How to remove color stains from clothes

Having a stained item of clothing can be very frustrating. Whether it’s dye transfer in the wash, an ink spot on your shirt, or makeup smudges on your pants, color stains can sometimes seem impossible to remove. However, don’t despair – with the right techniques and a little bit of elbow grease, you can get rid of almost any type of discoloration from your clothes and other fabric items.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn foolproof methods for tackling even the most stubborn color stains using common household products. We’ll cover how to remove all types of stains from dye transfer to mud and everything in between. With the step-by-step instructions provided, you can erase color spots and restore your garments.

remove color stains from clothes

Table of Contents

  • Removing Dye Transfer Stains
  • Eliminating Makeup Stains
  • Getting Out Ink Stains
  • Treating Grease and Oil Stains
  • Lifting Grass Stains
  • Removing Sweat and Deodorant Stains
  • Tackling Mud Stains
  • Cleaning Other Tough Stains
    • Blood
    • Coffee and Tea
    • Wine and Berries
    • Tomato Sauce
    • Wax
    • Mildew
    • Rust
    • Tree Sap
  • Stain Removal Products to Have on Hand
  • Tips for Avoiding Future Stains

Removing Dye Transfer Stains

Dye transfer occurs when colors from one garment bleed onto another item in the wash. Follow these steps to remove transferred dye stains:

  • Rinse the stained area under cold running water to flush out any loose dye particles. Avoid hot water, as it can set the stain.
  • Check care labels and pre-treat stains with a detergent suitable for the fabric type. Let sit for 5-10 minutes to penetrate fibers.
  • Make a paste of equal parts oxygen bleach and detergent for durable fabrics. Apply and let sit 30 minutes before washing. This discolors and lifts dye.
  • For delicates, mix 1 part hydrogen peroxide to 4 parts water and soak the stain 15 minutes. Peroxide removes dye without damaging fabrics.
  • Use a commercial color remover for badly set stains per package instructions. These work by shrinking dye molecules so they release.
  • Wash in the hottest temperature allowed for the fabric using an all-purpose detergent. Avoid overloading the machine, which can prevent stains from releasing.
  • Air dry clothing in direct sunlight. The UV light helps break down dye particles so stains fade.

For tough dye stains, repeat stain removal steps until the discoloration fades and washes out completely.

Eliminating Makeup Stains

Cosmetic stains from foundation, mascara, blush, and more can be tricky to remove. Use these tips to treat makeup stains:

  • Gently scrape off thick, caked-on makeup with a dull knife or fingernail. This keeps it from setting deeper into fabric.
  • Apply a pre-treatment spray or gel to makeup stains before washing. Formulas with enzymes dissolve cosmetics.
  • For oil-based makeup, blot stains with rubbing alcohol using a cloth. Let fully absorb, then rinse with water before laundering.
  • Blot wet liquid makeup stains with paper towels. Flush with cold water to prevent spreading. Hot water can set some makeup stains.
  • Use oxygen bleach on white fabrics to lighten makeup discoloration after pre-treating. Check it’s safe for the material first.
  • Re-apply stain remover and re-wash if makeup leaves a ghost stain. Or use a small brush with remover to spot clean.

To fully remove stubborn makeup stains, you may need to repeat these steps two or three times.

Getting Out Ink Stains

Ink spots from pens, markers, or highlighters are unsightly but treatable:

  • Start by blotting the stain with paper towels or a rag to absorb excess ink. Avoid rubbing, which pushes ink deeper into fabric.
  • Use a cotton swab or old toothbrush dipped in rubbing alcohol or hairspray to gently dab the stain. These solvents dissolve ink pigments.
  • Apply a laundry stain pre-treatment stick or spray before washing to help lift inks.
  • For cotton and linen fabrics, place paper towels under stains and dab lemon juice or a milk/water solution onto the spot to draw out ink.
  • For heavy stains, place stained area between paper towels and press with a warm iron to pull out ink onto the towels as it heats up.
  • Avoid hot water, which can set ink. After pre-treating, wash in cool water with detergent. Add borax or bleach for stubborn stains.

You may need to repeat stain removal process two or more times to fully remove ingrained ink. Check fabric care labels first.

Treating Grease and Oil Stains

Greasy stains like cooking oils, butter, and vehicle grease are challenging but can be conquered:

  • Blot excess grease immediately with paper towels or rags. Don’t smear it around the fabric.
  • Sprinkle on talcum powder or cornstarch. Let sit 30 minutes to 2 hours to absorb grease.
  • Use a dull knife to gently scrape off any hardened grease chunks before further treatment.
  • Apply a pretreatment spray or stick to stains and let soak in before washing. Formulas break down greasy residues.
  • Dish soap dissolved in warm water (2 tsp per 1 cup) effectively cuts through oils when applied to the stain.
  • Make a paste of equal parts dish soap and baking soda and let sit on stains 15 minutes before washing. Baking soda saponifies grease.
  • Wash grease-stained items in hot water if safe for the fabric. Add borax or oxygen bleach for added stain fighting power.

