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What to do in a Stain Emergency

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 25 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
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We have all experienced that moment - the gasp of horror as red wine spills over your expensive cream carpet or oil splatters over your best evening gown, or grubby toddler hands scrawl crayon over your newly painted wall. In moments of such "stain emergencies", it is easy to forget all reason and just panic, grabbing anything handy to desperately scrub at the stain. This could be the very worst thing you can do: although it's important to treat most stains immediately, this does not mean that you need to use harsh, physical methods as these can damage the surface the stain is on or cause the stain to spread even further and penetrate deeper. Most stains respond better to gentle careful treatment and the use of the correct solvent to lift it away.

Help! What do I do?

First find out what caused the stain and then you can treat it accordingly. There can be very different treatments if the stain is protein-based or chemical in nature, has been caused by smoke or even has several components, such as a coloured alcoholic drink. What might be effective for one type of stain can make things a lot worse for another so it is worth pausing to check.

Next, work slowly and gently, according to instructions, as you will have less chance of spreading the stain. For example, stains on carpets need to be worked from the outside in and requires a lot of repetitive dampening and blotting. Patience is very important - a lot of stains require several repetitions of a treatment to remove it completely. Always follow the care labels when washing and never place an item in the dryer without checking that the stain has been completely removed, as any heat will seal the stain and possibly make it permanent. When there are several methods to tackle a stain, always start with the mildest treatment first and only work your way up to the harsher treatments when the milder ones have definitely failed.

If the fabric needs to be dry-cleaned, then it is best to not tamper with the stain too much, other than try to remove any excess substance. You are best to simply take the stained item to professional cleaners as soon as possible.

What if I Don't Know What the Stain Is?

Things get a little more complicated if you are not sure what caused the stain. If the stain is still fresh, you can try to guess what category it falls in - e.g. is it greasy? Does it smell of oil, paint or chemicals? Does it smell like some sort of food or drink? You can also notice the condition of the stain - such as whether it is wet or dry, and whether it has penetrated the fabric as these will all help you in stain removal. Then you can try the following steps, moving in sequence, until the stain hopefully disappears:
  • Try soaking first in cold water, for at least 30mins. Water is an universal solvent and in many cases, particularly if the stain is still fresh, it can be very effective in lifting away the stain.

  • Try rubbing a little liquid laundry detergent or washing-up liquid into the stain; again leave for 30mins and then rinse thoroughly with water. If the stain has disappeared, you can then wash as normal.

  • Try soaking the stain overnight in a laundry pre-treatment or just usual laundry detergent. This is especially good for protein stains, such as from egg, blood and perspiration.

  • Try washing the garment with detergent, in the hottest temperature that the fabric can withstand - this can be very hot for cottons and linens, only hand-hot for synthetics (eg. nylon) and just warm for delicates like woollens. Do not put the garment in the dryer without checking first that the stain has been removed - as if it has not, the heat from the dryer will set it permanently.

  • For grease stains, if washing does not remove it, let it air dry and then sponge the stain with a grease solvent to help break the stain up - examples are eucalyptus oil, borax solution and as a final resort, diluted methylated spirit. Make sure you keep the area well-ventilated to disperse the solvent fumes and always spot test first. Rinse well afterwards and wash again.

  • As a very last resort - and if the fabric can withstand it - you can try a solution of equal parts bleach and water. But this is a very harsh treatment and could damage many fabrics. Follow the bleach manufacturer's instructions carefully and always spot test first.

Whatever the kind of stain, always check what kind of fabric it is on - this can be very important to deciding the appropriate method of stain removal. A lot of stains can be removed in several ways but the some treatments can harm certain fabrics and thus will decide which option is chosen. Certain synthetic fabrics - such as acetate - can be very vulnerable to a lot of chemical solvents.

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