Classification of Stains

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Classification of Stains

The system used here in classifying stains for removal from washable fabrics is not the only one that has been used. Other books or sources may suggest different methods that also may work. The purpose here is to describe at least one method that should give good results using readily available consumer products or supplies if used correctly.

This stain classification system starts with stains that require similar treatment and are easiest to remove if treated promptly and correctly. Stains that require two-step or special treatment are listed last.

Protein Stains

Soak in cold water. Launder.

  • Baby food
  • Milk
  • Baby formula
  • Mucous
  • Blood
  • Cheese sauce
  • Mud
  • Cream
  • Pudding
  • Egg
  • Urine
  • Feces
  • Vomit
  • Gelatin
  • White glue; school paste
  • Ice cream

Fresh protein stains can be removed by soaking and agitating in cold water before washing. These stains contain other ingredients besides protein, but it needs treatment first. If hot water is used first, it cooks the protein, causing coagulation between the fibers in the yarns of the fabric, making the stains more difficult to remove. If protein stains are dried or old, scrape or brush off crusted matter (if any), then soak in cold water using a detergent or an enzyme presoak product.

After treating the stain, launder in warm (not hot) water, rinse, and inspect. If stain remains, soak an additional half-hour, then rewash. Bleach may be necessary if the stain was colored, such as baby food beets, strawberry gelatin, or ice cream.

Tannin Stains

Do not use soap (bar, flake). Use detergents.

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Beer
  • Berries (cranberries, raspberries, strawberries)
  • Coffee
  • Cologne
  • Felt-tip water color pen or washable ink
  • Fruit juice (apple, grape, orange)
  • Soft drinks
  • Tea
  • Tomato juice

Fresh tannin stains are usually removed by detergent (not soap) washing in hot water (as safe for fabric) during laundering without any treatment. Use of soap (bar soap, soap flakes, or detergents containing natural soap) will make a tannin stain permanent or at least more difficult to remove. Be sure to check the ingredients list of your detergent for soap. More brands now include it for economic reasons. Old tannin stains may need bleaching for more complete removal.

Oil-based Stains

Use heavy-duty detergent with hot water.

  • Automotive oil
  • Hair oil
  • Bacon fat
  • Hand lotion
  • Butter/margarine
  • Lard
  • Car door grease
  • Mayonnaise
  • Collar/cuff greasy rings
  • Salad dressing
  • Cooking fats and oils
  • Suntan oil or lotion
  • Face creams

Oil stains can be removed by pretreatment with a heavy-duty liquid detergent, an aerosol petroleum-based solvent pretreatment spray, or a pump-type detergent-based pretreatment spray. If these products are unavailable, you can use a powdered detergent that is mixed with water to make a runny paste and apply that to the stain.

The heavy-duty liquid detergents or aerosol sprays are more convenient and effective. Work the full-strength heavy-duty liquid detergent into the stain or spray with the pretreatment product, then wash the garment using hot water (if safe for fabric), the recommended amount of detergent for a regular laundry load, rinse, and inspect before drying. Repeat this treatment if removal is incomplete the first time.

Dye Stains

Need detergent wash and bleach as safe, for fabric.

  • Cherry, blueberry
  • Color bleeding in wash (dye transfer)
  • Felt-tip pen (permanent ink-may not come out)
  • Grass
  • India ink
  • Kool-Aid
  • Mercurochrome
  • Mustard
  • Tempera paint

Dye stains are very difficult to remove. First,pretreat the stain with a heavy-duty liquid detergent, then rinse thoroughly. Soak the stained garment in a dilute solution of all-fabric powdered bleach.

If the stain persists, and the garment is white or colorfast, soak in a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach and water. Bleaching damage to colored garments is irreversible. To decide if a fabric can be bleached safely, use the test described previously. If the stain is not removed in 15 minutes, it cannot be removed by bleaching and further bleaching will only weaken the fabric.

Caution: Since bleaches can alter the color of a fabric as well as the stain, bleach the whole garment and do not try to bleach just a spot.

Combination Stains

Two step treatment: (1) Remove oily/waxy portion, (2) Remove dye portion using bleach as safe for fabric.

Combination stains contain a variety of ingredients, but these stains usually have an oily/waxy component and a dye or pigment component. Use the procedures recommended for removing oil stains first.

Step 1 procedure depends on whether stain is in Group A or B as follows:

Group A. Spray or sponge with drycleaning solvent (perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene) then rub with heavy-duty liquid detergent before washing.

  • Ball-point ink
  • Candle wax
  • Carbon paper
  • Carbon typewriter ribbon
  • Crayon
  • Eye make-up (mascara, pencil, liner, shadow)
  • Floor wax
  • Furniture polish
  • Lipstick
  • Livestock paint
  • Pine resin
  • Shoe polish
  • Tar

Group B. Rub heavy-duty liquid detergent into stain before washing.

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Calomine lotion
  • Catsup or tomato sauce
  • Cocoa or chocolate
  • Face make-up (powder, rouge, foundation)
  • Gravy
  • Hair spray

After you've done the procedures above, do step 2-removing dye stains. Start with an all-fabric bleach because it is less damaging to colors and fabrics. Use liquid chlorine bleaches for tough dye stains, if fabrics are colorfast to bleach.


Special thanks to Iowa State University for allowing us to reproduce this information.

Reproduced with permission from the Cooperative Extension Service, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 50011.

Prepared by: Janis Stone,
Textiles and Clothing Specialist,
Iowa State University

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No endorsement of companies or their products mentioned is intended, nor is criticism implied of similar companies or their products not mentioned. The information found on the pages in this section are provided by Ohio State University for educational purposes. is not associated in anyway with Ohio State University.  Apparel Search is simply providing viewers of the fashion industry with easy access to the helpful educational material that has been developed by Ohio State University.  Please visit the Ohio State University web site to learn more about the wonderful educational opportunities that they provide.

Learn more about washing clothes.

Clothing Care and fiber Content Labels

fabrics Labeled "Dry-clean Only"

A Note about Modern fabrics

Garments with Contrasting Colors or Trim

Removing Stains from Washable fabrics:

Spot Treatment Technique (Sponging) for Apparel fabrics

Chemical Solvents and Supplies

Follow These Safety Precautions

Classification of Stains

What to Do if You Don't Know

Stains Needing Unique Treatment Methods

Common Remedies to Avoid

How to Identify and Prevent

Additional Stain Removal References


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