Types of Stains




This is your guide to the different categories of stains and how to beat them.

Spots happen. It’s a fact of life. It might be a grass spot on your son’s pants, red wine on the carpet or hot coffee on a clean shirt. But spots don’t have to be permanent, which means you don’t have to toss out that shirt or live with that splotchy red carpet.

You see, spots aren’t as mysterious as some people think. Most spots fall into one of four main categories: protein, oil-based, tannin and dye. The rest are usually some combination of those spot categories. By understanding what is in a spot, textile scientists can determine what will remove it. Armed with this spot-removal know-how, you too can beat most spots before they beat you – with a few exceptions, of course.

There are three main categories of textiles that can be stained: washable fabrics (clothing, linen, towels), carpets, and upholstered furniture.


Protein-Based Stains

These are caused by such substances as baby food and formula, cream- or cheese-based foods, eggs, feces and urine.

For fresh protein stains on washable fabrics, cold water is sometimes all you’ll need to remove them. Don’t use hot water, because it can cook the proteins, causing the spot to coagulate between the fibers in the fabric.

1. Soak fabrics in cold water for half an hour, put the spot under running cold water, and gently rub the fabric against itself to loosen the spot.

2. Launder in the washing machine in warm water.

For an old or dried protein stain on a washable fabric, you may have to take your spot-removal tactics to the next level.

1. Soak fabrics for half an hour in a solution of 1 teaspoon of liquid detergent (preferably one containing enzymes – the label will say whether it has them) per 1.75 liters of cold water.

2. Follow this soaking by laundering the fabric in your washing machine in warm water.

3. Inspect the item before drying. If the spot is still there, soak the fabric an additional half hour and then launder again.

4. If the spot remains after that, your only option may be to add the recommended amount of bleach to the next wash cycle, especially if the spot was caused by colored ice cream or baby food.

For a fresh protein stain on carpeting or upholstery, spray with cold water and blot, repeating until clean.

For a dried protein stain on carpeting or upholstery

1. Create a solution of ¼ teaspoon mild dishwashing liquid (one that doesn’t contain lanolin or bleach) in 1 liter of cold water.

2. Apply the solution to a cloth, and use a blotting motion to work the solution into the affected area.

3. Blot with a clean paper towel to remove the solution.

4. Rinse by lightly spraying the spot with water and then blotting. Do this until all the soap suds are gone. Then spray lightly with water again. Don’t blot this time. Instead, lay a pad of paper towels over the spot, put a weight on it, and let it dry.

5. If the spot persists, repeat the procedure with a stronger solution: ½ teaspoon of liquid detergent (preferably one containing enzymes) per 1 liter of cold water.

6. If that still doesn’t completely remove the spot, moisten the stained patch with 3% hydrogen peroxide. Let it stand for one hour. Blot and repeat until the carpet or upholstery is spot-free. No rinsing is necessary following this procedure, because light will cause the peroxide to change to water. To dry, use the method mentioned previously involving a pad of paper towels and a weight. But be careful: hydrogen peroxide is bleach and can whiten colors.


Oil-Based Stains

These include spots from car grease or motor oil, hair oil and mousse, hand lotion, kitchen grease, lard, butter, bacon, oils, ointments, salad dressing and suntan lotion. Oil-based spots aren’t as difficult to get rid of as most people think. Many prewash spot-removal products contain special solvents for removing oil and grease.

For oil-based stains on washable fabrics

1. Pretreat new and old spots with a commercial prewash spot remover. If you don’t have one of those products, apply liquid laundry detergent (or a paste made from granular detergent mixed with water) directly to the spot. Work the detergent into the spot.

2. Immediately after pretreatment, wash the item in the washing machine in hot water (if that is safe for the fabric and colors).

3. Before drying the fabric, inspect it. If the spot is still evident, repeat the process until it is gone.

For oil-based stains on carpets and upholstery

1. Apply isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to a clean white cloth or white paper towel and blot the spot. Discard the dirty towels and repeat using fresh paper towels and alcohol until the spot is gone. Don’t let the alcohol penetrate the carpet backing, as it can destroy the latex lining.

2. If that treatment doesn’t remove the spot, try the method recommended above for removing dried protein spots from carpeting and upholstery.


Tannin Stains

These include spots from alcoholic drinks, coffee or tea without milk, fruits and juices, soft drinks and wine. Most jellies also contain tannins, but cherry and blueberry jellies should be treated as dye spots.

For tannin stains on washable fabric

1. Soak for half an hour in a solution of 1 teaspoon liquid detergent (preferably one containing enzymes) per 1.75 liters of warm water.

