Stain removal guide: from A to Z

Written by    Last updated: August 28, 2007

Getting stains on your favourite garments or fabrics is a part of living. No need to panic, just follow our complete guide to stain removal…

Stain removal guide

Seven golden rules of stain removal

  1. Act quickly: as soon as possible, scrape off any solids with a blunt knife and blot liquids with absorbent kitchen paper. (Sponge off protein stains, such as milk or blood, with cold water, but never sponge oil‐based stains such as curry or mayonnaise with water because this may set the stain.)
  2. Avoid hot water: for most stains, don’t spot‐clean with hot or even warm water until the stain has been assessed.
  3. Don’t over‐saturate: small, repeated applications tend to work better than over‐wetting the stain with remover.
  4. Test first: do read stain removal instructions on any solvent carefully and then test it on a hidden area (such as the inside hem) first to check the fabric for colourfastness.
  5. Dry clean: don’t attempt to treat ‘dry‐clean only’ fabrics and valuable garments yourself, take it to a reputable drycleaner as soon as possible.
  6. Dab, don’t rub: rigorous rubbing can spread the stain and damage the fabric or pile; instead, work with a dabbing action, moving from the outside towards the centre. Always use white paper or cloth instead of coloured ones, to avoid colour running onto the stained fabric.
  7. Underside: where it’s possible, place absorbent kitchen paper over the stain and work on the underside of the fabric.

Essentials for your stain kit

Keep these to hand, and you’ll be ready to deal with most stains:

Kitchen paper
Washing‐up liquid
Glycerine
White vinegar
Gentle silk and wool detergent
Talcum powder
Biological washing powder (for stained cottons)
Sticky tape

A to Z of stain removal

(warning: for valuable fabrics, consult a specialist drycleaner and always test for colourfastness before applying any stain remedies)

Beer: for fresh stains, rinse in warm water then wash as normal. For dried stains, dab with white vinegar, rinse, then soak and wash in biological washing powder.

Blood: for fresh stains, soak in very salty cold water for 6‐12 hours (changing the water frequently), rinse, and then wash in cool water. Where the stain has dried on, using cool water, soak in biological washing powder overnight and wash as normal.

Candle wax: firstly, scrape off any excess, then place blotting paper or absorbent kitchen paper above and below the stain, and iron it with a hot iron to absorb the melted wax. Blot with methylated spirit to remove any remaining colour.

Chewing gum
:  harden the gum by rubbing with an ice cube wrapped in plastic film or put the gummed‐up article in a plastic bag in the freezer, then pick off the cracked gum with a blunt knife or fingernails. Treat the stain with methylated or white spirit. Wash as normal. Take care on woollens and loose fabrics. If traces remain on fabric after removing, use a little lightly beaten egg white on washable fabrics or a solvent dry cleaning fluid, spray or paste. Follow the maker’s instructions and test beforehand on an area that doesn’t show. Works on carpets and shoes, too.

Chocolate: gently scrape off any excess with a blunt knife, then soak in cold water and wash in biological washing powder.

Coffee: for fresh stains, rinse in warm water, then soak and wash in rich, soapy suds. For dried‐on stains, dab the stain with methylated spirit, then soak and wash in rich, soapy suds.

Dye: saturate with lemon juice, leave for 2 hours, and then wash as normal.

Egg: mop up excess with kitchen paper and work a little neat washing liquid into the stain. Soak in cold water mixed with biological washing powder and wash on a warm setting.

Fruit juice: for fresh stains, rinse quickly in cold water, then soak and wash in biological washing powder. For dried stains, soften the stain by working a little neat washing up liquid into it with your finger. Leave for 1 hour, then soak and wash in biological washing powder.

Grass: any heavy stains can be dabbed with methylated spirit, then rinse in warm water and wash as normal.

Grease: for fresh stains, press talcum powder on to the greasy mark, leave for a few hours; scrape away any surplus, then brush. For dried stains, scrape off any excess, and then use your finger and a little washing up liquid to work at the stain. Soak in warm water and wash with biological wash powder. Alternatively, place absorbent kitchen paper on both the top of the mark and below it, then iron the paper on a cool setting, this will lift out the grease and you can then wash the item as usual.

Ice cream: immediately wipe off any excess, then soak in warm biological washing powder and wash as normal.

Ink (felt tip or ballpoint): dab repeatedly with methylated spirit, then gently rub in neat washing up liquid, rinse and wash as normal. If the stain remains, try squeezing lemon juice over it, then cover it with salt. Leave for one hour, rinse and wash.

