About 3 years ago, I decided I was done trying to conform to the pricey, difficult, nerdy “not like those other girls” fashion standards. That is, I was tired of shelling out $30+ for quality “girly” tees with logos or designs on them and about as much for jeans that fit me. My heart yearned for dresses of all kinds: fancy, summery, floral, weird. Now, between thrift shops, ModCloth, eBay, and Etsy, I have accumulated a collection that would have made 3-years-ago-Heina weep with envy.
Despite wearing dresses 90% of the time, I am no delicate flower. I am, as a matter of fact, rather clumsy, including with my food and drink. Yet I’ve only prematurely lost a single dress to a stain (half a glass of red wine on a white bodice — RIP, lovely). What is this sorcery?!
More like chemistry by way of motherly/grandmotherly wisdom and Google.
The Moment You Get the Stain
With any stain, the thing you want to avoid is the stain setting into the fabric. If it’s a wet stain, once it dries, it’s set. Heat of any kind, including from warm or hot water, will also set a stain. Wetting without setting means cold water. If you’re at some kind of event, this will probably mean using a spoon or napkin to apply some of the water from your water glass to your garment before dashing off to the bathroom. If you have access to plain soda, seltzer, or tonic water, all the better. Before you go, grab a handful of salt packets or the salt shaker from the table.
In the bathroom, be sure to avoid rubbing the salt into the stain. Instead, rub the salt between damp fingers to make saltwater and use that to immerse the stain. Once you’ve immersed the stain with the salt solution, pinch the stained part of the fabric and rub the fabric against itself to lift it out, rinsing afterwards with plenty of cold water. Leaving salt to set in the fabric may damage it.
If you don’t have salt or it’s not doing the trick, you can use hand soap. Most hand soaps are mild enough to use on all but the most delicate clothing without damage. As with the salt, don’t rub the soap into the stain; make soapy water with your fingertips and soak the stain before rubbing the stained fabric against itself and then thoroughly rinsing it out.
There may be bits of faded stain left after even the salt/hand soap treatment. That doesn’t mean that your garment is lost.
A note about those on-the-go stain removal products (the most infamous being the Tide pens): I don’t recommend them. They might visibly minimize stains in the moment but, long-term, can set greasy and other tough stains. If your stain is one of the more innocuous kinds, you may be able to safely go for it, but keep the risks in mind.
Right When You Get Home
However tired you might be, you have the time for laundry pre-treatment. As soon as you remove the garment, apply the stain pre-treatment of your choice before you chuck into into the laundry hamper. There are a million pre-treatment products out there. I tend to use the Shout gel with the brush applicator since it’s convenient. If you have color-safe bleach, it can often be used as a pre-treater as well.
If you aren’t completely exhausted from the event, let the pre-treatment set for about ten minutes, then run a load of laundry that includes the stained item. A lot of pre-treatment products recommend that you wash the stained garment in the hottest water the fabric can stand, but I haven’t found that to affect matters one way or another (I wash all my clothes in cold water to extend their life and be more eco-friendly anyway). Adding a cup of color-safe bleach to the load will help to lift out the stain.
After the wash cycle is complete, examine the garment for the stain. If you are sure that the stain is completely gone, you can throw it into the dryer if that’s what you do with it. If you’re not sure if the stain is truly all gone, line dry it to be sure. Any hint of stain on a garment will be set by the heat of a dryer. Line-drying ensures that you can try other stain removal methods after it’s dry (and, like washing clothes in cold water, extends the life of the garment).
One Weird Tip to Remove All the Stains
The Internet is your friend. Specifically, I recommend Jolie Kerr, formerly Ask a Clean Person and now of Squalor, who is a helpful delight of a person. Generally, typing in the type of stain and/or the type of fabric in question can yield rather nifty results.
For example, I have a few lovely vintage polyester dresses that picked up some rather grody stains. Googling yielded the oddest tip: hairspray (or WD-40, if the hairspray didn’t work). The haispray lifted out the stains without a problem. Now, I buy vintage polyester dresses with stains without even the slightest worry, since a blast from the huge can of extra-hold hairspray I bought back in 2007 for $3 will kill any stain in polyester. Who would have guessed?
Update: Via astute commenter Alice Ronald comes the University of Illinois’s rather awesome stain-removal database.