How to Get Rid of Stains Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Get Rid of Stains

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Outline of stain remover product and image of hand cleaning stain out of shirt inside

Physicists are always harping on about how matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but we cleaners have known that for years. It's called the Law of the Conservation of Filth - you can't make something clean without making something else dirty. It's obvious, isn't it? And the opposite is equally true in that you can make everything dirty without making anything clean. Anyway, scientific and philosophical ruminations aside, let's get down to the business of removing stains, or rather, of moving certain molecules from one resting place to another resting place assuming that...

Some Marvellous Solutions

  • The brute force method is where you cut out the stained part and burn it. You will have replaced the stain with a hole. Liver spots and other nauseating things can, and are, efficiently removed in this fashion.

  • Chemically alter the properties of the stain (in its character as a dye) so it is not visible and thus cannot be defined as a stain. This process is commonly called bleaching. Sometimes, this method can be quite similar to the first one especially when the stained substrate is dissolved by the chemical. White clothes can be easily freed of stains with hydrogen-peroxide or sodium hypochlorite. These reagents will destroy the dye molecules. The remnants of the destroyed stain will still be contaminating the spot, but at least it is invisible. Physical processes like electric or photonic interactions work pretty much in the same way.

  • Dissolve the stain. This method is probably the most prevalent one. Stains can be dissolved by:

    • Pure water (if the stain is soluble)

    • Soap

    • Alcohol/Turpentine

    • Saltwater

All of the above work in pretty much the same way. Precautions are to be taken if the stained substrate is not to be damaged. As an extension, the dissolution of metals in mercury should be included. Nitroglycerine and TNT could be thought of as good dissolvents, but those chemicals have some undesirable collateral properties.

  • Transform the stain into a pattern, so it is no longer reckoned as a stain. Example: Some ink droplets stain a piece of paper. Use a biro and incorporate the droplets in a drawing, so it looks like they're there on purpose. The stain is away!

A Wistful Stain Cleaning Reminiscence...

Most of us have fond memories of times gone by. Few of us, however, have fond memories of cleaning up graffiti daubed on school dormitory walls. The following Researcher is a splendid exception:

In boarding school, my roommate and I had the misfortune of being the first students in a new dorm room - misfortune, because this meant there was no way we could blame any damage to the room on the past occupants. Regardless, we somehow managed to do a lot of scribbling on the walls over the years, and suddenly found ourselves 24 hours away from graduation with a lot of crayon, ink, and marker stains to clean off if we didn't want to get stuck with a rather large fine.
So... we mixed together concentrated toilet bowl cleaner, laundry detergent, some industrial all-purpose cleaning solution in a spray bottle and a small amount of water. And sprayed the walls. The stains dissolved away, along with no small amount of paint. Of course, we were rather lucky that the things we mixed together didn't cause any explosions or toxic fumes (although we were bright enough to open the windows during the process). We had mixed all this stuff in a spray bottle and after loaning the mixture to some fellow students, we discovered that it dissolved skin just as well as it did stains.
Now that I'm all adult and such, I can't imagine doing such a thing. However, I'm still a fan of mixing. Regular detergent plus febreeze laundry aid plus clorox bleach free laundry booster can revive clothes that have been drenched in cat pee in only one wash.

Grease Removal

Remove grease by covering the stain with brown paper, iron it, and then use petrol to remove the rest of the stain. This will work because grease is soluble in hexane and there is hexane in the petrol. It's not soluble in water because water is a polar solvent and repels the grease (like two magnets). Caution: do not do this while smoking!


Candle wax on the carpet isn't, strictly speaking, a stain, but it is related. A very good method of removing wax involves putting a paper towel (or coffee filter-type paper) over the spilled wax, and then putting a hot iron over the towel. The heat draws the wax up into the towel, which can then be discarded. The carpet beneath will be left wax-free and clean. This method also works a treat on getting wax out of clothing.


For a lipstick stain on fabric, rub with Vaseline and wash in hot soapy water. A Researcher's friend swears by this method...


Put on lemon juice and salt, dry in the sun, rinse. Baking-soda paste works in taking rust off vinyl floor. Leave it on for several hours and then scrub.


The basic method in dealing with the removal of blood from washable fabrics centres around one piece of invaluable advice: do not use hot water as this will only make the stain set in. What you must do is soak and rub the material in cold water. Then you wash in warm water. If the stain is old, treat with detergent or an enzyme pre-soak.

Some other bloody methods:

  • Soak in ammonia.

