How to Remove Common Stains

We’ve all been there – you’re wearing your favorite white shirt when you accidentally knock over your glass of red wine. Or your young child decides to test out their markers on your new couch. Removing stains can be a frustrating endeavor, but don’t give up hope! With the right techniques and cleaning products, you can get rid of many tough stains.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over how to remove common stains from fabric, carpet, upholstery, and other surfaces. We’ll cover stain removal methods using household items you probably already have, as well as recommendations for the best store-bought stain removers.

Remove Common Stains

How Stains Set

Before jumping into stain removal techniques, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how stains actually set into fabric and other materials.

When a staining substance first comes into contact with a material, it often can be easily wiped off if tended to immediately. However, over time the staining substance will penetrate deeper into the fibers and set through a process called oxidation.

Oxidation happens when the molecules in a stain react with oxygen in the air and undergo a chemical change. This makes the stain bind more permanently to the material. Heat and humidity can accelerate oxidation and setting of stains.

So the key is to act fast when treating stains before this process has time to occur.

Certain types of materials are also more prone to accepting stains than others. For example:

  • Natural fibers like cotton and silk will absorb stains more quickly versus synthetic fibers like polyester.
  • Protein fibers like wool and silk are more likely to hold onto food and grease stains.
  • Materials like microfiber and leather have a very porous surface allowing stains to penetrate deeper.

The good news is that most stains can be treated on any type of fabric if you use the right removal methods soon after the stain happens.

Supplies for Stain Removal

Having the right supplies on hand will mean you’re ready to pre-treat stains as soon as they happen to get the best results. Here are some basic items to keep in your laundry room or cleaning supplies closet:

  • Liquid dish soap: An all-purpose cleaner safe for most surfaces. Helps lift grease-based stains.
  • White vinegar: Has bleaching properties to help remove discoloration on fabric. Avoid using on silk or wool which can be damaged by the acidity.
  • Hydrogen peroxide: This mild bleach alternative can be used to lift stubborn stains, but test first as it may discolor some fabrics.
  • Baking soda: Acts as a mild abrasive to lift dirt and stains. Also neutralizes odors.
  • Laundry pre-treat spray: Spray formulas with stain fighters help penetrate and loosen stains on fabric.
  • Enzyme-based stain remover: Breaks down proteins and fats on food, sweat, and grass stains.
  • Laundry detergent booster: Detergent addons like OxiClean give your regular detergent extra stain-fighting power.
  • Distilled white vinegar: More acidic than regular vinegar so better for disinfecting, but may damage some fabrics.
  • Old clean toothbrush: Use to work removers into fabric or scrub tougher stains.
  • Paper towels: Helpful for blotting up excess moisture when pre-treating stains.
  • Spray bottle: Use to apply stain removers and vinegar solutions to larger areas.

How To Remove Common Stains

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s go over the best ways to tackle some of the most pesky household stains:

Food Stains

Ketchup, chocolate, wine – food stains happen all too often! Here are some tips:

  • Pretreat fabric stains immediately with liquid dish soap or laundry spray. Use cold water, blotting rather than rubbing.
  • For dried stains, apply a laundry booster paste like OxiClean and let sit before washing.
  • Rinse carpet and upholstery stains with water first. Then apply an enzyme cleaner like Biokleen Bac-Out, let it sit, and blot thoroughly.
  • If grease stains persist, sprinkle cornstarch or baking soda before vacuuming carpets. The powder will absorb grease.
  • For stains on leather, gently wipe away any excess and use a leather cleaner and conditioner to gently blot the stain.

Coffee and Tea Stains

Coffee and tea contain tanic acid that can really set into fabric. Treat ASAP using these methods:

  • Flush fabric stains right away with cold water on the backside. Avoid hot water which can set the stain.
  • Make a paste with dish soap, vinegar, and water. Rub into the stain and rinse.
  • For older stains, use a few applications of hydrogen peroxide followed by rinsing.
  • Launder fabric using the warmest water recommended after pretreating. Air dry in direct sunlight which helps bleach stains.
  • For set coffee stains on upholstery, use a professional carpet cleaning machine to extract the stain after pretreating.

Ink Stains

Ink stains from pens, markers, or art projects can be tricky. But don’t worry – try these tips:

  • Spray hairspray liberally on fresh ink stains on fabric. Let sit for a few minutes, then rinse and launder. The alcohol in hairspray dissolves ink.
  • Rub white toothpaste on ink stains on carpet before rinsing and extracting with a carpet cleaner. The toothpaste acts as an absorbent.
  • For really set-in ink stains, apply hairspray followed by an enzyme cleaner designed for ink. This one-two combo helps break down and lift the stain.
  • On leather, ink stains can sometimes be lightened using rubbing alcohol very gently applied with a soft cloth. Avoid over-saturating.

