Photo: Ben Goldstein

It’s a common scenario: You’re enjoying wearing your favorite shirt or sinking into a comfy armchair when suddenly the mustard squeeze-bottle misfires or your coffee cup takes flight and makes one heckuva mess.

While you can’t hit the rewind button, if you act quickly and appropriately, the splatters might not have a fighting chance, says Kathlyn Swantko, president of the consumer textile information resource FabricLink.

Ground Rules for Dealing With Stains

To help you keep your home and clothes stain-free, we’ve gathered the smartest, simplest stain-removal advice and tools to tackle common offenders, starting with food spills. First, some ground rules:

Take care of any mess ASAP. The sooner you treat it, the easier it will be to remove.

Many stains benefit from blotting. Use plain white paper towels or a clean white cloth (cotton or microfiber—a dry cloth, unless otherwise noted) to dab up messes.

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Blot from the edges of the spill toward the center. Do the reverse and you may spread the stain.

Be very sparing with water when working on upholstery fabrics. You’ll avoid ending up with a water-ring stain.

Check tags and labels for laundering information. “Dry clean only” means the washer may ruin the fabric or trim.

After using a pretreat product on an item, it’s okay to launder it with other items. Trying bleach? Check that the other fabrics are colorfast. If in doubt, wash the stained item separately.

When colorfastness is a concern, test your cleaner using a cotton swab. Do this in a small, unnoticeable area first.

Avoid scratching hard surfaces. Use a nonabrasive scrubbing pad on stone countertops and other hard surfaces.

Be patient. Don’t toss an item in the dryer until a stain is gone. Heat may lock it in.

Wherever a detergent solution is called for in the stain-busting advice below, use this one: Mix 1 teaspoon of a mild white or clear dishwashing liquid (Dawn is often recommended)—no bleach—in 1 cup of warm water.

Coffee, Tea, Wine

These beverages started as plants and get their stain power from vegetable dyes.

Washable fabrics: Work from the back of the fabric, flushing it with cold water, then apply an enzymatic laundry pretreat (see the CR Quick Take, below, for a top-rated choice). Rub a little laundry detergent into the stain and launder using the warmest water the label recommends. Repeat until the stain disappears.

Upholstery: Blot like crazy, then splash with carbonated water; blot and repeat. No luck? Dampen with water, apply detergent solution, work it in with a clean sponge, and blot. Repeat until clean. Dab with water to remove detergent, and blot.

Leather: Blot with a damp cloth as soon as possible.

Carpet: Blot well. Mix 4 cups of water, a tablespoon of dish soap, and a quarter-cup of white vinegar, and apply with a clean sponge, soaking the spot. After 5 to 10 minutes, blot again with a clean cloth. Read more about dealing with carpet stains.

Natural stone countertops (such as granite and marble, but not nonporous quartz): Make a paste of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, says Lenny Sciarrino, president/CEO and co-founder of Granite Gold, a stone- and quartz-care company. Cover the spot and let it sit for several hours.

Non-wood flooring: Rub gently with scouring powder and a cloth dampened in hot water—or dab with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide.

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OxiClean MaxForce Spray

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Blood
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Ketchup/Tomato Sauce

These foods are often doubly challenging, Swantko says, because tomatoes’ red pigment acts as a dye and any oil (in, say, pasta sauce) tends to saturate and stick to fabric fibers.

Carpet: Blot, or scrape with a butter knife to remove excess, then saturate the stain with ammonia solution (1 tablespoon of clear household ammonia to ½ cup of water) from a spray bottle; blot well. Next, apply a bit of detergent solution (1 teaspoon of a mild dishwashing liquid to 1 cup of warm water); blot well. Spritz the area with water, and blot. Spray it again, then cover with a pad of paper or cloth towels under a weight to dry. (Got a brick? Perfect.)

Washable fabrics: Saturate the area with an enzymatic laundry pretreatment, such as OxiClean MaxForce Spray (see above), and wait a few minutes. If it’s a large stain, rub in liquid laundry detergent, then wash in cold water.

Upholstery: Blot to remove excess. Wet fabric with a small amount of water, soak for 1 minute, and blot with paper towel. Repeat until the stain is gone; blot dry. Stain still there? Dampen the area, use a sponge to work a small amount of a detergent solution (see carpet instructions, above) into the stain, and blot until it’s gone.

Leather: This is a tricky one. You can try the same approach as for mustard, below, or ask your furniture dealer or dry cleaner for advice.

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Persil ProClean Stain Fighter

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Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release

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Mustard

Turmeric, the spice in mustard, curries, and many other foods, contains curcumin, which gives the seasoning its hue. The problem: Curcumin is not water-soluble, so it’s a challenge to remove.

Washable fabrics, upholstery, and carpet: Scrape off the condiment first. Mix up a detergent solution (1 teaspoon of a mild dishwashing liquid to 1 cup of warm water) and work into the fabric, rinse well, and dry the item in the sun. (Curcumin is very sensitive to sunlight—nature’s bleaching agent.) Another method for washable fabrics: Soak in diluted color-safe bleach for at least an hour or overnight, then launder. Repeat as needed.

Leather: Mix a solution of mild soap (such as Ivory) in lukewarm water, swishing it to create suds. Apply only the suds to a sponge and wipe the area. Wipe again, with a clean cloth dampened with clear water. Dry with a soft cloth, then follow with an application of a commercial leather conditioner.

