In order to treat stains and spots as soon as they occur, you have to be prepared. You should always have on hand the cleaning supplies and household products appropriate for treating the stains likely to occur in your home. In addition to the solvents, bleaches, detergents, and chemicals you'll probably need, there are certain items you should have ready for a spot or stain catastrophe. The following are the basic tools used in treating most stains:
- Clean white cotton cloths
- Disposable diapers, white blotting paper or paper towels
- Spoon, blunt knife, or spatula
- Eyedropper, trigger spray bottle, or mister (the kind used for misting houseplants)
- Small brush
- Several colorfast weights
Stain Removal Agents
Check through our stain removal articles for the stains that occur most frequently in your household. Read the treatment to find which of the following stain-removing agents you're most likely to need. Most are available at grocery stores, hardware stores, or pharmacies.
Stain Removal Safety
Stain removal tools can be toxic or flammable. Before handling them, be sure to read these important stain removal tool safety tips.
Substances used as absorbents "soak up" stains, especially grease stains. Materials used as absorbents include baking soda, cornstarch, cornmeal (usually considered the best for lighter colors), white talcum powder, or fuller's earth (best for use on darker colors, available at pharmacies and garden supply stores).
Absorbents are used on light or new stains; they will damage neither fabrics nor other surfaces and they are easy to use. The absorbent material is spread on the stained area and allowed to work. As the grease is soaked up, the absorbent material will cake or become gummy. It should then be shaken or brushed off. The process should be repeated until most of the stain has been removed. Some light stains may be completely removed if the absorbent is left on for 8 hours or more.
Learn about types of bleaches you can use as stain removers in the next section.
This section will outline definitions of bleaches, as well as proper use.
Chlorine. Commonly used to bleach white cotton, linen, and synthetic fabrics, chlorine bleach can also be used as a disinfectant and stain remover. Chlorine bleach is potent and can weaken fibers. If allowed to soak in a bleach solution too long, even cotton and linen will be weakened. Chlorine bleach should not be used on silk, wool, or fabrics exposed to sunlight (curtains, for example). To avoid damaging your fabric, always pretest bleach on a hidden area and rinse all bleached items thoroughly. Caution: Chlorine bleach is poisonous. If it comes in contact with the skin or eyes, it will cause burns and irritation. Read all warnings on the label. Never mix chlorine bleach with other cleaning substances, especially ammonia, as this will release chloramine, a highly toxic substance.
Color Remover. Color removers contain hydrosulfite chemicals and are used both for stain removal and to lighten the color of fabrics before they are redyed a lighter color. They are safe for colorfast fibers, but they fade or remove many dyes. Always pretest color removers on an inconspicuous corner of the article you are treating. If the product causes a distinct color change rather than fading, rinse with water immediately and you may be able to restore the original color. However, if the colors fade when the color remover is applied, the original color cannot be restored. Color remover should not be used or stored in metal containers. Rit Color Remover (Phoenix Brands) is a good product and can be found in drug, grocery, and variety stores. Caution: Color removers are poisonous. Avoid prolonged contact with skin. Observe all precautions on the label.
Hydrogen Peroxide. The 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide sold in drugstores as a mild antiseptic is a good bleach, safe for most surfaces and all fibers (though dyed fabrics should be pretested for colorfastness). Be careful not to purchase the stronger solution sold for bleaching hair. Peroxide should be stored in a cool, dark place. Buy small quantities; it loses strength if stored for a long time. Do not use or store peroxide in metal containers. If you pour out too much peroxide, do not pour the excess back in the bottle as peroxide is easily contaminated.
Sodium Perborate. You can purchase sodium perborate under trade names (such as Oxiclean) or generically at drugstores. Sold in crystal form, sodium perborate is safe for all fabrics and surfaces, although, once again, pretesting is recommended to assure that your fabric is colorfast. This oxygen-type bleach is slower-acting than hydrogen peroxide. When using this bleach, be sure to rinse treated articles thoroughly.
