The Ultimate Stain Guide

...and other laundry problems.

How do I remove Stains from my clothes?

men playing ball in very dirty clothes

First you must determine what created the stain. Fortunately we usually know what we have spilled, dripped or dumped on our clothes. If you can read the label of the product that created the stain, it should assist you in narrowing down your cleaning method.

Before any spot removal process you should test the product on a non-visible corner of the garment.

No method is always one hundred percent successful. Success can be thwarted by the length of time the stain has set, the material and dyes that make up the fabric, and the chemicals of the stain itself.

Below is a list of some common stains and their removal tips.


Oil based stains:

  • Automotive oil
  • Hair oil
  • Meat or fat
  • Butter or margarine
  • Face creams
  • Salad dressing
  • Hand lotion
  • Mayonnaise
  • Machine Grease

Always try to treat an oil-based stain as soon as it is noticed. The longer you wait, the longer the oil and stain have to set into the deeper layers and threads of the fabric.

First lay the stain face up on your workspace and sprinkle liberally with baby powder. Let the powder sit on the stain overnight if possible. If you can not leave it sit over night, at least leave it on for several hours. In the morning, shake off the powder, then with your hand brush the fabric to remove the remaining powder. If the stain is still very visible re-apply powder and let set another couple of hours. Again shake off then brush off remaining powder. This will have absorbed the oil from the fabric.

Now place your spot on an absorbent towel or paper towels with the stain facing up. Next apply a grease cutting dishwashing liquid directly to the spot with HOT water. Fingers or an old toothbrush work well on most fabrics to get the suds into the fibers. The suds will lift any remaining oil from the fabric. Blot with a clean sponge, absorbent towel or paper towels until all of the stain is removed.

Then wash as usual. After washing check the stain. If it is still visible repeat scrubbing with the dishwashing detergent. Do not dry in an automatic dryer until the stain is removed to your satisfaction since drying the garment in an automatic dryer will set the stain.


Protein stains:

  • Baby Food
  • Milk or Formula
  • Blood
  • Mucous
  • Cheese Sauce
  • Egg
  • Ice Cream
  • Feces
  • Urine
  • Vomit
  • White glue or paste
  • Mud

Protein stains should simply be soaked and then agitated in COLD water. Hot water will cook the stain into the fabric. After rinsing out the stain you can launder normally, or see our Guide to Hand Washing Clothes for other options.


Ink stains:

First you need to determine what type of ink makes up the stain. There are four common types of inks:

  1. Water based ink - from the markers that are used for transparencies and overhead projectors.
  2. Ballpoint pen ink
  3. Permanent ink - found in many markers, fountain pens, stamp pads and even some ballpoint pens
  4. Dry Erase Marker

To remove Water Based Ink:

Pre-treat with heavy-duty liquid detergent, then rinse thoroughly

Next soak the stained garment in a dilute solution of all-fabric powdered bleach. If the above steps do not remove the stain you can try soaking the garment in a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach and water if the clothing is white or light colored..

Warning - any bleaching damage to colored garments is irreversible. Also, since bleaching can alter the color of the garment, bleach the whole garment and not just a spot. If the stain is not gone in 15 minutes, it cannot be removed by bleaching and further bleaching will only weaken the fabric.

To remove Ballpoint Ink:

First, spray or sponge with dry cleaning solvent like perchloroethylene or trichloroethylene and then rub with heavy-duty liquid laundry detergent. Then rinse thoroughly.

Second, soak the stained garment in a dilute solution of all-fabric powdered bleach. If the these steps do not remove the stain you can try soaking the garment in a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach and water if the clothing is white or light colored.

*See the bleach warning above.

To remove Permanent Ink and Permanent Markers:

It is called permanent ink for a reason - it may be very difficult to remove the whole stain. The procedure below should help to lighten the stain significantly.

First, place the garment on a flat work surface and put the stained section on an old but absorbent towel that is allowed to get stained (or on a thick pad of paper towels). Use a clean white rag dipped in rubbing alcohol and dab at the stain. You should see the stain transfer to the rag. Use another dry cloth to blot up the solution between applications. You may need to re-position the towel underneath to a dry section.

Keep applying the rubbing alcohol and blotting it up several times. Then rinse the spot with clean water and blot that up. Repeat until stain is gone, or at least lighter.

To Remove Dry Erase Marker:

You will actually move the stain from your clothing to an old towel, here's how it is done...