Non-wood flooring: Remove as much as you can with a detergent solution (see “Washable fabrics, upholstery, and carpet,” above). If possible, let sunlight into the area for one to two days to help fade the stain. No sun? Blotting with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide may also help.

Photo: Ben Goldstein

Oil/Food Grease/Salad Dressing

Oil-based stains are notoriously challenging—in part because oil and water don’t mix. So simply rinsing won’t work. Be sure to avoid heat (hot water, the dryer), which locks in these stains. The techniques here are also good for mayo, butter, and body lotion.

Washable fabrics: Blot, then use an enzymatic laundry pretreat, such as OxiClean MaxForce Spray (see above), as directed on the label. Rub in a dab of laundry detergent with your fingertip; launder in cold water. Repeat steps as needed before drying.

Upholstery: Follow the instructions on a stain-removing or dry-cleaning solvent, such as Picrin, or call in a pro.

Leather: An oil-based stain is likely to be absorbed by leather. You can try this method: Blot with a clean, dry cloth, then cover the area with a layer of cornstarch. Let sit overnight, then wipe it away with a fresh cloth. Repeat as necessary. Still there? A commercial leather cleaner may remove some of the color along with the stain, so ask your furniture dealer or dry cleaner for advice.

Carpet: Apply a small amount of dish detergent to the spot with a cloth, then blot dry. If that doesn’t work, dab on a small amount of dry-cleaning solvent with a fresh cloth. Blot, then rinse. Not gone? Sprinkle on baking soda; vacuum once it has absorbed the stain.

Natural stone countertops (such as granite and marble, but not nonporous quartz): In a small bowl, add baking soda to 1 to 2 tablespoons of acetone-based nail polish remover until it’s the consistency of pancake batter, cover the spot with the mixture, and let it sit overnight. The acetone breaks down the oil, and the baking soda absorbs it. Repeat as necessary.

Blood

Blood is a protein stain—add heat and it can become permanent. The key to getting this tough stuff out? “Cold water and speed,” Swantko says.

Washable fabrics: Flush with cold water, then spray with enzymatic laundry pretreat, such as OxiClean MaxForce Spray (see above). Once that has had a chance to work, massage a little laundry detergent into the spot; launder in cold water.

Upholstery: Blot to remove excess blood. Wet fabric with a minimum amount of water, wait 1 minute, then blot with paper towel. Repeat water/blot procedure until no stain shows on towel; blot dry.

Leather: Mix a solution of mild soap (such as Ivory) in cool water. Swish it around to create suds. Apply only the foam with a clean sponge, gently rubbing, taking care not to spread the stain. Wipe the area dry with a clean, soft cloth.

Carpet: Apply a small amount of cold water to the stain as quickly as possible and blot the area with a cotton cloth. Repeat until the stain is gone.

Makeup

Makeup’s long-lasting pigments (from minerals, dyes, and colorants) and skin-moisturizing emollients make it tough to remove.

Washable fabrics: Blot with acetone-based nail polish remover, then try a store-bought cleaning solvent, such as Alba or Goo Gone.

Upholstery and carpet: Blot to remove excess. Dab the spot with a small amount of rubbing alcohol or dry-cleaning solvent (such as Picrin) and blot dry immediately. When working on upholstery, be careful not to wet the fabric or you may wind up with a water mark. When addressing a potential stain on carpet, be careful not to totally soak through with alcohol; it can damage the latex backing.

Leather: See “Oil/Food Grease/Salad Dressing,” above, because these are typically oil-based stains.

Non-wood flooring: Wipe up as much as you can with a paper towel first, then use fine steel wool with all-purpose detergent and water. For a no-wax finish or embossed vinyl flooring, use a plastic scouring pad instead of steel wool.

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Bissell ProHeat 2X Lift-Off Pet 15651

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Bissell TurboClean PowerBrush 2987

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Hoover PowerDash Pet FH50700

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Water Rings

These are typically made by a wet glass left on a wood surface. If the stain remains after taking the steps here, you may have to refinish the wood surface.

Wood surfaces: Blot with a paper towel or cloth, wipe with a damp cloth, and dry with a soft cloth. Still see that ring? In the direction of the wood grain, rub in a small dab of non-gel toothpaste or a liquid or cream car polish. Wipe with a clean, dry cloth, and polish if desired.

Stains That Really Stick

“There are a couple of stains that fall into the ‘good luck getting it out’ category,” says Tom Swantko, content director at FabricLink. They are permanent ink and hair dye, which are made to add intense color and stay put. You can try specially formulated products (“there are dye strippers on the market,” Swantko says), but you may also remove the original color of the fabric or surface. Consult a dry cleaner or upholstery cleaner—and don’t expect success.

3 Stain-Removal Mistakes Not to Make

Drying a Stain
Heat can set a stain, often permanently, so check to see whether the spot has come out before you throw the item in the dryer—you may need to put it through the wash a few more times. But if you don’t notice the stain in time, all may not be lost: Some people report success with repeating the pretreat/wash steps even after drying.


Using Chlorine Bleach on Everything
This liquid is not safe for all fabrics. Use it on some colored items and it may help wash away the stain, but it’s likely to remove the fabric’s hue as well, leaving the item unsalvageable.


Adding Too Much Detergent
With today’s concentrated laundry detergents, a little goes a long way. Use too much and it can build up on fabrics, making them dingy. Washers have an extra rinse, rinse and spin, or even a soak cycle to safely remove residual detergent.


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Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.