If you need to get rid of stains, you either have children or, like me, you are as clumsy as an unfinished. The problem with learning how to get rid of stains is the amount of variables in any given mess; the type of fabric (wool, cotton, polyester, or a combination), the kind of stain or stains present, the age of the stain (and how it has been treated since soiled) all factor into the equation. Don’t despair. Getting rid of stains is possible if you act quickly and have the right gear and a little knowledge. That knowledge always begins with the fabric tag. If the tag or “care label” (sometimes well hidden) instructs to wash the fabric in cold, you should not use hot water to get rid of the stain—this will probably set the stain permanently into the fabric.

Some care labels for items like silk, suede, leather, and other exotic fabrics will say “dry clean only.” To get rid of stains on such garments, you’ll need to bring it in to a skilled dry cleaner, and make sure not to just drop your soiled goods off—inform them about the what kind of stain you are dealing with. Time is of the essence; beyond 48 hours is too late—the stain will have already set. Don’t trust the “do-it-yourself” dry cleaning bags thrown in the dryer for this. Beyond dry cleaning, most fabrics are treatable in a similar fashion as long as you know what kind of stain you are dealing with. Below you will find categories of the most common stains. Unless the care label states otherwise, you can get rid of the stains in each category following a few simple steps.

Types of Stains

The Stain Removal Order of Operations

  1. Get rid of the excess with paper towels, cotton rags, or a sponge. Use a dull blade or scraper for solids.
  2. Check the care label. If it says “Dry Clean Only,” follow the instructions.
  3. Avoid using hot water on protein stains.
  4. Test stain removal products on inside seam for adverse reaction.
  5. Avoid the dryer or iron until stain is gone; heat sets most stains.
  6. Wash your tragedies separately.

Best Ways to Get Rid of Stains

To get rid of stains, which are time sensitive, you’ll need to have the basics on hand.

First, you’ll need laundry detergent, which can range from heavy duty to gentle, light products for hand-wash items. Next, you’ll need bleach. Chlorine bleach gets the job done, but it is more caustic than detergents with color-safe bleach or oxygen bleach, which are still strong enough to get rid of stains. Lastly, you’ll want at least one pretreatment stain removal product. I have a stain stick (Spray ‘n Wash), and it works most of the time. With stains, you don’t always win. If you also want one, you can get Resolve Stain Sticks with Spray ‘n Wash from Amazon.

Protein Stains: blood, feces, urine, semen, vomit, milk, ice cream, cream, eggs, pudding, gelatin, and baby food.

To get rid of stains from protein, first dab the stain with a dry sponge or cotton cloth to absorb the excess fluid. Next, soak the stain in cold water, agitating the fabric between your fingers, and then wash with a detergent that contains enzymes (most do, and it will say so on the back of the container). To get rid of protein stains that are old or stubborn, remove excess with a dull blade and pre-treat with a stain removal product or detergent that contains enzymes. Again, wash with a detergent that contains enzymes. Cold water is important when getting rid of protein stains—using hot water or the dryer before the protein is worked out will set the stain permanently.

Tannin Stains: wine, beer, booze, coffee, tea, soft drinks, fruit juices, and tomato juice.

As a slave to caffeine, I know these stains well. To get rid of stains caused by tannins, carefully blot up any extra liquid. Next, wash with a detergent in hot water, or water as warm as the fabric will allow. If this doesn’t work, pre-treat with a stain remover and rewash. To get rid of stains that have already set, you’ll undoubtedly need to break out the bleach (for whites) or heavy-duty detergent. Under no circumstances should soap (not synonymous with detergent) be used to get rid of tannin stains, as they will be made permanent.

Oil-based Stains: motor oil, diesel fuel, gasoline, cosmetic products, hand lotion, fat, lard, salad dressing, mayonnaise, butter, and margarine.

To get rid of stains that are oil based, first carefully blot up excess (some use talcum or baking soda to absorb excess) and use a stain pretreatment product. Shout and Spray ‘n Wash, solvent-based stain removal products, both have worked great for me in the past. After pretreatment, wash with a mean detergent in hot water (if the garment allows). Repeat if necessary. Now you can have gasoline fights without ruining your dress shirts. Some stain removal experts suggest one more step before pre-treating: using a dry-cleaning solvent on the back of the stain. I leave those chemicals to the professionals.

Dye Stains: pen ink, India ink, jam, blueberries, cherries, Kool-Aid, mustard, and grass.

First of all, it is very difficult to get rid of dye stains, but if you act quickly, it can be done. If you get to pen ink stains fast enough, agitate the stain with rubbing alcohol, rinse, and repeat. Hair spray, which contains alcohol, has worked for me in the past. For other stains, you’ll first need to pre-treat and soak. You can pre-treat with a serious detergent or a pretreatment stain removal product, such as Shout or Spray ‘n Wash. Next, wash with detergent and bleach (or color-safe bleach) in hot water or as warm as the garment will allow.

How to Get Rid of Blend Stains

Getting rid of stains is difficult when more than one of the above categories is present in one spot. A Goodwill shopper and style atheist, I throw out items with combination stains. If you like to have nice things, or you went rolling around in your great-grandfather’s vintage WWI uniform (full regalia), you’ll need to get rid of the stain. Most blend stains are a mixture of oil-based stains and some kind of pigment (usually dye). You need to first follow the steps to get rid of the oily, waxy part to proceed to the dye or pigment. This usually means scraping/dabbing up excess fluid or gunk, pre-treating, and then washing in hot water (if care label allows) with bleach or a serious detergent with color-safe bleach. Luckily, technology is on our side. Many detergents and pretreatment products are designed to get rid of stains that are complicated and disgusting. Trust your laundry technology. There are a lot of do-it-yourself household gimmicks for stain removal on the Internet. They want you to use recycled owl genitalia, white vinegar, and children’s tears to get rid of tar stains. If you have nothing to lose, go ahead, but your hero grandpa wouldn’t like it.

Products for Getting Rid of Stains

Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens.

Reading this book will turn you into a true domestic force of nature, capable of untold laundering. There is a great section in this book about how to get rid of stains, as well as a detailed stain removal chart. Stains being time sensitive, it is a great idea to have such a book on hand. Many people keep stain charts in their laundry rooms for easy reference.

Seventh Generation Free and Clear Laundry Detergent

This is a great green alternative that is commonly found in any large, chain grocery or department store. It will be in the same aisle as the other detergents, but on the opposite side or down the line, as if “green” products were less effective or just for snooty hippies. The truth is this green product works great and is more than capable of getting rid of stains. You can purchase Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent from Amazon.

Motsenbocker’s Lift Off.

In the main article, I addressed the four main categories of stains. Each category consists of stains with a similar chemical makeup and pH level. Motsenbocker’s Lift Off is a stain removal product formulated with this in mind; it comes in eight different varieties (though you’d only need 1-3 for household use), and each is specifically designed to get rid of certain stains. Lift Off #1 is engineered to get rid of food stains, protein stains, tannin stains, and some dye stains. With Lift Off #2, you can get rid of stains from adhesives, oils, and greases. The next in the series will get rid of marker and ink stains.

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