How to Remove Summer Stains From Your Clothes

    CR’s laundry expert spills secrets on how to save your summer wear from a hot mess

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    A Person putting mustard on a hotdog and staining their shirt Photo: Getty Images

    The dog days of summer call us to beaches, pools, campsites, concerts, and backyard barbecues. But if you’re not careful, all that fun and sun can lead to a hot mess of drips, drizzles, and splashes. We’re talking smudged sunscreen on your Montauk polo, leaked burger grease on your khakis, a mustard glob on your white Everlane sundress. It’s inevitable, so there’s no time like now to make sure your laundry and dab skills are spot-on.

    The good news: You don’t have to let surprise stains ruin your favorite summer gear. Cleaning summer stains just requires quick thinking and a little know-how.

    Rule 1: Act Fast

    Summer stains usually require speed and hands-on action. That may include pretreating, soaking or hand washing in addition to machine washing. The best advice for removing stubborn summer stains? Act fast. “Remove any stain as soon as it happens,” says CR’s laundry expert Richard Handel. “That’s the best chance you’ll have to get it out.”

    That’s hard to do from a beach recliner or an office barbecue. But there are things you can do to minimize the damage until you can properly address the mess. Gently blot that stain out as best you can—even with water, and even if you’re still wearing the garment. Temporary embarrassment is better than a permanent stain. Once you’ve stopped the stain in its tracks, the odds are better you can get it out completely. Here are some tips that should work for most common stains:

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    Treat stains ASAP. The sooner they’re treated, the easier they are to remove.

    Blot the spot. Use a paper towel or white cloth to begin removing the spill. Blot stains from the outer edges toward the center.

    Check the care label. Review care tag instructions before treating or washing your stained clothes. Some stains require hot water, which may not be suitable for certain fabrics. And “dry clean only” means you should avoid the washer altogether.

    Bull’s-eye the detergent. To pretreat, dab a little detergent directly onto stains or gently scrub with a soft-bristled toothbrush.

    Seal the deal with your washer. Wash as usual after pretreating. In general, try to remove stains by hand first before relying on your washer. 

    Be patient. Don’t toss an item into the dryer until the stain is completely gone. Heat can lock it in.

    Rule 2: Use Liquid Detergent

    When you’re fighting tough stains, the detergent you choose is critical. We’ve found in our laboratory tests that the best detergent formulas from Tide, Persil, and Kirkland remove stains most effectively. We also found that liquid detergents offer superior stain fighting compared with packs, pods, and strips.

    Some laundry stain remover sprays can also be effective for stains such as dirt and grass. But you don’t need a spray stain remover if you use a good detergent. Our laundry detergent ratings can help you choose which top detergent to have on hand, so you’re prepared for stains that happen when you least expect it.

    In our tests, several detergents stand out in their ability to handle common summer stains, including Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release, Persil ProClean Stain Fighter, and Tide Ultra Oxi. All are rated Excellent for removing such stains. In fact, you’ll find 14 detergents that rate Excellent in CR’s tests for oily stains, like oily salad dressings.

    Rule 3: Be a Stain Detective

    Not all stains are equal. For example, it’s more difficult to remove stains from your summer whites than darker fabrics. And delicates require special care, mild detergent, and occasional hand washing. Like any household stain, summer stains include oil-based stains, water-based stains, and protein-based stains. Oil-based stains include errant spaghetti sauce and salad dressing; wine and juice spills produce water-based stains. Protein stains emanate from humans or animals—such as sweat, blood, urine, vomit, even milk and eggs.

    To remove the stain effectively, you’ll need to judge the type of stain, how long it’s been there, and what type of fabric it’s on. For example, detergent takes longer to work its way into stains on robust cotton and linen. But stains on durable fabric like polyester can often be cleaned by machine washing alone. Thanks to advice from Tide.com, Persil.com, and CR’s laundry experts, the following guide will help you eliminate a variety of irritating stains, so your summer fashions last well past Labor Day.

    How to Remove Grass, Dirt, and Mud Stains

    If your summer includes maintaining your flower garden or lush golf-green lawn, grass, dirt, and mud stains are par for the course. Cleaning dirt and grass, a relatively simple chlorophyll pigment stain, are easy. But mud is stubborn. It seeps into your clothes, and the decomposed organic material it’s made of means it’s best to treat it as a protein stain.

    “Protein stains like mud are harder to remove because they permeate into fibers,” says Handel. “To clean them, only use cold water and an enzyme detergent that’ll break down protein molecules and lift stains from fabrics during the wash.” Here are tips for getting out grass, dirt, and mud stains:

    • Grass: Pour detergent directly on the stain, and rub the fabric together or gently scrub with a soft toothbrush. Let stand for five to 10 minutes. Without rinsing, toss into the washer and clean as you normally would.
    • Dirt: Wash on the normal cycle with cold water and a good stain-fighting detergent.
    • Mud: For smudges, scrape excess mud from the garment and rinse with cold water. Then pretreat the trouble spot with an effective enzyme detergent before massaging it in. If the garment is very muddy, use your top-loader’s soak cycle to loosen mud particles before the main wash. If you own a front-loader, soak the garment in the sink before washing. Front-loaders are superior clean machines compared with top-loaders, so this should do the trick.

    How to Remove Grease and Oil Stains

    Sometimes juicy barbecue burgers or vinaigrette salad dressing mistake your shirt for your mouth. If so, put down your plate and treat these stains ASAP—or you’ll regret it. Here’s how:

    • Treat immediately with dish detergent, which helps break down the oil. You can also try a spray laundry stain remover like OxiClean MaxForce Spray. Rinse and repeat as needed.
    • Presoak the garment in detergent and cold water as long as needed to remove the bulk of the stain.
    • Then toss into your washer using a powerful stain-fighting detergent.