Learn about other stain removal chemicals in the next section.
Stain Removing Chemicals
The chemicals in this section can help you get rid of those nasty household and laundry stains when properly used.
Acetic Acid. A 10% solution of acetic acid can be purchased generically at pharmacies. (White vinegar is 5% acetic acid and can be used as a substitute for the stronger solution.) It is a clear fluid that can be used to remove stains on silk and wool. It must be diluted with 2 parts water for use on cotton and linen (a pretest is recommended). It should not be used on acetate. If acetic acid causes a color change, sponge the affected area with ammonia.
Acetone. Acetone can be purchased generically at pharmacies and hobby shops. A colorless liquid that smells like peppermint, it can be used on stains caused by substances such as fingernail polish or household cement. Although it will not damage either natural fibers or most synthetics, it should be pretested to make sure that dyed fabrics will not be harmed. It should not be used on fabrics containing acetate. Use only pure acetone on stains; although most nail polish removers contain acetone, the other ingredients included in these products can worsen stains. Caution: Acetone is flammable and evaporates rapidly, producing toxic fumes. When using acetone, work outside or in a well-ventilated place. Avoid inhaling fumes. Store in a tightly capped container in a cool place.
Alcohol. Common isopropyl alcohol (70%), which can be purchased generically at drugstores, is sufficient for most stain-removal jobs that call for alcohol, although the stronger denatured alcohol (90%) can also be used. Be sure you don't buy alcohol with added color or fragrance. Alcohol will fade some dyes; pretest before using it. Alcohol will damage acetate, tri acetate, modacrylic, and acrylic fibers. If you must use it on fibers in the acetate family, dilute the alcohol with two parts water. Caution: Alcohol is poisonous and flammable. Observe all label precautions.
Ammonia. For stain removal, purchase plain household ammonia without added color or fragrance. It is sold at grocery stores. Because ammonia affects some dyes, always pretest on a hidden corner of the stained article. To restore color changed by ammonia, rinse the affected area with water and apply a few drops of white vinegar. Rinse with clear water again. Ammonia damages silk and wool; if you must use it on these fibers, dilute it with an equal amount of water and use as sparingly as possible. Caution: Ammonia is poisonous. Avoid inhaling its fumes. It will cause burns or irritation if it comes in contact with the skin or eyes. Observe all label precautions. Never mix ammonia with chlorine bleach, as this will release chloramine, a highly toxic substance.
Amyl Acetate. Buy chemically pure amyl acetate (banana oil) for use in stain removal. It is sometimes available at drugstores or may perhaps be ordered from them. It is safe for use on fibers that could be damaged by acetone, but it should not be allowed to come in contact with plastics or furniture finishes. Caution: Amyl acetate is poisonous and flammable. Avoid contact with the skin and inhaling the vapors.
Coconut Oil. Coconut oil is sold in drug and health food stores. It is used in the preparation of a dry spotter, which is used to remove many kinds of stains. If you cannot obtain coconut oil, you may substitute mineral oil which is almost as effective.
Glycerine. Glycerine is sold generically in pharmacies. It is used in the preparation of the wet spotter, which is used to remove many kinds of stains.
Oxalic Acid. Effective in treating ink and rust stains, oxalic acid crystals may be found in pharmacies or special-ordered from them. Before using the crystals, you must dissolve them in water (1 tablespoon crystals to 1 cup warm water). You may also be able to purchase liquid oxalic acid at hardware stores, where it is sometimes sold as wood bleach. Pretest the solution on a hidden corner before using it on the stain. Moisten the stained area with the solution. Allow to dry, then reapply, keeping the area moist until the stain is removed. Be sure all traces of the solution are rinsed out. Caution: Oxalic acid is poisonous. Avoid all contact with the skin and eyes and wear rubber gloves and other protective clothing when working with it.
Sodium Thiosulfate. Sometimes available in crystal form at drugstores and photo supply houses, sodium thiosulfate is also known as photographic "hypo" or fixer. Although considered safe for all fibers and harmless to dyes, it should be tested on an inconspicuous area of fabric before use. Handle carefully, as sodium thiosulfate can cause irritation to the eyes, skin, lungs and digestive tract.
