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remove stains from clothes

Stains happen. Maybe you bit into a juicy burger and spilled ketchup on your favorite shirt. Or you painted your bedroom, changed the oil in your car, or lit candles in a drafty room. You play sports, fall on the grass, sweat, or cut yourself, and then just throw your stained clothes in the washer. And when they come out, the stains are still there. How can you remove different types of stains and keep from ruining your favorite clothes?

The Dry Cleaner

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We spoke with Mark, the stain expert at Custom Care Dry Cleaning in Eagle, Idaho, a highly rated establishment that specializes in fine dry cleaning, tailoring, and alterations. Mark emphasized that clothing stains are either oil-based or water-based, and different stains need different treatments. He continued, “Ordinary washing won’t remove stains like paint or heavy oil; you need a degreaser for that. Dry cleaning is a degreaser and will remove most oil-based stains. We use a commercial POG spotter (Paint-Oil-Grease remover) that is designed for oil-based stains. The first dry cleaners, more than 100 years ago, actually used gasoline to remove grease stains. Nowadays, we use ‘dry-to-dry’ machines, where the clothes go in dry, are washed in our solution, dried in the same machine, and come out dry. These remove 90 percent of stains.”

Home Remedies for Grease

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To remove greasy stains at home, Mark recommends first trying a dish detergent like Dawn, which contains degreasing ingredients. “Using a brush to scrub the soap into the stain is often helpful,” he says. “You can pretreat a grease stain this way and then launder in your washing machine or take it to the dry cleaner. Turpentine, such as you’d find in a hardware store, can also be used at home to remove heavy grease. Follow with a machine wash.”


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How do you remove paint stains? If you just spilled watercolors on your clothes, you may be able to remove the paint by immediately flushing the garment with cold water and agitating in a sink. Otherwise, Mark recommends applying distilled white vinegar to the stain, then dabbing with paper towel. The color should transfer into the paper towel. Repeat as necessary and then wash in the machine with cool water and hang dry.

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For oil-based paints, though, you’ll need paint thinner. Depending on the size of the stain, you can apply with a Q-Tip or rag that’s been saturated with paint thinner, and rub the paint out. As the paint transfers to the saturated rag or Q-Tip, use a new area of the rag. Once the stain is out, you can spot wash or throw it in your machine with detergent. I once removed a paint stain from a parka using a Q-Tip and art supply turpenoid thinner, and the jacket looks perfect. Whether vinegar or paint thinner, it’s always smart to first apply a small amount in an inconspicuous area to check that it won’t damage your clothing.


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“Chewing gum is one of our toughest challenges,” Mark continues. “90 percent of the time, we can remove regular gum, but sugarless gum is much more difficult. If you’re using a home remedy for gum, try turpentine, and if you take it to the cleaners, tell them if it’s sugarless gum.”


Mark says that 90 percent of wax stains come out in dry cleaning solvent. At home, you could try paint thinner, but it may create another stain, particularly with colored wax.

Protection From Solvents

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When using solvents like turpentine or paint thinner, make sure you’re in a well-ventilated area. Use sturdy silicone or rubber gloves to protect your hands. If you applied solvent with a rag, be sure to dispose of it properly. Don’t wad the rag up and throw it in the trash; it can spontaneously catch fire! Spread it out and allow it to dry in a shady area before you throw it away. Krud Kutter is a non-solvent alternative to paint thinner, but it may not be as effective.


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Mark says, “The best remedy for blood and other protein-based stains like spaghetti sauce and ketchup is cold water, agitation, and time. You may need to soak overnight.” I have also had success with spraying the stain with hydrogen peroxide. It will bubble up and lift off the stain, but it can also bleach colors.


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“Grass stains are always tough!” Mark exclaims. “Try to deal with them quickly. They usually require soaking, followed by the spot application of full-strength enzyme-based detergent and a generous amount of elbow grease with a scrub brush, followed by machine washing.” On jeans, you can try wetting the grass stain with rubbing alcohol and letting it dry before washing. Other remedies include scrubbing with toothpaste, a baking soda/water paste, or two parts water to one part white vinegar before washing.

Yellow Stains

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Mark says, “Underarm stains that are set in are next to impossible to remove. Same for a wedding dress that’s been hanging for years with a yellow stain on it. You can try soaking with mild bleaching agents like sodium bicarbonate, but your best bet is to prevent stains by washing right away.”

Stain remover shopping list:

  1. Cute Cactus Tealight Candles
  2. Dawn Dish Liquid
  3. Scrub Brush
  4. Paint Thinner
  5. Art Supply Turpenoid Thinner
  6. Reusable Silicone Gloves
  7. Reusable Rubber Gloves
  8. Krud Kutter Paint Remover
  9. Spray Bottle
  10. Stain-Removing Toothpaste
  11. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)

Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.


Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.

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