by Zoe Yarborough

July 13, 2020

Zoe is a StyleBlueprint staff writer, Charlotte native, Washington & Lee graduate and Nashville transplant of eight years. She teaches Pilates, helps manage recording artists and likes to "research" Germantown's food scene.

There are few things worse than the panic that strikes when red wine hits the white couch or carpet. While we have come a long way with cleaners and stain-fighting agents, some are harsh on the environment and on the wallet. Not to worry. We’ve gone through all the common stains and given you at least one method of removal for each using natural products you already have around the house. From eye makeup to grass strains — using tried-and-true products to homemade concoctions — we have a trick to remove every stain. Plus, we threw in some guidelines to keep your garments and carpets safe while you do so.

Candace Mills, owner of Team Clean, has owned a green cleaning business since 2002 and has relied on a lot of experimentation with products and methods to grow her business to three cities — Nashville, Memphis, and New York City — and counting. When you see a stain, “Dab it up using a quick and gentle up/down motion, not swirling it into the couch. Don’t press down. This goes for a carpet, too,” Candace says.

There is no one magic trick, but knowing some stain basics helps. “Stains and spill remover vary by what the heck got spilled,” Candace says. “Cold water and castile soap are my jam. And try to reach for hydrogen peroxide rather than bleach. Bleach is gross.” With that, and with hours of our own stain research and conversations, let’s dive in …

Stain removal tips

Don’t panic! We have some best practices and best products to help you tackle stains on garments and carpets.

STAIN FACTS TO KNOW

  • The sooner you treat the stain, the better. Do. Not. Wait.
  • Drying something stained in the dryer will set the stain. Air-dry until you know the stain is completely gone.
  • Always treat the stain first, then wash as you normally would. If you don’t wait to see if the stain is out, washing the garment or carpet might make it worse.
  • For food, mud, pet mess and other solid items, quickly lift up or scrape off what you can first with a dull knife or spoon (on clothes) or a pancake flipper or spatula (on carpet/furniture) before treating the stain.
  • For any stain on clothing or hand-held items, put a clean towel (one dedicated for this, not your fluffy guest towels) under the stain before you begin.
  • ALWAYS check that your fabric is colorfast. Test a hidden area of the material with the product to be used, wait a few minutes, dab with a paper towel and check that no color came off on the paper towel before applying your product to a visible area.
  • Gear up with a spray bottle, sponge, clean cloth or washcloth, and a small scrub brush or toothbrush.
  • Use gentle dabs or small brushing circles. No intense rubbing or scrubbing!
  • A wet/dry vacuum is handy for stains that can’t be laundered, brought to a sink or easily reached. The suction can remove water and cleaning solutions along with the stain.
  • There is magic in letting things dry in sunlight to help lift stains.
  • Your homemade fighter for almost every stain will be some combo of water, hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar and Dawn dishwashing super (a fabulous degreaser).

RELATED: Dry Cleaning Myths & Insider Tips

COMMON STAIN CULPRITS & HOW TO GET THEM OUT

STAIN CULPRIT: RED WINE

On clothing: Mix equal parts dishwashing soap and hydrogen peroxide and pour over the wine stain. Once it’s soaked in, you should see the stain begin to fade almost immediately. After the mixture has soaked into the stain, launder as normal. Hydrogen peroxide tends to bleach, so keep this to light clothes.

On carpets and couches: Blot out as much as you can with a paper towel, then cover the whole stain with a generous amount of salt. If you don’t have salt handy, use baking soda, sodium percarbonate, or dry soap powder. You can also try blotting with soda water. Still there? Mix a tablespoon of dishwashing soap and a tablespoon of vinegar to two cups of warm water. Using a white cloth only, apply a small pour onto the stain and blot frequently until the stain vanishes.

On a tablecloth: Boil some water, and stretch the stained section over a glass bowl in the sink. Add salt to the stain, then pour boiling water over it from at least a foot above carefully. Turn to hydrogen peroxide if this tactic falls short.

SB TIP: While many taut the effectiveness of pouring white wine on top of red wine, we urge you to steer clear of this method. There are many other handy items to grab first. Wine Away is another product designed to treat red wine that many have found useful.

STAIN CULPRIT: FOOD-BASED GREASE & OIL

On clothes: Once the stain is scraped (and you have removed the garment from your body), rinse with cold water from the back of the stain until the water runs clear. While it’s still moist from the rinse, gently rub with a small amount of dishwashing soap (Like Dawn … and not to be confused with dishwashing detergent, used for other stains) in a circular motion from the center outward. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then rinse out the soap before normal wash.

On carpets and couches: Blot up as much of the grease or oil as you can without spreading the stain further. Cover with an absorbent, such as cornstarch or baking soda, and let it soak in for about 15 minutes. Scrape or vacuum the absorbent and repeat until you can’t see the oil. If this doesn’t work, lightly dab with vodka or dish soap and scrub at it with something soft like a toothbrush and blot it clean with a moist paper towel. Try to use as little water as possible on these furniture stains.

