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Foods That Stain Clothing the Most — and How to Get Them Out

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Out, Damned Spot!

There you are, enjoying your first meal with friends or family in forever when you look down and spot a spot. Or spots. Food stains can ruin a favorite shirt, blouse, or pair of pants in the blink of an eye. But you can remove many common ones from clothing using a handful of household items and some water, along with a little care and timely attention. Cheapism spoke with Pat Slaven, a chemical engineer, textile expert, and former “stain queen” at Consumer Reports’ testing labs, about how to get rid of some common food stains from clothing.


Editor's note: This story has been revised since publication.


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Ketchup and Mustard Stain
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Mustard

Mustard is Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to common food stains, thanks to the dyes used to give mustard its vivid hue. “Most stain removers don’t get it out,” says Slaven. But you don’t need a fancy stain remover to lift a mustard stain, she adds. First, gently scrape off as much as you can while the stain is still fresh. Next, dissolve a teaspoon of liquid dish detergent in a cup of water — Slaven recommends Palmolive and Ivory dish soap or Dr. Bronner’s castile soap. “Get whatever you can with soap and water and rinse it,” she says, “then put it in sunlight to dry and the sun will just fade it away.”


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that mustard stains should be allowed to dry before treating. Cheapism regrets the error.


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Person pointing to spilled curry stain on white shirt.
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Ketchup and Tomato Sauce

It wouldn’t be a picnic without ketchup to accompany that mustard, would it? Small wonder that ketchup and its sibling tomato sauce are two common foods that stain. The good news is that these stains are much easier to remove than mustard. “Detergent and water will get a lot of it out,” Slaven says. As with mustard, treat by hand with the same mix of dish soap and water, then rinse. If the stain appears to linger, Slaven recommends using Oxyclean and treating the stain a second time. “It’s a great soap for food stains, really, any tomato stain,” she says.


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Coffee Spilling from Cup onto Carpet
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Coffee and Tea

These tanic liquids can be problematic, Slaven says, but most of the time can be removed with diligence. Blot what you can as soon as you can, then treat the stain by soaking it in a mildly acidic liquid such as vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. Combine ⅓ cup of vinegar or hydrogen peroxide with ⅔ cup water, then blot the stain with a clean towel that’s been moistened in the cleaning solution. Work from the outside of the stain inward. Repeat if necessary.


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Housewife washing clothes with different detergents in the bowl. Dry cleaning concept. Clothes care. Chores of maid. Regular washing.
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Cooking Oil

For these stains, the remedy is a time-honored one — Fels-Naptha soap, which has been around since the late 1800s. The relatively high pH levels disperse oil molecules, lifting them from fabric fibers. “It’s a great pre-treat for a lot of food stains,” Slaven says. The long-lasting soap is also relatively inexpensive (a 5.5-ounce bar costs less than $2). To remove a cooking-oil strain, simply wet the Fels-Naptha and rub it on the stain. Allow the stain to dry overnight, then wash the garment in your washing machine as you normally would. When the washer’s done, check the garment; if the stain is diminished but still visible, spot-treat and launder a second time. “It may take two or three times, but it will come out,” she says.


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Spilled Red Wine
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Red Wine

When it comes to red wine, time is of the essence. While the stain is fresh, blot as much of the liquid as you can with a clean white towel. Next, moisten a clean cloth with hydrogen peroxide and dab the stain, and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Next, use the same detergent solution as you would on mustard or ketchup to spot-treat the stain by hand and allow it to dry. This treatment can also be used on wool carpeting, Slaven notes.


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Gum sticking on jean with holding hand to remove, this is so bad for morning day
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Chewing Gum

Gum isn’t a food per se, but it’s another common stain culprit because it will stick tenaciously to anything and is a bear to remove. But it can be done, Slaven says. First, use a dull knife to gently remove as much excess gum from the fabric as possible. Next, take a pea-size amount of Bengay ointment (yes, the stuff used to soothe aches and pains) and rub it into the stain. That will gradually break up the gum, freeing it from the fabric fibers. Wash the area with the aforementioned detergent and water solution to remove the last of the gum and the Bengay.


Related: 18 Things You Didn't Know About Chewing Gum

Stains on clothes
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Chocolate

As with chewing gum, begin by gently scraping off as much excess chocolate as possible. Soak the stained area for 20 to 30 minutes in a solution of dish soap and warm water, then launder as recommended. Retreat if needed before placing it in the clothes dryer. You can also try pretreating the stain with a drop of liquid laundry detergent (Tide and Persil are two of the best-reviewed options).


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Crystals of edible salt on the fabric of a jacket to remove dirty oil stains
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Pizza Grease

“You can pretreat this kind of stain with any laundry booster,” Slaven says. “Other good pretreats are diluted dish detergent  or a diluted paste of my old favorite Fels-Naptha.” If you are wearing dry-clean only clothing, she adds, try to absorb as much of the grease as possible with cornstarch, baby powder, or even diatomaceous earth (a common gardening item). Allow to sit for 30 minutes or longer, then brush off the excess powder; repeat if needed.


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Female hands washing color clothes in basin
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Tips for Stopping Stains

  • Don’t delay. No matter what you’ve slopped on yourself, no matter where you are, time is of the essence, Slaven says. “Get to a stain soon. If you don’t have anything with you, a little detergent and water will help.” Even a drop or two of hand soap from a restaurant restroom will do in a pinch. 

  • Use a clean white towel for treating. That will allow you to see the stain being lifted as you work. Start at the outer edge and work towards the center of a stain

  • Pretreat with patience. If you’re dabbing on a soap solution, allow it to sit for 20 to 30 minutes minimum before rinsing or adding to the washing machine. “In general, the more time you give it, the more time it can work,” Slaven advises.

  • Don’t scrub. Whatever the stain, be gentle. Don’t use something like a scrubbing pad or toothbrush or you could end up damaging the fabric.

  • Don’t use the dryer just yet. Inspect the garment after you’ve treated the stain. If the stain hasn’t been lifted entirely, tossing it in the clothes dryer will just cook that stain into permanence.


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