    How to Remove Condiment Stains

    What’s a burger and fries without ketchup? Condiments are typically flavored with vibrant, spicy, or acidic ingredients like tomato paste, turmeric, or vinegar. These spills require quick-action pretreats and typically a cold-water and color-safe bleach soak. “Mustard is a particularly tough stain to remove,” says Handel. “It’s made with turmeric, which can dye fabric.”

    Here’s how you handle condiment stains: Wipe off the excess mess first. Then soak the garment in diluted color-safe bleach for at least an hour or overnight, then launder. Repeat as needed. Depending on the type of stain, you could also try one of the alternative methods below:

    • Mustard: Turmeric contains curcumin, which gives the spice its vibrant yellow color—and it can cause the stain to bleed through the fabric. So mix 1 teaspoon of dishwashing liquid (like Dawn) with 1 cup of warm water, work it into the fabric, and rinse well. If there’s no trace of stain, dry the garment in the sun (Curcumin is broken down by the sun’s UV rays.)
    • Ketchup: Tomato-based stains are red for a reason—they mean danger to fabrics. They can be a pain to remove, so stop whatever you’re doing to address them. Scrape off any excess ketchup, then soak the garment in cold water with color-safe bleach, overnight if necessary. Then launder, and only toss in the dryer if the stain is completely eliminated.
    • Barbecue sauce: Remove any excess sauce from the garment, then soak it in cold water. Pour a strong stain-removing detergent directly onto the spot to pretreat. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes, rinse the treated area with warm water, then wash the garment as usual.

    How to Remove Wine Stains

    Spilled wine is virtually a crime. A summer Pinot Noir belongs on your palate, not your white button-down shirt. Wine stains are water-based and can inflict some intense color damage if it lingers longer than its ripe fruit finish. Here’s how to make it a memory:

    • Pour club soda or cold water on wine stains, then blot with an absorbent cloth.
    • Pretreat with a stain-fighting detergent and work in with a soft toothbrush.
    • Wash as usual with warm water, follow the garment’s care label.

    How to Remove Fruit Juices and Summer Sweets

    Summer camp stains can be a mystery, but you can bet they’ll be red, orange, or blue. Since juices, popsicles, and ice cream are always on the summer menu, let’s address those.

    • Fruit juices: Grape, orange, or fruit juice can start your day off right—unless you spill it on your clothes. Then your day starts with laundry. These stains look as different as the fruit themselves. But according to the folks at Tide, you can treat them the same way: Flush the garment with cold water to dilute the stain. Pour detergent directly over the entire stain and let stand for five minutes. Then wash using your washer’s normal cycle on the warm setting. Repeat steps if the stain remains. And don’t toss into the dryer until the stain completely disappears.
    • Popsicles: These icy treats are a kid favorite, and they drip a rainbow of colors you never want to see on your kids’ Abercrombies. But fret not: The solution is simple. Pretreat the stain with cold water and soak in a non-chlorine, color-safe bleaching agent. Then, wash according to the care label instructions.
    • Ice cream: Ice cream and dairy stains are protein-based and must be removed only using cold water. Hot water risks making these stains even darker. Pretreat in cold water with a dab of enzyme detergent to break down that milk fat, protein, and sugar. Then toss it in the machine for a cold wash.

    How to Remove Sweat Stains

    Sweat can do a number on your clothes. But sweat doesn’t cause those yellow armpit stains on your summer whites—aluminum from your antiperspirant does, as it reacts with the ammonia in sweat. DO NOT chlorine bleach those yellow stains on your whites (bleach can make protein stains more yellow). Thankfully, sweat stains and deodorant stains are a fairly easy fix, if you choose the right method and an enzyme stain remover (see video below).

    @consumerreports Replying to @AZ Gibson Armpit stains are often caused by the combination of sweat and underarm deodorant and/or antiperspirant. Here is Rich Handel’s tip on how to get rid of fresh ones 👍✨ #cleantok #laundrytok ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

    Here, your washing machine can help, especially if it has a steam cycle. A steam cycle improves cleaning power by boosting the drum temperature during various wash cycles. This helps remove stains and allergens while still being gentle on your clothes. Below is a highly rated machine that comes with a steam option; check out our ratings for others. With or without a steam cycle, here’s how to remove sweat stains:

    • Steam cycle washing machine: Toss the garment into your washer and add a stain-removing detergent. Choose the steam function and wash as usual. Ensure the stain is completely removed before drying.
    • If you don’t have a steam option, pretreat spots with a stain-removing detergent or spray, like OxiClean MaxForce Spray. Let it set in for five minutes. Then wash in warm water (per garment instructions) with a stain-removing detergent like Persil ProClean Stain Fighter.

    How to Remove Sunscreen Stains

    Sunscreen protects your skin but it can be hazardous to your summer wear. Avobenzone, a sunscreen ingredient that blocks UVA rays, can make your clothes sticky and yellowish if it comes in contact with iron from hard water. Avoid letting sunscreen stains dry into your clothes by following these steps:

    • Use a soft toothbrush to remove excess sunscreen before rinsing with cold water.
    • Spray with laundry stain remover and let sit for five to 10 minutes. Then wash as usual.

    BW Headshot of Consumer Reports author Keith Flamer

    Keith Flamer

    As a kid in Delaware, I lived a few blocks from Bob Marley, who once said, "It is better to live on the house top than to live in a house full of confusion." At CR, I'm psyched to help readers navigate this cluttered, hyper-commercialized world we live in. I've covered luxury real estate, interior design, and culture—reporting on everything from smart home technology to racial hypocrisy at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate. Since the pandemic started, I cherish simplicity, covering accessible topics like decorating, cooking, and cleaning. Give me a smoothie blender over a mansion any day. Blenders are slightly easier to clean.