SB TIP: For tough stains, pretreat the area with vinegar or hydrogen peroxide after or in place of the dish soap. Then wash as hot as the garment allows. If you still see the stain, repeat until you don’t.

STAIN CULPRIT: KETCHUP & BBQ SAUCE

On clothing: These tomato- and vinegar-based stains are treated similarly to the above directions for oil, but use a dishwasher detergent in lieu of the dish soap. Rinse the area under cold running water then blot with distilled white vinegar. Before laundering, spray with a laundry pre-treatment or a little diluted laundry detergent.

On carpets and couches: The process is similar, but we are going to dab, not rinse. Either sponge the stain with lemon juice or, if the fabric is light-colored, you can use white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide directly on the stain instead of lemon juice.

STAIN CULPRIT: COFFEE

On clothing: For fresh stains, you might be able to get the whole stain out with cold water. Let it run through the back of the stain until it’s gone. If that doesn’t work, or the stain is older, dab with white vinegar, pour on some baking soda, and scrub gently with a toothbrush. Pretreat and launder normally.

On carpets and couches: Mix a mild dishwashing soap, baking soda, and white vinegar in a spray bottle. Gently use the mixture to clean the stain without rubbing or scrubbing. Pour some water in the spray bottle and spray on top of the area you were just cleaning. Pat dry with paper towels and sprinkle some baking soda on top to absorb the excess water. Let the baking soda sit for a few minutes, then vacuum the treated area. If some of the coffee is still in the carpet, use a mixture of equal parts water and white vinegar to dab, dry, repeat until it’s gone.

Spilt coffee

Don’t cry over spilt coffee! We’re here to help. SB Tip: Snag a stain-resistant rug like this one from Dwell & Good. You can also find Dwell & Good products on SB Shop.

STAIN CULPRIT: FRUIT JUICE

On clothing: Contrary to the bulk of this stain removal advice, don’t get liquid detergent anywhere near a fruit juice stain because it will set it. Instead, use white vinegar to blot the stain, then rinse with cool water. If the stain persists, try an enzyme-based stain removed (unless your fabric is silk or wool) and let it dry for 30 minutes, then rinse. Wash normally.

On carpet and couches: Follow the above instructions, but spray the stain with a bit of warm water, trying to keep the water used to the absolute minimum needed to cover the stain.

STAIN CULPRIT: GRASS & MUD

On clothing: Once you’ve scraped off what is dry, soak the stained item in cold water and normal laundry detergent before you launder. If you need something more powerful, saturate the stain in 1:1 water and vinegar and let sit for five minutes. Pretreat with enzymatic stain removal before laundering regularly.

On carpet and couches: Vacuum the stain using the suction tool. Don’t run the upright vacuum over the stain, or it will extend the stain to more of your carpet! Dampen a paper towel or white cloth with cold water and gently blot the grass stain without rubbing or scrubbing. Once you aren’t lifting any more grass stain out of the carpet, get a clean towel, and blot the stain with a mix of mild dish soap with lukewarm water. If that doesn’t work, move on to rubbing alcohol or white vinegar.

STAIN CULPRIT: BLOOD

On clothing: Soak in cold water. If this doesn’t do the trick, apply hydrogen peroxide to the stain. You can also use dishwashing detergent for colored fabrics.

On carpet and couches: Add a tablespoon of dish detergent to two cups of cold water and blot out the blood with it until it’s gone. Carpet cleaner intended for pet stains may also work well.

STAIN CULPRIT: SWEAT & PERSPIRATION

On clothing: Ohhhh, sweat stains. Lemon, salt and sun work magic. Scrub with a mixture of lemon juice and water and let dry in the sun. You can also try scrubbing with salted water before soaking in the sun. If the stain persists, soak in hydrogen peroxide and water for one hour, then launder as you normally would. This is one where an SPC bleach alternative (safe for all colors) will come in handy. More on that in the products section below.

On carpet and couches: We hope this doesn’t happen, but if it does, blot 1/2 cup of white vinegar and 1 cup of water. Sprinkle the furniture or carpet with baking soda and let it sit for 30 minutes. When you dab the stain with the vinegar mix, it’ll bubble up. Blot with a dry towel and repeat if necessary.

STAIN CULPRIT: DEODORANT

On clothing and furniture: Use a dryer sheet to wipe away those embarrassing white lines. Also, rubbing denim on deodorant stripes reportedly works wonders.

STAIN CULPRIT: LIPSTICK & PEN INK

On clothing: If possible, put a paper towel under the stained area and blot with rubbing alcohol and/or nail polish remover to loosen up the stain. Let it sit in the alcohol for at least an hour and then launder normally.