Sweat Stains

Nobody wants to show off perspiration stains! Banish them from clothing with these methods:

  • Make a paste with baking soda and water and gently scrub onto underarm stains before washing.
  • Soak whites in warm water with borax or white vinegar to help lift discoloration.
  • For really stubborn yellowing, lay fabric in direct sunlight. The UV rays naturally bleach the stains.
  • Use an enzyme presoak laundry treatment formulated for sweat and body oils to break down the stain over time.
  • If stains remain after washing, spritz with hydrogen peroxide before drying. Check for color-fastness first.

Lipstick Stains

Lipstick stains happen easily on collars and clothing. Work quickly to get the upper hand on these stubborn makeup stains:

  • Gently scrape off excess lipstick with a dull knife or spoon. Don’t smear it in further!
  • Apply a small amount of petroleum jelly to the stain and let sit briefly before rinsing with dish soap and water.
  • If any discoloration remains, make a paste with baking soda and water and rub it into the fabric before laundering.
  • Use a stain stick with hydrogen peroxide on set-in stains to lift discoloration after washing.
  • On delicate silks, opt for a dry cleaning solvent applied sparingly with a cloth to gently dissolve lipstick stains.

Grass Stains

Don’t let grass stains ruin your summer clothes! Attack them promptly with these techniques:

  • Rinse the fabric under cold water while rubbing liquid dish soap into the stain.
  • For dried stains, soak in an enzyme-based detergent like Ecover Zero before washing. Let it sit for 30 minutes or more for full effect.
  • Make a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Spritz generously over the stain before washing.
  • For really challenging dried grass stains, apply rubbing alcohol before the wash cycle to help break it down.
  • If stains linger after washing, re-treat by spraying with vinegar and laying item in direct sunlight.

Grease and Oil

Grease stains are tricky, but here are tips for conquering them:

  • Sprinkle corn starch or baking soda over the stain to absorb grease, then scrape off.
  • Use a dull knife to gently lift off any crusted grease. Avoid scrubbing and spreading the stain further.
  • Apply dish soap to the stain and wash immediately in the warmest water allowed for the fabric.
  • For oily carpet stains, spray with a degreasing carpet cleaner like Carbona 2-in-1 and extract the area thoroughly.
  • Rub a small amount of white chalk into grease stains on leather to absorb oils. Wipe gently with a damp cloth.

Blood Stains

Act quickly when blood stains clothes or upholstery using these methods:

  • Run under cold water as soon as possible and pat dry. Hot water can set blood stains permanently.
  • Make a paste with baking soda and cold water and gently dab onto the stain. Rinse thoroughly.
  • Hydrogen peroxide also helps lift fresh blood stains – soak before laundering.
  • For set-in stains treat with an enzyme cleaner made for blood and protein stains. Let it sit before rinsing and washing.
  • Rub meat tenderizer into dried blood stains and let sit for 30 minutes before washing in cool water. The enzymes help break down proteins.

When to Use Specialty Stain Removers

For some extra challenging stains, specialty stain remover products can come to the rescue when DIY options fail. Here are a few instances where they’re a good option:

  • Old, set-in stains: If the stain has been dried and washed multiple times already, a stronger stain fighter will be needed to penetrate deep into the fibers. Look for an oxygen-based bleach product.
  • Delicate fabrics: Silk, wool, and other delicate fabrics may need a gentler enzyme formula designed not to damage or discolor. Seek out cleaners made specifically for delicates.
  • Heavy grease stains: Degreasing cleaners like Carbona Oxypowered Carpet Stain Remover are the most effective on stains from oils, tars, greasy foods, cosmetics, and more.
  • Stains spanning large areas: For large stains, a stain remover applied in a spray bottle allows you to really soak the whole area evenly. Seek large format bottles.
  • Upholstery stains: Furniture fabrics and carpeting often benefit from stain removers formulated just for them that won’t damage the materials. Woolite makes a good carpet cleaner.

No matter what specialty stain remover you choose, it’s still best to apply it immediately after a stain occurs according to package directions for maximum impact.

Stain Removal Tips To Remember

  • Act as quickly as possible when stains occur! The longer you wait, the harder it will be to remove them.
  • Blot stains instead of rubbing or scrubbing which can push them deeper into the fibers.
  • Always pre-test stain removers in an inconspicuous area first to check for discoloration or damage.
  • Apply stain remover from the backside of fabric whenever possible so it can fully penetrate the fibers.
  • Wash and rinse items thoroughly after using any stain removal treatments. Residue left behind can lead to permanent discoloration over time.
  • Use the warmest water possible for the fabric when laundering to help release stains.
  • For extra challenge stains, re-treat again after washing if they still persist. Repeated applications increase effectiveness.
  • Be aware of whether your fabrics are colorfast. Non-colorfast fabrics may bleed when stain removal chemicals are applied.


While staining may be inevitable in life, permanent stains don’t have to be. With the right stain removal methods and products, you can keep your clothes, furniture, carpets and other belongings looking like new again. Just remember to always act quickly when spills and stains happen, and don’t hesitate to use a specialty cleaner for those extra tricky types of stains. With a little patience and elbow grease, you can erase almost any blot, smudge or spot.

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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.