How to Remove Laundry Stains

Laundry stains are pretty much inevitable. That’s why a good washing machine has cycles specifically designed to lift them off clothes. Steam, extra rinse, hot water, and more are designed to remove stubborn soil from a variety of different fabric.

Sometimes your washer needs an assist, though. Certain stains come out better when you give them a quick pretreat with a specific solution. Or when you tweak the cycle or the wash temperature. Letting detergent or dish soap sit on a stain for a few minutes before you throw it in the wash with hot water can make all the difference.

Wondering exactly what to do when your sheets start to look yellow or you drop ketchup on your white jeans?

For answers, we sent our stain questions to Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, the in-house scientist and cleaning expert at Clorox. Read on for her solutions to make all your (stain-related) problems disappear.

Q: I love white sheets and towels, but no matter what I do, they yellow, especially the towels. Any suggestions?

Dr. Laundry: White sheets and towels that don’t get clean enough when they are washed will turn yellow with time. Dirt, body soils, skin cells, and sweat that can be behind after washing are primarily responsible for the yellowing. Effective cleaning is the best way to solve the problem. Making the right choices when doing the laundry will go a long way toward keeping white towels and bedsheets pristine.

When you wash your linens, keep these seven factors in mind:

  • The Wash Cycle. Most washers have a “Heavy-Duty” cycle that typically has a longer agitation time, defaults to a “hot” water temperature, and rinses at the highest spin speed. This provides more cleaning time and better extraction of the wash and rinse water, as well as better overall cleaning from the increased water temperature. Some washers also have a similar “Bleach” or “Whites” cycle. The total wash time for these cycles is longer, but it’s worth it because your laundry comes out cleaner.
  • The Wash Temperature. Washing laundry in lower water temperatures is definitely better for the environment because it saves the energy used to heat the water. It makes sense that people choose this, but it does have an impact on cleaning. Heated water provides the thermal energy component of cleaning. More heat equals more energy for cleaning, and you get better results when you wash your white laundry in hot water. If you are frustrated by poorly cleaned white laundry, raising the wash temperature will improve your results.
  • Your Detergent Choice. Choose a good one. Check the ingredient list and make sure your detergent has enzymes and brighteners in addition to builders and cleaning agents. Also: Make sure you are using the correct formulation for your specific clothes washer: High-efficiency (HE) clothes washers require HE detergents, and standard (traditional deep-fill) washers should use standard detergents. How much detergent you use also matters. Using a small amount of a standard detergent in an HE washer will result in poorer cleaning because that wash system has different cleaning needs than a standard clothes washer. There’s a big difference between laundry tumbling or bouncing through the cleaning solution (as it does in a front loader) and being completely immersed in it and swirling around (as it is in a traditional top loader).
  • Sodium Hypochlorite Bleach. Don’t forget to add bleach! Clorox bleach has been an important tool for cleaning, whitening, brightening, and sanitizing white laundry for over 100 years. Bleach hydrolyzes the double bonds in stains and soils, making it easier for the detergent to do its job removing those soils and keeping them suspended in the wash water until they can be rinsed away. Today’s clothes washers have easy-to-use bleach dispensers that make it convenient to safely add bleach to the clothes washer—the washer is programmed to dilute the bleach with water and add it at the right time in the wash cycle. For people who want to wash in warm or even cold water to save energy but are concerned about lower cleaning performance, adding bleach along with their detergent is a great way to improve results and make up for the lower wash temperature.
  • Fabric Softener. Towels should never be washed with fabric softener. Not only do the ingredients coat the cotton fibers, limiting absorbency, they also can have a negative interaction with the cleaning ingredients in the detergent the next time the towels are washed, reducing cleaning. Sheets will get cleaner and stay white longer if you skip the fabric softener as well.
  • Proper Loading. How you load the laundry into your washer is also important. Cramming a washer full with laundry makes it harder for the items to circulate, tumble, or bounce through the wash water easily. This lowers the mechanical energy in a clothes washer and lowers cleaning. Bulky items like sheets and heavier items like towels (especially when they are wet) are a particular challenge for a clothes washer to distribute evenly inside the machine during a spin cycle. You can help your washer by trying to include an even number of similar items (i.e., by washing the top and bottom sheet together). With towels, make sure there are at least two of the same size towel. This helps the washer more easily distribute the load when getting ready to spin so you get better extraction and more thorough removal of the wash and rinse water.
  • Waiting too long to do the laundry. Okay, let’s be honest. Making all the right decisions (heavy-duty cycle, hot water, a great detergent, bleach, properly loading the washer, and skipping the softener) will only help so much if you don’t change out your towels frequently or leave your sheets on the bed too long. Sheets should be washed weekly and towels every three to four days. If you’re waiting until they look pretty dirty, you’re waiting too long. Remember: You basically “wear” your sheets for eight hours each night. Using them for a week between washings is already asking a lot of your clothes washer, detergent, and bleach to get them clean!
  • Q: What’s the best way to wash sneakers?