For tough oil stains, repeat treatment until the spot lifts completely. With patience and the right products, you can remove even heavy grease discoloration.

Lifting Grass Stains

Grass stains from grass pigments can be lifted out using these techniques:

  • Rinse or blot fresh grass stains immediately to dilute grass pigments before they set into the fabric.
  • Apply a laundry stain stick or spray designed for grass stains before washing to break down green chlorophyll.
  • For light stains, squirt dishwashing liquid on the spot and scrub gently with a soft brush. Rinse thoroughly.
  • For stubborn dried stains, sponge on a equal parts white vinegar + water solution. Let sit 30 minutes before washing.
  • Scrub hard stains with an old toothbrush and oxygen bleach paste. Let sit, then rinse. Bleach decolorizes grass stains.
  • Lightly mist old stains with a 50/50 rubbing alcohol and water spray. Let sit 5 minutes, then rinse and wash. Alcohol dissolves grass pigments.
  • Wash grass-stained clothes in hot water with chlorine bleach if safe for fabric. Air dry for maximum fading.

Grass stains can be tricky to remove, especially if they are older and set. Repeated treatment and laundering may be needed.

Removing Sweat and Deodorant Stains

Sweat and deodorant residue creates dingy yellow stains. Banish them with these tips:

  • Rinse fresh underarm stains in cool water quickly to prevent setting. Hot water can make these stains worse.
  • Make a baking soda paste and apply to stains for 15 minutes before washing to draw out discoloration.
  • For yellow pit stains, rub the area with aspirin and water paste. Let sit 1-2 hours then wash. Aspirin contains stain-fighting salicylic acid.
  • Make a paste of cream of tartar + hydrogen peroxide for heavy stains. Allow to sit 30 minutes before rinsing and washing.
  • Spray old stains with equal parts distilled white vinegar + water. Let sit 15 minutes before washing. Vinegar dissolves residue.
  • Use oxygen bleach on white fabrics to brighten underarm areas after pretreating stains. Check labels first.
  • Soak heavily stained white shirts or blouses overnight in a dilute oxygen bleach bath then wash to remove discoloration.

For best results, treat both sides of fabric when removing underarm stains.

Tackling Mud Stains

Muddy footprints and splatters require some work but can be conquered:

  • Allow thick globs of mud to partly dry then gently break up and lightly brush off what you can avoid smearing it around.
  • Rinse the back of the fabric under cold water to force out as much mud as possible.
  • Mix 1 tablespoon hydrogen peroxide with 2 cups cool water and sponge onto remaining mud residue to help lift soil. Let sit 5 minutes.
  • Make a paste with dish soap + baking soda and use an old toothbrush to gently scrub stains. Rinse thoroughly.
  • Apply a laundry pre-treatment made for soils and mud to stained areas before washing to help release ground-in dirt.
  • Soak extra dirty clothes in a vinegar + water solution before washing. Vinegar helps dissolve dried mud.
  • Use oxygen bleach after washing to brighten clothes and lift final traces of mud. Avoid using chlorine bleach.

With some elbow grease, even crusty mud stains can be conquered. Just take care not to damage delicate fabrics when scrubbing.

Cleaning Other Tough Stains

Beyond common stains, some other challenging discolorations call for specific removal techniques:


  • Rinse fabric under cold water as soon as possible after staining. Hot water can set blood stains.
  • Make a paste with cream of tartar and hydrogen peroxide and apply to the stain. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before washing.
  • For older stains, soak the fabric in an enzyme detergent solution before laundering to help break down blood proteins.

Coffee and Tea

  • Blot away excess liquid immediately to prevent it from soaking in. Avoid rubbing, which can spread the stain.
  • Pretreat coffee and tea stains with a stain stick, spray, or gel before washing. Look for formulas with enzymes that break down tannins.
  • For light stains, simply scrub with dish soap and rinse prior to laundering. The surfactants in dish soap remove coffee and tea residues.

Wine and Berries

  • Flush the stain immediately under cold running water to dilute staining pigments and prevent setting.
  • Make a solution of 1 part white vinegar to 2 parts water. Sponge onto the stain and allow to sit for 15 minutes before washing.
  • For set-in stains, rub with glycerin. Let sit for 30 minutes then rinse and launder. The glycerin will draw out the pigments.