On carpet and couches: The method is similar, but you can actually spray the alcohol directly on to the stain in the form of hairspray. Let it soak into the upholstery for about five minutes. Blot the upholstery with a clean, dry cloth.

STAIN CULPRIT: OTHER MAKEUP

On clothing: If you see a blob of foundation on the fabric, don’t rub! Use a dull table knife or a credit card to remove the liquid from the fabric, and use a sticky lint roller to lift away any powder. Remember that rubbing will only push the product deeper into the fibers of the fabric. Try spot treating with gentle dish soap first. If that doesn’t work, treat with Shout or another stain remover, and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before washing as hot as the piece can handle.

On carpet and couches: Same as clothing, but you’ll need to blot, not soak. Use a vacuum if necessary!

STAIN CULPRIT: PET STAINS AND ODORS

On clothing: It’s just NOT your day! Quickly run the wrong side of the stain under cold water for a while. Then throw it into the washing machine at the hottest water temperature for the fabric with a heavy-duty detergent like Persil. Add one cup of white distilled vinegar to the wash water to help reduce odor.

On carpet and couches: Don’t wet it! Scrape up any excess. Grab a cloth or paper towel and press down to get out any soaked-in urine. After you’re finished, leave another cloth or layer of paper towels to soak up more. Then, treat with an enzymatic stain remover. Rocco & Roxie and Nature’s Miracle are two great options that can also be used to clean mud, dirt and grass from your fabrics. You can also home-make a solution of 1:1 vinegar and cool water and spray it once. Get the area soaked (with JUST enough liquid) and let it dry. If you can, move the stained item to the sun to help zap the odor!

SB TIP: For protein-based stains, you always want to start with COLD water because hot water can literally cook the stains like you cook an egg!

RELATED: Why You Should Be Using Clean Beauty Products

LET’S TALK PRODUCTS

Okay, so we have covered the effectiveness of Dawn Dishwashing Soap, hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar, baking soda, lemon, and other natural household products. But here are a few more stain-fighting products that you should know about.

FOLEX — When we asked the community about stain removal tips, Folex was far and away the most buzzed-about product. This non-ionic, non-solvent cleaner is safe on literally any fabric that cannot be damaged by water AND is colorfast. Folex is non-toxic, non-irritating, requires no ventilation, will not break down the stain-resistant layer applied by the furniture people and does not break down into dangerous byproducts. This is a winner!

Fels-Naptha — Since 1894, this powerful laundry bar has been working magic on some of our toughest stains. Rub any greasy, oily stain with a wet bar of Fels-Naptha and let it sit for a few minutes. Then wash your item as you normally would, and the stains should be gone for good. This is a classic product that many swear by.

Clorox — No! Don’t use conventional chlorine bleach on your clothes if you can help it. Not to clean and not to whiten. Classic chlorine bleach can be harmful to the body (if ingested, but also if touched for too long), and it also breaks down the optical fibers that manufacturers use to brighten your white clothes. Let’s call this one an absolute last resort for white linens.

SPC (Bleach alternative) — What’s a better alternative to bleach? Say it with me now: SPC (Sodium percarbonate). SPC is the jack of all stain-fighting trades. It’s what you find in OxiClean, but OxiClean has lots of fillers. Buy something like The Laundress bleach alternative, which is 100% SPC, chlorine-free oxygen bleach that has no artificial dyes and is color-safe. This can be used with hot water to lift tons of different stains, or add a little to your laundry to brighten colors.

Stain Solution — Another product by The Laundress (can you tell that we love these yet!?), this powerful and highly concentrated solution attacks protein and tannin stains like wine, coffee, ink, grass, urine and blood. It can also help pit stains and other old, set-in stains. It’s all non-toxic ingredients and safe for all washable fabrics. Grab it here.

The Pit Kit from The Laundress for stain removal

To save $6.50, The Pit Kit bundles The Laundress’ bleach alternative, stain solution and signature detergent. It’s on the pricer side, but you may never see a stain again. Image: The Laundress

Enzyme detergent — Once you’ve treated your stain and you’re ready to wash, choose a laundry detergent with enzymes. We love the Persil brand because it contains enzymes that help break down fats, oils and protein chains, making it the perfect option to fight stains. If you aren’t sure whether or not your detergent contains enzymes, check the label.

Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds —  When stains don’t respond to the methods above, use a stronger product that still has natural ingredients. Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds is a fabulous all-purpose, environmentally-minded cleaner. It can be used directly on really tough stains in a pinch or combined with water for a DIY stain spray.

To wrap things up, we turn back to Candace: “Life is all about experimentation,” she says. “Cleaning is a very important component of a healthy life, from our bodies to the dishes we use.”

We invite you to try the methods above, but always check your labels and run a quick search for your specific malady. “Some stains are here to stay,” Candace concludes. “I say get inspired by the new blob on that shirt and add some embroidery or a pin [to cover it]. It’s life. Don’t beat yourself up. Stuff happens.”

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