    A. Dr. Laundry: Not every brand or type of sneaker recommends washing them the same way. Some allow machine washing; others don’t. Some say to never put your sneakers in the dryer, while others say their shoes won’t dry properly unless they go in the dryer. Some have leather components (which can never be treated with bleach), and some are all synthetic or mostly cotton. Fortunately, it’s easy to visit a company’s website to find care instructions that help you follow the recommended cleaning and drying method.

    Once you know the guidelines that apply to your shoes, it’s time to wash them. For shoes that can be machine washed, these tips are helpful:

  • Remove the shoelaces first so you can wash them separately.
  • Brush the shoes with a dry nylon brush to remove loose soil and dirt before washing.
  • Test whatever products you want to try on an inconspicuous area (like the tongue) inside the shoe first.
  • After pretreating, place the shoes in a mesh laundry bag before putting them in the washer.
  • Select the delicate cycle and a cooler wash temperature (to preserve any glue used to construct the shoes).
  • Add a couple of old white towels to the load to help with agitation in the washer (and, with an HE washer, ensure it adds enough water for adequate cleaning).
  • Make sure the shoes dry thoroughly. If machine drying is allowed, add towels along with the shoes.
  • Once the shoes are completely dry, reinsert the clean shoelaces.
  • For canvas shoes that can’t be machine washed but can be safely treated by hand with a bleach-and-water solution, the following technique will help to get them clean. It can also be used to pretreat shoes that can be machine washed before you put them in the washer.

  • With a dry nylon brush, brush the shoes to remove loose dirt or soil. This makes them easier to clean.
  • Remove any shoelaces and set them aside to clean later.
  • To 1 quart of water in a measuring cup, add 1 tablespoon Clorox bleach and stir to mix.
  • Working on one shoe at a time, dip the brush in the bleach-and-water solution, and then gently scrub the canvas in a circular motion. Dip the brush again as needed to keep applying the bleach solution to the canvas until the entire shoe has been treated. This only takes a few minutes; you can scrub the rubber outsole while you are at it.
  • Wait one minute, and then spray all the treated areas completely with hydrogen peroxide. Once the fizzing stops, you’ll know you’ve neutralized all the bleach.
  • Rinse the first shoe completely with clean water before starting the second shoe.
  • Let the shoes air-dry overnight.
  • To wash non-leather shoelaces, which are probably quite dirty, soak them in a bleach-and-water solution made with 1 tablespoon Clorox bleach added to 4 cups of water for 5 minutes. Next, transfer them to their own mesh bag and machine wash them along with the rest of your white bleach-safe laundry using hot water, a good detergent, and 1/3 cup Clorox bleach. Air-dry.

    Q: If I use a bleach pen on an item of clothing, is it okay to wash it with other clothes?

    Dr. Laundry: Sure, if the rest of the garments in the load are also white bleach-safe fabrics (always avoid bleaching wool, silk, mohair, leather, and spandex regardless of their color). After applying the gel and rubbing it in, immediately wash the item along with the rest of your white bleach-safe laundry using detergent and 1/3 cup Clorox bleach. Don’t add an item that has been pretreated with the bleach gel (or any other sodium hypochlorite-based pretreater or presoak) to laundry that includes items with color.

    Q: What do you do with furry dog beds and blankets?

    Dr. Laundry: I head to the Laundromat. Big, bulky, very soiled items like dog blankets benefit from being washed in a traditional deep-fill washing machine that fully submerges them in the wash solution while agitating them.

    True or False? White vinegar is the best fix for a ketchup stain.
    False. To get a glop of ketchup (or any tomato sauce) off your clothes, you want to use…laundry detergent, according to Clorox. Scrape as much ketchup as you can off with a spoon or butter knife, rinse the area from the back with cool water, then gently rub some of your usual liquid detergent into the stain and let it sit for five to 10 minutes. After that, just launder it as usual.

    Dr. Laundry’s Fixes for Other Common Stains

    Mustard Glops
    Blot away the excess with a clean napkin or paper towels, rinse in cold water from the back, and then rub a Clorox bleach pen into any stain you can still see. Launder as usual in hot water.

    Greasy Burger Drips
    You don’t need a special stain remover. Blot away the excess grease, then pretreat with dish soap or liquid laundry detergent. Wait five to 10 minutes, then wash in hot water. Repeat if needed (before drying!).

    Ink Spills
    Squirt alcohol-based hand sanitizer onto the ink right away. If the item can be bleached, wash it in the hottest water that’s safe for the material with detergent and a half cup of bleach. Air dry and repeat if needed.

    Cover it with a clean cloth, then dab the back of the stain with dish soap. Wash on the hottest recommended setting, adding a half cup of bleach if that’s okay for the material. Make sure the stain is gone before drying; repeat if needed. If you’re out and about when the stain happens, you can spritz it with hairspray to keep it from setting until you can treat it.

    While outside, brush off the black mold spores with a stiff brush. In a bucket, combine a half cup of bleach to a gallon of water; let soak for five to 10 minutes. Wash on the hottest recommended setting with bleach.

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