10 Worst Food Stains and How to Remove Them

By: Sara Elliott  | 
Let him enjoy his sweet treat; the clothes can be saved later.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Key Takeaways

  • Some of the toughest food stains to remove include coffee, tea, gum, peanut butter, mustard, berry juice, tomato-based sauces, baby food, red wine, chocolate, cooking grease and butter.
  • For coffee or tea stains, rinsing in hot water or treating with dishwashing liquid can be effective. Meanwhile freezing and scraping is a method for gum removal. You may need specific cleaning agents like borax for tougher stains.
  • Quick action and appropriate treatment methods help minimize damage and improve the chances of completely removing the stain.

Food is essential to life -- and a lot of fun to eat, too. That's what makes it so tragic when good food goes bad. By bad we don't mean inedible. We mean the type of bad that happens when the foods you love -- and trust -- run amok all over your precious clothing. It's amazing how a little Alfredo sauce can breathe life into a forkful of tortellini -- or completely destroy a silk blouse.

We'd like to say there are measures you can take to keep your belongings absolutely stain free, but short of swaddling everything you own in plastic -- or eating naked -- the safest way to protect your belongings from food stains is to develop a few effective strategies for dealing with food flubs and meal mishaps whenever and wherever they happen.


Since time is usually of the essence when removing food stains, having access to a stain remover pen is a good idea. One of these wizards of wash day is the size of a yellow highlighter, which makes it easy to store in a handbag, glove compartment or desk drawer. Stain remover pens won't get out every kind of stain, but they are a good first line of defense. To become a food stain removal expert, you need to recognize that different stains need different treatments. In the next pages, we'll take a look at 10 of the worst food stains around and explore some of the most effective ways to banish them.

10: Coffee or Tea

Accidentally spilling a little coffee or tea on a shirt doesn't seem like a big deal. The stains don't look that nasty at first, not like ketchup or mustard. Once they set, though, coffee and tea stains can be pesky and persistent. Just when you think you've eradicated them, their faint yellowish outlines will reemerge, defying your best attempts to lose them forever. Before you stop drinking coffee altogether (is that even possible?), let's look at some measures you can take to salvage your wardrobe and make your favorite indulgence -- a steaming morning brew -- less of a risky proposition:

  • Rinse fresh coffee stains in hot water. If you catch a stain quickly enough, this is a fast and effective way to get coffee or tea out of most heat-tolerant, color-fast fabrics.
  • If the stain is older, soak it in dishwashing liquid or treat it with a commercial spot remover.
  • If the stain is old and set, try using borax. Borax is an oxidizing agent that can sometimes break the links that holds old stains on fabric. Mix 2 tablespoons of borax into a cup of water and pour it on the stain. Leave it in place for 10 minutes and then rinse. Wash the garment as you would normally.


9: Gum

No worries if she sits in her gum later.

Gum stains may not be as difficult to remove as you think. Yes, they're gooey and can be kind of disgusting, especially if that wad of gum didn't originate with you. Ick factor aside, though, these tips will help get gum out of textiles:

  • Freeze the spot. If you're dealing with fabric, throw it in the freezer. If the gum spot is on your carpet, apply a few ice cubes to the spot, or use one of those cold pack products designed for portable coolers. The gum should harden in around 15 minutes using either method.
  • Scrape. After it hardens, scrape off as much gum as possible. You can use a butter knife or any dull implement with a decent scraping edge.
  • Soak. Once most of the gum is gone, rub the spot gently with white vinegar to liquefy the residue. Blot up the remainder.
  • Wash. After the gum is gone, clean the fabric or carpet as you would normally.


8: Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is gooey goodness with jelly on white bread, but less appealing when a brown smear ends up decorating your coat sleeve. Damage control consists of scraping the solid peanut goo off the fabric first. If the stain isn't too extensive, try scrubbing it gently with dishwashing liquid and then rinsing it in hot water (as hot as the fabric will tolerate). When dealing with large or set in peanut butter stains, use dry cleaning solvent or a commercial spot remover. Test an inconspicuous section of the material first, and follow the manufacturer's directions.


7: Mustard

With some quick action, he can wear the tie again and again.

Mustard makes a wetter stain than you might think, so it's important to blot it up quickly to keep it from spreading. Once you've blotted up most of the liquid, scrape up any lingering solid bits. Mustard acts as a dye on fabric, so it's particularly tough to get out. Your best bet is to pretreat the stain with a commercial spot cleaner, and then soak the garment in color safe bleach and cool water. If that doesn't work, try treating it with dry cleaning solvent.


6: Berry Juice

Blueberries may taste great in a breakfast muffin, but those bright purplish stains are murder on light fabrics. The same goes for grape juice and cranberry juice. If you don't want to go through life looking like a fruit salad, treat berry stains with equal parts dishwashing liquid and white vinegar. Rub the mixture on, and leave it in place for 15 minutes or so. Rinse it off with warm water, and launder the garment as you would normally. You can repeat the process as needed. If you're working with a white tablecloth, fabric bleach is a good option, too.


