The best stain removers, according to experts

Stains are a frustrating fact of life, and stain removal can be tricky business. In a perfect world there would be a universal stain remover that worked on any kind of stain you could come up with, but the world is an imperfect place and no such miracle product exists.

Sadly, no such product is likely to ever exist, and here’s why: Stains have different chemical makeups, which makes it virtually impossible to formulate a one-size-fits-all solution for eliminating them.

We spoke to experts, and pulled from our own deep well of expertise on the subject of stain removal, to identify the best products for treating common stains, from coffee and salad dressing to blood and vomit.

It can be frustrating to take an item of clothing out of the wash only to see that yesterday’s tomato sauce stain is still there. Unfortunately, regular washing won’t eliminate most stains on its own — instead, stains should be addressed before an item goes into the washing machine.

Generally speaking, says Lindsay Jones, the brand manager for new products at Maytag, “When applying treatment to a stain, work from the outside in to prevent spreading.” And, depending on what’s caused the stain, the approach to stain removal will vary.

Wayne Edelman, president of Meurice Garment Care, a high-end dry cleaning service in New York City that specializes in interior and wardrobe cleaning services, says, “A liquid spill will usually require blotting the area with a clean white towel to remove as much of the liquid as possible.”

  • Liquid stains should be blotted before applying stain treatments to prevent the stain from spreading.
  • To address stains caused by solids, start by removing as much of the solid matter, then apply a treatment product.
  • Powdery stains, like from dirt, ash, flower pollen, etc. should be gently brushed or blown off the surface of the garment before stain treatments are applied.

After applying a stain treatment, launder the garment according to its care instructions. Very delicate items can be washed by hand.

The same type of stain removers used for clothing can be used on upholstered furniture and carpet, but the removal technique will be different. “When a liquid stain is on furniture, the process is lengthier because you cannot effectively break down the stain and rinse it out, as you would for your stained pants,” Edelman says.

As with clothing, blot liquid spills or remove solids from furniture or carpet before treating the stain. A highly absorbent towel is ideal for the job, but paper towels, dish cloths, bath towels, etc. work too. Blot until no more liquid is absorbed, then address any staining or odors.

When a deeper clean is called for, or to address stubborn, set-in stains, a carpet and upholstery cleaner machine is the right tool for the job. “For furniture, I highly recommend a home upholstery machine to assist with this or a small wet vac to remove the material,” says Edelman.

What are protein stains? Well, protein stains are among the most common ones you’ll encounter in life. They include body soils of all kinds, both human and animal: Blood, sweat, drool, urine, fecal matter and sexual fluids.

Protein stains can be tricky — in large part because they tend to be gross! — but there is a trick to eliminating them: Use an enzymatic stain treatment product to break them down and remove protein stains from fabric.

Grass, mud, dirt and clay are also protein stains, and should be treated with an enzymatic stain treatment product.

OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover for Household and Laundry

When it comes to removing protein stains like sweat from white clothing, Jones says, “You may be tempted to bleach out sweat stains, but chlorine bleach can actually make sweat stains worse by making them appear darker.” Jones recommends using an oxygenated bleach, like OxiClean, instead, “which has a different chemical structure that removes protein stains easily.”

Plant-based tannin stains such as food, coffee, tea and wine can be treated with a variety of products and methods.

When faced with a fresh food or liquid stain, remove solids and/or blot up liquid and then try flushing the garment with cold running water — oftentimes, that alone does the trick. Massaging a small amount of dish soap into a fresh stain and flushing it with cold running water can also help to remove it.

Shout is one of the best all-purpose stain removers, and it is especially effective on food stains like chocolate, tomato, hot sauce and soy sauce.

Wine Away is a great stain remover for those dreaded red wine stains. It also works extraordinarily well on cranberry, pomegranate, blueberry and coffee stains.

The best stain removers for oil and grease stains

Oil and grease stains from butter, salad dressing, pizza grease, bike chains, etc. are especially tricky ones to remove. “Many oil stains do not come out in a regular wash,” Edelman says, “even if pre-treated with spray stain remover.” When washing a garment with a grease stain, it’s best to skip machine drying so that the heat from the dryer doesn’t set a grease stain that hasn’t been fully removed in the wash.

Lestoil is one of the best products for removing oil and grease stains. Dab a small amount directly on the stain prior to laundering as usual.

Pine Sol is a product similar to Lestoil — it is also an excellent choice for treating oil and grease stains (and it can be easier to find in stores).

K2R Spot Remover can be used to remove grease stains from non-launderable items like accessories, furniture or carpet.

Heavily pigmented stains from ink, dye, crayon and makeup are easier to remove than you might think — and some surprising common household items can be used to take them out as they happen.

Rubbing alcohol is excellent at removing dye and ink stains. It also works very well on removing makeup from clothing — if you smear makeup on your shirt collar when you pull it over your head, use a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol to quickly remove the stain.

Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer Refreshing Gel

Hand sanitizer, which has a high concentration of alcohol, will also remove stains — which is helpful to know about since many people have hand sanitizer on them, allowing for stain removal on the fly.

OxiClean’s laundry stain remover is excellent at removing a variety of makeup stains like lipstick, mascara, foundation and concealer from clothes, towels and bed linens.

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