Tomato Sauce

  • Use a dull knife to remove any chunks of tomato residue. This keeps the stain from becoming permanent.
  • Apply dish soap directly to the stain and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Gently scrub with a soft brush, then rinse.
  • Make a baking soda paste with water and gently scrub onto the stain using a toothbrush. Rinse thoroughly after scrubbing.


  • Place fabric between paper towels and press with a warm iron to absorb melted wax into the towels. Replace towels as needed.
  • Alternately, freeze fabric with the wax stain for 1-2 hours, then flex the material to crack off hardened wax chips.
  • Remove any remaining wax residue by blotting with paper towels soaked in rubbing alcohol or lighter fluid.


  • First, wash mildew stains through the hottest water safe for the fabric using bleach if recommended on the care label. This step removes surface mildew.
  • For remaining discoloration, make a paste with equal parts lemon juice and salt. Apply and sit in the sun 30-60 minutes before rinsing and re-washing. The sun’s UV rays assist in bleaching the stain.


  • Soak fabric in a solution made from 1 part white vinegar and 3 parts warm water for 15 minutes prior to washing. The acetic acid in vinegar dissolves rust stains.
  • For tough rust, make a paste using cream of tartar and water. Gently rub it into the stain using a soft brush. Allow to sit for an hour before rinsing.

Tree Sap

  • Freeze fabric with the sap stain for 1-2 hours until brittle. Then flex the material to crack off pieces of frozen sap.
  • Apply rubbing alcohol to remaining sap discoloration and allow to soak for 15 minutes. Then scrub with an old toothbrush before washing.
  • For dried sap stains, moisten the area and apply a few drops of vegetable oil. Let sit overnight, then wash. The oil breaks down sap.

Stain Removal Products to Have on Hand

Having the right stain removal products readily available in your laundry room makes cleaning up spots and spills fast and easy. Here are some must-have items:

  • Liquid laundry detergent – An enzyme-based, all-purpose detergent is a stain-fighting essential for pre-treating and washing clothes. Detergents with enzymes break down proteins and starches.
  • Oxygen bleach – This type of bleach (like OxiClean) is chlorine-free and safer on colors. Make a paste to pre-treat stains or add to the wash cycle.
  • Dish soap – The degreasing agents in dish soap work wonders on oily and greasy stains. Keep a small bottle handy.
  • Distilled white vinegar – The high acidity in vinegar dissolves residue, removes odors, brightens whites, and cuts through grease and grime.
  • Baking soda – A mild abrasive and odor remover, baking soda also neutralizes acids when mixed with water into a paste for stain treatment.
  • Hydrogen peroxide – The bubbling reaction helps lift out discoloration. Dilute with water for a safe stain-removing solution.
  • Laundry pre-treatment stick or spray – Convenient for spot-treating stains on the go before they set in and become permanent.
  • Stain remover brush – Designed for scrubbing stains, this soft brush makes it easy to work removal pastes and solutions into fabric.
  • Color-safe bleach – Formulas like Clorox 2 remove stains without bleaching or fading colored fabric like chlorine bleach can.

Tips for Avoiding Future Stains

While removing existing stains is useful, preventing them in the first place is even better. Here are some handy tips to prevent clothing stains:

  • Read fabric care labels and wash items at suggested temperatures using recommended detergent types to avoid dye transfer issues.
  • Turn clothing with vulnerable areas like collars, underarms, and pockets inside out prior to laundering. This minimizes contact with other garments.
  • Pretreat any visible stains by hand before placing items in the wash to avoid setting stains with heat.
  • Avoid overcrowding the washing machine, which inhibits stain-fighting detergents from working effectively.
  • Wash and dry similar items together since like colors are more likely to bleed onto each other. Wash darks separately.
  • Remove grease spills immediately with dish soap and rinse to keep staining to a minimum.
  • Keep stain removal tools and products readily available to treat spots right after they develop.

With persistence, the right techniques, and specialty stain removers, you can eliminate almost any type of discoloration from your clothing and textiles. Follow the instructions provided here to erase those unsightly spots and keep your garments looking bright and clean.

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As the founder of Clean It Spotless, I am Melissa Walker, a leading expert in removing tough stains from fabrics, carpets, and upholstery. With over 10 years of experience in the cleaning industry, I have developed my own natural, non-toxic stain-fighting formulas that lift stains while preserving the integrity of the underlying material. My stain removal tutorials are widely read online, and I have appeared on local TV segments demonstrating my techniques. I also present popular stain removal workshops at community centers and schools.

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