5: Tomato-based Sauces

It will take some elbow grease, but the ketchup will clean up.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Here's the best tip for dealing with tomato based stains: Never use hot water to treat them. If your first efforts don't get the spot out, don't place a stained, wet garment in your dryer, either. Heat sets tomato stains permanently. Sauces with a tomato base like marinara sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, pizza sauce and salsa can all be treated the same way. Try these steps:

  • Soak the stain in cold water to which you've added 2 tablespoons of white vinegar and a tablespoon of dishwashing liquid. Soak time is important, so let the mixture work for at least half an hour. Rub the spot to help release any lingering discoloration. Rinse.
  • If the stain is still there but lighter, repeat the process above. As long as you haven't applied heat, you still have a good chance of getting the stain out with continued effort.
  • If the stain is very noticeable, treat it with a commercial stain remover. There are a number on the market. Follow the manufacturer's directions for presoaking.

When all else fails, you can get more aggressive by using dry cleaning solution. You can also try the DIY approach with WD-40, a spray lubricant you may have in your garage. Test an inconspicuous section of the material first. If you do try WD-40, make sure to remove any oily residue in cold, soapy water after application.


4: Baby Food

Young children have very effective throwing arms, especially when they're flipping food everywhere. It's really amazing how far pureed carrot can travel. Now that you've washed it out of your hair, you can begin removing it from the kitchen curtains. Of course, baby food comes in a number of varieties, but we can offer some basic suggestions on how to remove it from soft surfaces:

  • Scrape off as much of the stain as possible. You'll have better luck getting the stain out if you catch it before it dries, too.
  • Pretreat fabric with spot stain remover according to the manufacturer's directions. If the stain has dried in place, this may require soaking it for a number of hours. After soaking, wash fabric as you would normally, but don't put it in the dryer. The heat may set any stain residue permanently. Let the fabric air dry. Repeat the process as needed.
  • If the stain just won't go away, try rubbing it with an alcohol-based cleaner. Sometimes even alcohol-based hand sanitizer will work.


3: Red Wine

Cry because you spilled the wine, not because you ruined your tablecloth.

When a little spilled wine threatens to ruin a special evening, it's important to think about containment. Keep the stain from spreading and doing any more damage. Both baking soda and salt are great at soaking up wet stains like wine. Apply either to the stain -- right now. Place a paper towel behind the stain to help absorb any excess liquid. If it's a large stain, place salt on the paper before layering the fabric on top and adding another layer of salt. Let the sodium do its work for 10 minutes, and then rinse it off with club soda. Another option is to rinse the stain with equal parts dishwashing liquid and white vinegar after the salt application.

Red wine dyes fabric fibers on contact, which makes it challenging to get out. For the best results, treat a stain immediately. Better yet, have stain remover standing by before you uncork the bottle -- just in case. We kid you not. Wine is romantic, but crying all over your ruined satin teddy definitely isn't.


2: Chocolate

We love chocolate, but it's much better in a brownie than on a silk collar. In fact, chocolate stains react a lot like tomato-based stains in that heat can set them permanently. As long as you haven't washed that chocolate smudge in hot water, one of these tips should get it out:

  • To keep the chocolate from saturating fabric fibers, turn the garment inside out and work from the back. That way you'll be pushing the chocolate away from the fabric not into it. Place the fabric stain side down on multiple layers of paper towels.
  • Combine a teaspoon of dishwashing liquid, a half-teaspoon of ammonia and a cup of cool water.
  • Blot the stain with the ammonia mixture using a soft, lint-free cloth. Don't rub. The goal here is to transfer the chocolate to the paper, not mash it into the fabric.
  • If blotting the stain with ammonia doesn't work, treat it with a 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution. Just pour the hydrogen peroxide on and let it sit for a couple of minutes. After application, rinse the area thoroughly. Note: Hydrogen peroxide can remove dye from some dark fabrics, so test the fabric beforehand.


1: Cooking Grease or Butter

Don't avoid greasy food because you're worried about your clothes.

Cooking grease and butter are toughies. Once they take up residence in fabric, they never want to leave. That doesn't necessarily mean your new T is down for the count, though. Grease stains respond to a number of substances that are gentle on most fabrics. The idea here is to break up the grease and hold it suspended in a water solution until it can be dispatched down the drain. That's actually what dishwashing detergent is designed to do, and spot cleaning grease stains with dishwashing liquid is a great first step. We recommended it in suggestion No. 8 for getting out peanut butter because it works a lot better than you'd expect. Apply the detergent with a sponge or cloth and rub. Then rinse. When you're dealing with a thick, sturdy fabric, you can even scrub the spot with a soft brush like an old toothbrush.

If dishwashing liquid doesn't get the spot out completely, try rubbing it with an alcohol solution. Some spot cleaners use alcohol as a base, so they're a good bet; just check the product's ingredient list to make sure alcohol is a key player before buying one. You can also try using hand sanitizer (which is mostly alcohol), or grab some rubbing alcohol from your medicine cabinet.

If the stain still won't come out, there is a DIY treatment you might want to consider: wood soap. Wood cleaning solution designed for kitchen cabinets is good at lifting grease from just about anything, including fabric. You know the drill: Test an inconspicuous portion of the fabric for colorfastness first. Soak the spot in wood cleaner for 10 minutes, and wash the garment as you would normally. It may take a couple of treatments to get rid of the spot completely.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can natural remedies be effective for removing tough food stains?
Many natural remedies, such as vinegar for berry stains or baking soda for grease, can be surprisingly effective for removing tough food stains when used properly.
How can I prevent food stains from setting in fabric?
Act quickly to treat stains, using cold water to rinse and prevent setting. Avoid using heat until you remove the stain fully to prevent permanent damage.

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