Life can be messy. One moment you’re enjoying a hot dog with mustard when a splatter of the yellow stuff suddenly lands on your shirt. Or you're sipping a tasty Merlot when a party-crashing dog bumps into you, splashing the red wine all over your pants. Next thing you know, people are offering foolproof methods to remove the stain, but beware: Sometimes their "surefire" tips are wrong and your clothes end up in worse shape. 

Pat Slaven, a textile expert at Consumer Reports for 21 years, knows what to do when stains happen.

“The best thing to do is to get as much of the mess off as soon as possible—scrape it off, blot it off—without rubbing or spreading,” says Slaven. “If you don’t know what to do next, liquid dish detergent mixed with water is a great choice.” Use a damp white cloth with a little detergent, and try blotting an inconspicuous spot first so that you don’t ruin the garment. 

Our videos (above and below) show you how to remove tough mustard, red wine, chewing gum, and ink stains. Some of our advice involves weird but solid science. 

Yellow Mustard
Curcumin not lends mustard it yellow color but also makes a mustard stain hard to remove from fabric. To deal with a mustard stain, scrape off the condiment without spreading. Mix 1 teaspoon of liquid dish detergent in 1 cup of warm water, work into fabric, rinse well, and hang the clothing item in the sun. (Curcumin is very sensitive to sunlight—nature’s bleaching agent.) This method works on most anything that can be left in the sun for a few hours, including rugs and upholstery. 

Red Wine
Forget that advice about using white wine or a clear sugary soda to remove red-wine stains. “It may work initially, but over time you wind up with a permanent brown stain,” says Slaven. Instead, wet and blot the fabric immediately. Hand-wash in 2 cups of warm water mixed with 2 teaspoons of liquid dish detergent. While the fabric is wet, liberally apply 3 percent hydrogen peroxide to the garment then lay it in the sun for several hours to bleach naturally. 

Chewing Gum
You can’t wash gum out, and freezing then scraping the garment can damage the fabric. Extra-strength Bengay is what you need. This analgesic rub contains methyl salicylate, which dissolves the gum base. Heat gum with a hair dryer, scrape off as much as possible with a plastic knife, work in a dab of Bengay, then use a zip-top bag to pick off the resulting goo that's chemically more attracted to the plastic than a paper towel. 

Watch the videos below to see how easy removing tough stains can be. And check our laundry detergent Ratings to find the best and worst cleaners.

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