Turpentine. Turpentine is commonly found in paint and hardware stores and in art supply houses. Most often used as a thinner for oil-base paints, it is effective on paint and grease stains, but it must be used carefully. Caution: Turpentine is flammable and poisonous. Observe all label precautions.
Vinegar. Only white vinegar should be used for stain removal. Cider and wine vinegar have color that can leave a stain. Vinegar can be purchased at grocery stores and pharmacies. It contains a 5% acetic acid solution and should be diluted if you must use it on cotton or linen. Vinegar is safe for all other colorfast fibers, but can change the color of some dyes, so always test its effects on an inconspicuous area first. If a dye changes color, rinse the affected area with water and add a few drops of ammonia. Rinse thoroughly with water again.
Learn about dry-cleaning solvents in the next section.
Dry-cleaning solvents are chemicals, often derived from petroleum or benzene, used to remove dirt and stains from clothing. These are powerful chemicals, and some have been removed from the market due to their effects on humans and the environment.
Others, such as tetrachloroethylene (or perchloroethylene, also known as PERC) are now used mostly by commercial dry-cleaners or in automotive or hobby-related cleaners. Some products that contained these solvents have been retired or reformulated.
If you purchase a dry-cleaning solvent (or you have an old bottle on hand) you should use and store it carefully. Their fumes are toxic and should not be inhaled. Not all spot removers/dry-cleaning solvents can be used on all surfaces, nor will all products remove all stains, so be sure to read the labels before using.
Among the products that are still on the market or have been reformulated are K2r Spot-Lifter (American Home Foods), Afta Cleaning Fluid and Afta Spot Remover Wipes (Guardsman Products).
Learn how to remove stains from carpet in the next section.
Shampoos and Stain Removers for Carpets
Foam carpet shampoo products are available from a number of manufacturers. To use a foam carpet shampoo, simply spray it on, rub or sponge it in if instructions require it, then vacuum when dry. Follow the manufacturer's directions and always pretest in an inconspicuous corner to be certain the fiber is colorfast. You may have to shampoo the entire carpet if removing the spot leaves a brighter patch.
To remove small spots, apply a carpet stain-removing product such as Spot Shot Instant Carpet Stain Remover (WD-40 Company), Stain-X Carpet Stain Remover (AMI - Stain-X) or Up & Out (Carrol Company). Up & Out is not for use on wool carpets.
Specialty Stain Products
For almost everything that can get stained, there is a product made specifically for that job. In most cases, a substitute will work as well, but a few products listed below are exceptional for removing specific stains.
Leather and Vinyl Conditioners. Tannery Vintage Leather Cleaner & Conditioner (CRC Industries, Inc.) can remove many stains from leather and vinyl, while conditioning the surface at the same time. It is easy to use and in many cases restores the luster and suppleness on poorly maintained leathers. Be sure to read the label carefully. Fiebing's Saddle Soap (Fiebing Company, Inc.) is another good leather and vinyl cleaner/conditioner.
Mildew Removers. X-14 Instant Mildew Stain Remover (WD-40 Company) is a very good mildew remover for most surfaces. It is not recommended for fabrics. It kills the mildew spores on contact and prevents restaining. Be sure to read the label carefully.
Rust Removers. Bar Keepers Friend Cleanser & Polish (SerVaas Laboratories, Inc.) is an abrasive that works very well on rust stains. It is safe for most fabrics, though be sure to read the label. It will also remove tarnish, coffee and tea stains, fruit and vegetable stains, and smoke. Pumie Scouring Stick (U.S. Pumice Company) and Whink Rust Stain Remover (Whink Products Company) also are effective.
Suede Cleaners. A suede stone is a product for rubbing marks from suede. Usually, rubbing is all that is needed to remove grime, dirt, and oil stains; however, it can be dampened for tougher stains. It will also remove some types of marks from wallpaper, much like an eraser. Be sure to read label directions and restrictions carefully.
