Out, Out, Darn Spot! A Mom's 6-Point Survival Guide to Stain Removal

Boy wearing shirt stained with paint

It's one of those infallible facts of life that the best clothes and worst stains always meet.  And they usually find their magnetic appeal greatest when the clothing in question is on a child who's due to make an important appearance in a public place.

Don't despair -- prepare and repair!  A little foresight and a lot of patience go a long way in stain removal if you remember these 6 basic stain-fighting survival tactics:

1. Keep it simple!

Instead of a cupboard filled with complicated and probably toxic chemical combinations, keep the basics on hand:  Clean, soft cloths. Spray and squirt bottles of various sizes.  Dish soap, dishwasher soap, salt, lemon juice, rubbing alcohol, shaving cream, hairspray, baking soda, and every parent's miracle drug, hydrogen peroxide.

Always treat the stain before laundering, and never put a stained item into a clothes dryer, unless you really, really enjoy stain removal!  Heat causes most stains to deepen their hold on the fabric, and removal is usually much tougher!

2. An ounce of prevention...

This rule sometimes reads: Red dye is the enemy.  Permanent markers are evil. Avoid them. Never give either of those things to children or pets (yes, that wicked mystery stain left behind after Fluffy vomited is residual red dye, completely unnecessary but oh-so-common in animal food.)

If you still need the pound of cure, you can usually remove red dye stains by spraying on a mixture that's one-half hydrogen peroxide and one-half water.  Always use cool water.  Let the spray sink in but do not rub it!  Wait half an hour, then rinse with cool water.  If the stain is not completely gone, repeat the process, rinsing with a 50-50 mixture of vinegar and water.  Repeat a third time, and then rinse again with plain cool water.

If red dye is a staple at your house, you're not alone.  Food manufacturers love it.  If you can't do without it, buy hydrogen peroxide in the mega-bottles, and always keep a spray bottle of the peroxide-water mixture on hand.  It works wonders!

3. Heat hurts

The short and sweet of it:  Heat sets stains, so avoid it.  There are rare occasions where laundering after pre-treating your stain might call for hot water when the stain is oil-based -- asphalt and wax come to mind -- but 99% of the time, keep it cool.

4. Patience is a virtue

Girl holding a red popsicle

Don't panic just because Susie's melting red Popsicle is now dripping from the hem of her white lacy First Communion dress ... or Johnny's got a bright green grass stain on his knee the night before his Little League All-Star photo shoot.  Follow the motto:  Stain-remove in haste, repent at leisure.  It's true. Most stain-removal tactics take at least 30 minutes, most take longer. And that's just the first go-round. Unless you managed to grab a stain literally as it was forming, you'll want to repeat the removal process several times.

To get Susie's dress white again, remove the popsicle from her hand and the dress from her body. Then grab your bottle of hydrogen peroxide and water and go to it as described above.

Johnny's knees will be good as new if you get to the grass stain quickly, treat it by gently applying a paste of dishwasher soap and a little water.  Let it set for at least 30 minutes, then rub very gently.  Let it set overnight, then toss it into the washer and launder in cool water and detergent.  Those grass stains should be history!

5. Don't rub it in!

Attacking the offending spot with a vengeance may make you feel better for the moment, but it really won't help! Plus you'll just contribute to your own madness by spreading the stain around, and in some cases, you could damage the fabric.

Instead, kill the stain with kindness!  Use a gentle touch.  Apply your solution with a soft cloth or paper towel, and blot or sponge to remove most stains.

For most food stains, use a squirt bottle to apply a mixture of liquid dish soap and cool water.  Let it soak in, rinse with a mixture that's one-third vinegar, two-thirds cool water.  Then use the rule of threes, repeating the process three times. Launder as usual in cool water, and make sure the stain is gone before tossing the fabric into the dryer.

6. Always be prepared

Every home is different with different activities that lead to different stain problems.  Some places, it's swamp mud;  other places, it's mustard and ketchup.  What disasters strike most often at your house?  Know the enemy, and keep a cheat sheet to quick stain solutions, targeted to those likely mishaps, taped inside a kitchen cupboard.

What's typical?  Stubborn stains such as ink can often be removed with alcohol.  That's why hairspray and shaving cream are such easy solutions to many stain-removal traumas.  They're alcohol-heavy and usually handy.  

Ice cubes are great for gum and wax, which need to be hardened first, then cracked and scraped off.

Preparation also means anticipation!  Keep a little sprayer bottle of liquid dish soap and water in your car's glove box, along with a clean, dry cloth, to treat those fast-food spills, ice cream drips and grassy slides into home when they happen.

And remember, nothing heals wounds and stains like time does. Clean laundry isn't your life's mission, and no stain is worth a day's anxiety. If a stain proves more stubborn than you are, let it go!  Relax, change the subject and your clothes, and smile on to fight those stains another day!

by Kate Sheridan
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(Related Categories: Stains, Repairing & Restoring)