We’ve all been there. We’re trucking along, on our way to work or eating lunch out in the world, and BAM! Coffee down our fronts. Ketchup on our new pants. Stains happen, but like running into exes or your printer running out of ink, they often happen at the worst time. That’s why I don’t understand a lot of laundry guides’ stain removal sections. Yes, sure, ideally we have a Tide pen on our person at all times or can mix complicated concoctions to apply before a stain sets, but those options kind of demand that you’re in the right place at the right time. Most times I’ve stained something I mind being stained (home clothes are home clothes for a reason), I’m going somewhere important or nice and I don’t necessarily have access to more than a public bathroom or some napkins.
Because of my perpetual under-preparedness, I decided to test the stain fighting options most folks usually have access to when they’re untethered from their laundry rooms on the stains most people get pretty frequently: ketchup, mustard, oil, and coffee. Yes, there are definitely many other things you can stain your clothes with, but I figured this covered the stain “worlds” pretty well (for instance, when you get a spaghetti sauce stain, it’s mostly the tomatoes and oil that’s staining the fabric, so you can still get a good idea from these samples of what would work best).
Before I talk about the method and results, a couple of notes regarding other frequent stains: ALWAYS use cold water to get blood out (run it under a faucet as cold as you can and gently rub with your fingers, and hand sanitizer is the best option for tree sap. Trust me, I’ve bled on a lot of stuff and sat in a lot of tree sap, and those are the best ways, hands down.
The method. I tested strips of fabric (I used 100% cotton) stained with each substance. I dabbed the excess off with a paper napkin, applied the treatment, rubbed with my fingers, then rinsed with warm water. None of the stains sat on the fabric untreated for more than a minute (I assumed most people would notice a treatable stain within a pretty short window — a dry stain noticed much later is a different ball game). I did use an Oxi stain stick on one strip as a sort of control so I could see what would happen if I were in an ideal situation where I had access to a stain stick and a sink. I also let everything dry completely before photographing.
The results. As you can see, not a ton of big surprises here, but some interesting findings nonetheless. Dabbing at a stain doesn’t really do much (this was the only strip that you could still see coffee on). Rinsing got the coffee out, but otherwise it doesn’t really seem to be worth getting your shirt wet if you don’t have anything else to treat with — the other stains weren’t really any different with water added. Hand sanitizer was better than water. This method is actually my go to when I stain my clothes and can’t use a bathroom, and it does seem to help the stain come out later in the wash. Plus I usually have hand sanitizer on me or in the car (especially these days), so it’s better than just dabbing or even rinsing.
Unsurprisingly, soap-based treatments won the day with all these food stains. What was a bit surprising, though, was how well dish soap did. I originally tested it because it’s what I would go for if I stained my clothing at a friend’s house or someplace where I didn’t feel okay about poking around the laundry room. And amazingly, dish soap outperformed the actual stain stick! I’ve written before about my love of dish soap (read more here), but I never really thought of it for stains besides oil. The dish soap left only the faintest trace of ketchup and mustard and completely removed the oil and coffee, but with the stain stick there was a discernible (if faint) stain. I honestly may just start treating at home stains with dish soap as well — an easy solution that works!
Finally, hand soap did okay (better than just dabbing, just water, or hand sanitizer), but it couldn’t seem to remove anything completely, even the oil. Still, probably the best option in a pinch, as most folks don’t carry dish soap everywhere (but maybe we should?).
My overall findings? Go for the soapiest thing you can find, but sub in hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to water. Rinsing isn’t worth it unless you spilled something very liquidy like coffee or soda. And remember: time is always important with stains. The longer something sits, the more likely the stain will fix. If you can’t do anything about the stain in the moment, no worries, just brush it off and deal with it when you get home. Ideally with dish soap.
Thanks for reading!