Ink (fountain pen): soak in cold milk for 24 hours, and then wash as normal. If the stain remains, try squeezing lemon juice over it, then cover it with salt. Leave for one hour, rinse and wash.

Lily pollen: don’t wet or rub the mark; instead, gently pat the area with some sticky tape or vacuum up the pollen using the crevice nozzle.

Lipstick: remove any excess with your fingernail, work in neat washing up liquid to loosen the stain, and wash as normal.

Mildew: soak and wash in biological detergent containing oxygen bleach.

Milk
: for fresh stains, rinse well in cold water, then wash on warm with biological washing powder. For dried stains, soak well in biological detergent for a few hours, before washing as normal.

Nail varnish: blot up any excess, dab with non‐oily nail varnish remover, and then apply methylated spirit to remove any traces of colour.

Newsprint: dab with methylated spirit, and then wash well.

Oil: scrape off any excess and work neat washing up liquid into the stain with your finger. Soak in warm water, and then wash with biological washing powder.

Paint (emulsion): for fresh stains, soak in cold water. For dried stains, dab with methylated spirit and wash as normal.

Paint (gloss): for fresh stains, dab with white spirit, rinse, then wash. For dried stains, moisten with neat washing up liquid, then sponge with white vinegar. Rinse, then wash as normal.

Pencil: work neat washing up liquid into the mark with your finger. Rinse, then wash as normal.

Perfume: for fresh stains, rinse in warm water and wash as normal. For dried stains, soften with neat washing up liquid, working it in with your fingers. Rinse well, then wash as normal.

Perspiration: sponge the stain with white vinegar, rinse, then soak in a biological washing powder before washing, or dissolve a couple of aspirins in water and soak before washing. For dried on stains, soften with glycerine. Pour on a small amount and rub fabric to fabric for about five minutes before washing.

Rust: dip half a lemon in salt. Rub this over the fabric and leave for about an hour, then rinse and wash as normal.

Scorch marks: soak immediately in cold milk, although it must be noted that bad marks cannot be remedied. For light scorch light marks in linen, rub with a slice of lemon and leave in the sun, but do test the area for colourfastness in an area where it will not show.

Scorch marks on carpets: on a wool carpet, rub the burn immediately with a slice of potato. Burnt edges can be cut out carefully or brushed out with coarse glass paper.

Shoe polish
: scrape off any excess polish with a blunt knife. Dab with white spirit or methylated spirit, rinse and wash as normal.

Spirits
: rinse in cold water, although stubborn stains may need to be sponged with methylated spirit. Wash as normal.

Sticky labels: remove any remains by rubbing with white spirit.

Sticky plasters
: remove the traces with lemon juice.

Tar
: soften the stain with neat washing up liquid, working it in with your finger. Leave for one hour, rinse, then wash in soapy water.

Tea: rinse in warm water or soak in biological detergent before washing.

Urine: rinse in cold water, then soak in biological detergent before washing.

Vomit: rinse under a cold water tap, soak in warm water using biological washing powder and a little disinfectant, then wash as normal.

Wine (red): if the fabric is washable, quickly pour sparkling mineral water over the spill, and then blot with kitchen paper to absorb the stain, then shake a large quantity of salt over the stain. Rinse with cold water, then sponge with diluted washing up liquid. Rinse again, then wash as normal.

Wine (white)
: for fresh stains, rinse in warm water, then wash. For dried stains, moisten by working in neat washing up liquid with your finger. Soak and wash in biological washing powder.

Top Tips

  • Always check that detergent will not harm your fabric. If in doubt, just blot the stain with kitchen paper and take it to a drycleaner.
  • Never use spirits or solvents on man made fibres or rain‐proofed fabrics.
  • To test if a the colour will run, just press a piece of wet cotton wool onto the fabric, leave it for a few minutes and check to see if the colour has run onto it.
  • Leave newly washed whites hanging out in the sun as long as possible. The sunlight acts as a bleaching agent.
  • When washing a small stain, twist the unstained cloth and put an elastic band around to stop the stain from spreading.
  • Hot water sets most stains, so always treat them before they go in the washing machine.
  • When using a solvent stain remover, always work from the outside of the stain into the centre.  Don’t rub, just dab.
  • When using drycleaners on fabrics, put the stained area down on a clean paper towel; move the stained area so that it is always on a clean paper.

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