  • Soak in a solution of 1 quart cold water and 2 tablespoons of table salt (as suggested previously).

  • Hydrogen peroxide (only on fabrics that can be bleached).

  • Apply unseasoned meat tenderizer mixed with cool water to make a paste and let it work in for 15 minutes. Rinse.

Coffee and Tea

The following ways of removing coffee and tea stains from washable fabrics:

  • Soak in cold water. Wash normally, using detergent, not soap.

  • Wipe with a paste of baking soda and water or white vinegar and non-iodized salt.

  • Soak in soda water.

  • If the fabric is non-washable (dry-clean-only) then sponge or spray with dry-cleaning solvent. Apply warm water and vinegar and then have the garment dry-cleaned.

Ink Stains/Fruit Stains

To remove ink stains from a ballpoint pen, soak the material in isopropyl rubbing alcohol. Then wash it as usual. You may have to apply the alcohol more than once, depending on the severity of the stain. To remove stains from fruit juices and red wine, simply soak in hot water. Gently rub the fabric against itself or against the side of the water bowl to get the stain out. Here's the evidence:

I purchased a fancy bed comforter for a fifth of its going sales price, only to be disappointed when the item arrived with ink and fruit stains on it. Apparently, the original owner discovered that her pre-school daughter and her new gold-threaded comforter weren't a good match. A little friendly stain advice and some elbow grease later, my bargain was intact. I couldn't be happier.

Red Wine

Spilt your glass of red on the carpet? What a horrible mark it will leave unless you immediately pour lots (and we do mean lots) of table salt on the entire area. Just sweep up with a dustpan and brush and repeat if necessary. We're not sure why it works... but it does.


Pollen from some flowers will stain if you try to rub it off clothes. The answer is not to rub it off. Instead, wrap some sticky tape around your hand, sticky side out, and use this to 'dab' off the pollen. There are sticky rollers available that do a similar job.

Chewing Gum

The most effective way to remove chewing gum is to freeze it - put some ice on it for a few minutes. It will become brittle and easy to remove. If the gum is on something small, you could put it in the freezer.

Aerosol Magic

Aerosol shaving foam is great for getting stains out of carpets - wet or dry. Spray it on then rub it off with a cloth or brush. Since shaving foam is basically just detergent and water it is hard to understand why this is more effective than, er, detergent and water. Perhaps it has something to do with the foaming agent. Anyway it works. Most of the time.


Stains, marks, blemishes - it's all part of life's rich tapestry (carpet pun intended) and the following gentle anecdote - a snapshot from the heart of one Researcher's personal history - provides a fitting, humane coda to the entry:

We were living in Seattle (Bothell, actually), and my wife had purchased a lot of very expensive living room furniture. I think this would have been about 1982 or 1983. Anyway, we had this dog named Satin. He was a gift to me from my sister, and she gave him to me sometime during 1973 when I got back from Vietnam. He was a very small dog with a very big attitude, and I can't truthfully say that he was intelligent. He was of a breed called Pekinese.
So, he had been with me 10 years, and he didn't really care for my wife, who had only been with me for a short time. So, he 'stained' everything she bought, or touched - the stains you really couldn't remove. In a relatively short period of time, Satin died. I know he wasn't happy with me, and that, I think, is why he left the stains. He never cared for my wife, and he never forgave me for choosing her over him.
However, my wife understood what was going on, even though Satin and I did not. The stains he left on my life can not, and should not be removed, at least according to my wife. Maybe what I am trying to say is that stains may not be so bad. Maybe some stains should be left behind, others treasured, and some few understood. If anyone ever left a 'mark' on my life, it can be said that stain was left by a three pound dog and a 92 pound woman. For the life of me, I still can't figure out who was prettier, or who I loved the most.
Having a little daughter and two rather large dogs, it is an effort in vain trying to remove stains on the carpet before new ones are created. We have a healthy mix of red wine stains, baby milk stains, mud stains and stains stemming from various body functions both child- and pet-originated. To make it short, we're giving up. Next month we are removing the carpet along with the stains on it and we are getting a parquet floor which can easily be cleaned by mopping up the stains. Hopefully.
For small to medium-sized patch of carpet that has become beyond recovery through cigarette burns, overspillage of tea, coffee, wine, sulphuric acid, etc, it may be necessary to call a carpet fitter and get them to cut out the said damaged part and stitch in an off-cut. There are usually enough off cuts from when the carpet was originally fitted to allow this to be done, but it all depends on the type of carpet - patterned carpet is a nightmare.

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