Tile and Grout Cleaners. For removing stains from grout without chipping, use a commercial tile & grout cleaner, baking soda, or powdered cleanser. For mildew stains, apply X-14 Instant Mildew Stain Remover to the grout and ceramic tile to kill all mildew.
Simply washing your clothes doesn't always remove stains and can even make them worse. These washing agent definitions will help you understand what's the best treatment for your stain.
Detergents. When stain-removal directions call for mild detergent, choose a white dishwashing liquid detergent; the dyes in nonwhite detergents may worsen your stain. If instructions call for a pretreating paste made of detergent and water, use a powdered detergent that does not contain bleach. If the stain-removal directions specify that you should apply a liquid laundry detergent directly to the spot or stain, be sure to read label directions carefully. Some products cannot safely be used in this manner. Other detergent products (those used in automatic dishwashers or for heavy household cleaning, and certain laundry products) may contain alkalies that could set stains such as ammonia, soap, and oven cleaner.
Enzyme Presoaks. Most effective on protein stains (meat juices, eggs, blood, and the like), enzyme presoaks may harm silk and wool. Make sure you've exhausted every alternative before you use enzyme presoaks on these two fabrics. Use as soon as possible after mixing in solution; enzyme presoak solutions become inactive in storage. Don't mix them with bleach, as this will inactivate the enzymes. Some detergents also contain enzymes and can be used as a presoak; check the label for ingredients and usage instructions.
Powdered Cleansers. Scouring powders and baking soda can be used to remove stains on surfaces that won't be harmed by abrasives. However, you should be aware that prolonged or overly vigorous scrubbing with these products can scratch the most durable surface. Make sure you rinse away all of the powder when the job is completed.
Pretreaters. Pretreaters are used on spots and stains that might not respond to normal laundering procedures. They start the cleaning process before the stained item is put in the washer. Pretreaters must be used in conjunction with the rest of the laundering process; do not try to use them alone as though they were spot removers. After applying a pretreater, do not allow the fabric to dry before washing. Follow label directions. Some good brands are Shout Liquid Laundry Stain Remover (S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc.) and Spray 'n Wash (Reckitt Benckiser, Inc.).
Soaps. Do not use bath soaps with added moisturizers, fragrance, dyes, or deodorant to treat spots and stains. Purchase either laundry soap or pure white soap.
Stain and spot removal should be done using the correct stain removers and techniques. This will help you ensure that stains around your home, office, and garage are removed safely and successfully.
©Publications International, Ltd.
Stain Removal Tool Safety
Because many stain-removal products are flammable or toxic, certain safety tips should be kept in mind when storing and using them.
- Store stain-removing products carefully, out of the reach of children. The storage area should be cool, dry, and apart from food storage areas. Keep bottles tightly capped, boxes closed.
- Do not transfer cleaning products to new containers. Keep them in their original containers so that you never have to search for directions for their proper use and so that they are always clearly labeled.
- Follow the directions on the product label and heed all warnings.
- Glass or unchipped porcelain containers are preferable to metal or plastic when working with stain-removal agents. Never use plastic with solvents. Never use any container that is rusty. Clean all containers thoroughly after use.
- Protect your hands with rubber gloves and don't touch your eyes or skin while handling stain-removal chemicals. If you do accidentally touch your eyes, or spill chemicals on your skin, flush immediately with clear water.
- Remember that the fumes of solvents are toxic; work in a well-ventilated area.
- Do not use chemicals near an open flame or electrical outlet. Do not smoke while using chemicals.
- Do not use a solvent as a laundry additive.
- When using a solvent on a washable fabric, be sure to rinse all traces of the solvent out of the fabric.
- Don't experiment with mixtures of stain-removal agents. Never combine products unless specifically directed to do so. Such combinations can be dangerous.
- If the cleaning process requires the use of more than one stain-removal agent, rinse each out before applying the next.