2. Then launder in the washing machine in the hottest water that is safe for the fabric, using laundry detergent and not soap. Natural soaps – including soap flakes, bar soap and detergent containing soap – make tannin spots harder to remove.

3. To remove stubborn tannin spots, you may need to wash with bleach. If all the sugars from one of these spots aren’t removed, they could turn brown when put into the tumble dryer as the sugar will caramelize.

For tannin stains on carpeting or upholstery

1. Lightly apply a solution of ¼ teaspoon mild dishwashing liquid and 1 liter water. Use a blotting motion to work the solution into the affected area.

2. Blot with a clean paper towel to remove the solution.

3. Rinse by lightly spraying with water and blotting to remove excess water. Do this until all the soap suds are gone.

4. Spray lightly with water again, but don’t blot. Instead, lay a pad of paper towels down, weight it and let it dry.

5. If the blemish persists, repeat the procedure using a solution of ½ teaspoon liquid detergent (preferably one containing enzymes) per 1 liter of water.

6. If that doesn’t completely remove the spot, moisten the tufts in the spoted area with 3% hydrogen peroxide. Let it stand for one hour. Blot and repeat until the spot has disappeared. No rinsing is necessary following this procedure. To dry, lay down the weighted pad of paper towels mentioned above.


Dye Stains

These include spots from blueberries, cherries, grass and mustard. Dye spots can be problems. After all, dyes are usually meant to stick. They’re what color our clothes.

For dye stains on washable fabrics

1. Pretreat with a commercial prewash spot remover. Or apply liquid laundry detergent directly to the spot, work the detergent into the spot, and rinse well.

2. Soak the fabric in a diluted solution of oxygen bleach (identified as “all-fabric” or “perborate” on the label), following the directions on the packaging. Launder.

3. Inspect the item to see whether the spot is still there. If so, try soaking the entire garment in a solution of chlorine bleach and water. (Again, follow the directions on the bleach container.) But be careful: bleach can drastically alter colors and weaken fabric.

For dye stains on carpets or upholstery, good luck. You may have to call a professional cleaner or, in the case of a solid-colored carpet, cut the spoted part out and patch it with clean carpet. But before you go that far, try the procedure described above for tannin spots on carpets or upholstery.


Combination Stains

These contain both oils or waxes and dyes. They are commonly divided into two categories:

  • Group A combination spots include those from lipstick, eye makeup (mascara, pencil, liner, eye shadow), furniture polish and shoe polish.
  • Group B combination spots include chocolate, gravy, hair spray, face makeup (foundation, powder, rouge), peanut butter and tomato-based foods.

To remove these spots, you first must remove the oily or waxy portion, and then you can try to remove the dye. As with any tough spot, your success is not guaranteed. But by following the steps below, you do stand a chance, especially if you get to the spot while it’s fresh.

For washable fabrics with stains in Group A

1. Begin by applying a dry-cleaning solvent, available from pharmacies.

2. Rub with a liquid detergent and scrub in hot water. This should remove the oily or waxy part.

3. Launder, using a laundry detergent and an oxygen or all-fabric bleach.

4. Inspect before drying. If the spot persists, try washing with chlorine bleach.

For washable fabrics with stains in Group B

1. Skip the dry-cleaning solvent. Rub the spot with a liquid laundry detergent.

2. Launder in the washing machine in the hottest water possible for the fabric.

3. If that doesn’t work, try first the oxygen bleach and then, if that fails, the chlorine bleach.

For combination stains on carpets and upholstery, also begin by removing the oily or waxy part first. Apply isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to a clean white cloth or white paper towel and blot the spot. Discard the dirty towels and repeat using fresh paper towels and alcohol until the spot is gone. Don’t let the alcohol penetrate the carpet backing, as it could destroy the latex lining.

If the alcohol treatment doesn’t work, try the next step:

1. Lightly apply a solution of ¼ teaspoon of mild dishwashing liquid (one that doesn’t contain lanolin or bleach) and 1 liter of water.

2. Use a blotting motion to work the solution into the affected area. Blot with a clean paper towel to remove the solution.

3. Rinse by lightly spraying with water and blotting. Do this until all the suds are gone.

4. Then spray again lightly with water. But instead of blotting this time, lay a pad of paper towels down, put a weight on it, and let it dry.

5. Finally, if that doesn’t completely remove the stain, moisten the stained tufts with 3% hydrogen peroxide and let it stand for one hour. Blot and repeat until the spot is gone. No rinsing is necessary following this procedure. To dry, use a pad of paper towels and weight.


Related Articles:

Spot Removal Tips

How to Remove Spots

Removing Spots: Tools & Techniques


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