids and solids are all problematic if you’re a messy eater. What follows is best practices for getting stains out of clothes.

Best Ways to Get Stains Out of Clothes

Always be prepared.

This suggestion doesn’t do you a lot of good if you are looking for answers for a stain which has already happened. For next time, though, having a stain kit in your laundry room could save you a lot of hassle. Some things which you should already have include laundry detergents and bleach. A solvent like rubbing alcohol is nice to have as well as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, enzymatic cleaners, Goo Gone, and the homemade pretreatment spray discussed below. Commercially available pretreatments are a good idea for those not up to mixing household chemicals.

Beverage stains are very commonplace.

I am almost always drinking some kind of beverage: coffee in the morning, soda during the day, beer in the evening. I have literally spilled all of them on myself at one point or another. In beverages like coffee, beer, soda, and tea it’s the caramel coloring and tannins which are going to stain your shirt. In the case of wine, it’s the fruit juice coloring from the grapes and some tannins as well. Rinse excess beverage from your shirt with cold water and spray or dab on a pretreatment. Wash with a strong detergent, and if the stain doesn’t come out, try bleaching your whites or pre-soaking the stained area in detergent before washing again.

Bodily liquid stains are gross and can be complicated.

By bodily liquids I am referring to anything excreted by our bodies which might stain fabric. This includes blood, vomit, mucus, urine, feces, bile, etc. If you’re Patrick Bateman, you would bring your bloodstained clothes to the dry cleaners—but we aren’t all as bold as he. The main thing with protein-based stains like this is to avoid heating them up and denaturing the proteins, which could permanently set them into the fabric. Rinse in cold water, unless it is Dry Clean Only. If you have enzymatic cleaners, pre-treat with that. If not, you can try using hydrogen peroxide. Wash in cold water with an enzymatic detergent and air dry.

Paints and ink stains are very nearly permanent.

Long the bane of engineers and twentieth-century nerds, the curse of exploding pens laid waste to a whole generation of shirt pockets, thus necessitating the invention of the infamous pocket protector and the pocket protector industry. Like so many once-important items, the invention of microchips and the Internet have made such things all but obsolete. However, pens do still explode from time to time, and if you have been a victim of such an event, you need to know that there are things we can do to fight the stain. Soaking the stain in rubbing alcohol or another solvent like hairspray can help dilute the ink enough to make it rinsable. Wash with a heavy-duty detergent in hot water.

Grease and oil stains on clothes require a solvent.

First thing’s first: Remove the excess grease so it doesn’t spread further. This is where the baking soda comes in – sprinkle it on the grease or oil spot to try to soak it up. Next use a pretreatment which has a grease-cutting solvent, or soak the grease with rubbing alcohol to dilute the grease. Wash the garment in a strong detergent with warm water. If the stain is still visible, this is another circumstance where a dry cleaner might have a chemical which will remove the grease stain better than we can at home. If the stained clothing is important to you, then it might be time to call in the professionals. Maybe don’t wear nice clothes when you are working on your car next time?

Best Stain Pretreatments

If you are the type who cares about spots on their clothes and you are also notoriously clumsy with food, carrying around a stain pretreatment with you might not be a bad idea. They come in handy-dandy pen form which is easy enough to carry in your purse or pocket. You can find these stain pens from Amazon, like these Tide To Go pens. These pretreatments work just like most laundry soaps do: they dissolve a stain with a solvent, emulsify a stain with surfactant (soap), oxidize a stain with bleach, or eat away a stain with enzymes. Check to make sure your pretreatment is appropriate for the color of the clothing you are treating. Rinse off excess stain with cold water, apply pretreatment, and wash. If the stain is still present, repeat process, but avoid drying until the stain has disappeared.

Best Natural Stain Removal

Home stain pretreatment.

There are a bunch of pretreatments available these days, some in spray bottle form and some in the more portable stick form. But if you want to mix equal parts white vinegar, ammonia, laundry detergent, and water and keep it in a spray bottle in your laundry room, this one can be made at almost no cost.

Seventh Generation.

This is a very popular brand of environmentally friendly soaps, cleaners, and detergents. Seventh Generation is safe for people with allergies, and it is also biodegradable and safe for septic systems. What’s more, it is affordable, works well, and is widely available. You can purchase Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent from Amazon.

Go goth.

I have found that the best way to avoid embarrassing and noticeable stains is to wear black all the time, without exception. Though I would hardly qualify as a goth, as I tend to look more like a portly priest, I can admire someone who is always prepared for a funeral.

Professional Stain Remover

Dry cleaners are still around for a reason: for some fabrics and materials, dry cleaning is the only way to get them clean without damaging their fragile structure. Though the chemicals a dry cleaner uses are pretty strong, there is no physical washing, so you avoid the pummeling a garment receives in a washing machine. Because they are in the business, a high-quality dry cleaner will have some tricks up their sleeve for stain removal. But they can’t work miracles. If you get a stain, bring the garment in as soon as you can, and make the cleaners aware of the situation—especially if you have tried pre-treating the stain.

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