First place an old clean and absorbent towel (that you don't mind staining) directly under the stained fabric to absorb excess moisture and to keep the stain from bleeding to other parts of your clothing item. Then use Murphy's Oil Soap with a small brush, like an old toothbrush. Keep the brush very wet with the soap while rubbing on the stain. Keep moving the towel to put new dry locations underneath the stain - this will absorb the stain and keep the stain from bleeding back through. Continue brushing Murphy's Oil Soap onto the spot until is almost completely gone.

Next take a clean damp sponge made sudsy with Dawn dishwashing liquid and rub the spot with the suds until the rest of the stain is removed. Remember to keep moving the towel around underneath the spot to absorb the liquid.

Once you have the spot removed, rinse the sponge until it runs clear and then keep blotting the spot with the clean sponge (and keep moving that clean towel around underneath) until the soap and all residues are all blotted out. Then wash in the laundry as usual.


Dye stains:

  • Cherry, Blueberry, etc
  • Felt-tip Marker (permanent may not come out)
  • Tempera Paint
  • Mustard
  • Grass
  • Walnut husk
  • Mercurochrome
  • Color bleeding in the wash (dye transfer)

Dye stains are one of the most difficult to remove.

First, soak the stain with a heavy-duty liquid detergent and let set for an hour or more. Then rinse thoroughly. Second soak the stained garment in a dilute solution of all-fabric powdered bleach.

If the above steps do not remove the stain you can try soaking the garment in a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach and water if the clothing is white or light colored.

Warning - bleach damage to colored garments is irreversible. Since bleaching can alter the color of the garment, bleach the whole garment and not just a spot. If the stain is not gone in 15 minutes, then it cannot be removed by bleaching. More bleaching may weaken the fabric.


Wax based stains:

  • Furniture polish
  • Carbon paper
  • Eye make-up
  • Candle wax
  • Crayon
  • Lipstick
  • Shoe polish
  • Floor wax
  • Tar
  • Pine Resin

First, spray or sponge with dry cleaning solvent like perchloroethylene or trichloroethylene, then rub a heavy-duty liquid detergent into the stained fabric area and rinse thoroughly. Second, soak the stained garment in a dilute solution of all-fabric powdered bleach.

If the above steps do not remove the stain you can try soaking the garment in a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach and water if the clothing is white or light colored. See the bleach warning above.


Other common combination stains:

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Ketchup or catsup
  • Chocolate or cocoa
  • Hairpray
  • Calamine lotion
  • Face make-up (powder, rouge, foundation)
  • Gravy
  • Tomato sauce

First, rub a heavy-duty liquid detergent into the stain then rinse thoroughly. Second, soak the stained garment in a dilute solution of all-fabric powdered bleach.

If the above steps do not remove the stain you can try soaking the garment in a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach and water if the clothing is white or light colored. See the bleach warning above.


Not stains, but important to remove - Gum, Pollen, Poison Ivy and Fleas


How to Remove Chewing Gum

First, remove as much excess gum as possible using a tissue or papertowel. Next, put clothing in a plastic bag and freeze for a few hours. After the gum hardens, carefully remove the solid mass with a credit card or dull knife. If the gum gets gooey again, simply repeat the process. Launder as usual. Air dry to be sure the gum did not leave a stain.

How to Remove Pollen:

While outdoors and upwind, vigorously shake the clothing to remove any excess pollen. Then wrap packing tape around your hand with the sticky side out and extract all remaining pollen. Don't use your bare hand or a wet towel to try to remove the pollen, as this will only imbed it deeper into the fabric. Next, soak the garment in cold water, then rinse. Launder as usual. Air dry to be sure the pollen has not left a stain.

How to remove Poison Ivy:

Did your daughter store the pretty plants with the "leaves of three" in her dress pockets? Keep her clothing isolated while you clean her up to prevent the poison ivy oil from spreading to everything else. Then put about two tablespoons of Dawn into a bucket of hot water. Wearing gloves, place all the contaminated clothing into the bucket and let soak for about an hour. Rinse, and repeat if necessary. Launder as usual and air dry in the sunshine.

How to remove Fleas:

Launder the sheets in as hot of water as possible for the fabric, as the hot water will kill the fleas and their eggs. Use the dryer in this case, as the heat will kill anything that happened to live through the washing machine. Yes, every once in a while it is a good to put your clothing in the dryer!


Disclaimer: You are responsible for any suggestions you choose to follow, or not follow. This advice is offered for consideration with no guarantee of safety or effectiveness. Use this information at your own risk.