Natural stain removal for clothing

I like things tidy, but I’m ridiculously messy when it comes to painting and other DIY, yard work, crafting, cooking, etc. Stains on my clothing (despite my wearing an apron) are inevitable. You too? 

The stain possibilities are endless in most households — grass stains on sports’ uniforms, perspiration stains on t-shirts, spit-up stains on baby clothes, oil splatters on favorite dresses . . . 

No matter what the cause of your stains, being able to remove them naturally is a terrific skill to have. There are a few things to know and several ingredients to become familiar with, but really, it’s not rocket science. (There is a bit of chemistry involved, but we don’t have to talk about that.) Here’s a primer to help you polish your stain removal skills with natural ingredients:

Stain removal tips

blue and white fabric being held under running water
  • Always try to treat a stain asap. If a stain sits for a while, it dries into the clothing fibers and is harder to remove. And it’s MUCH harder to remove after the stain has been laundered — especially if it’s been put in the dryer, because the heat will probably set it. It’s not impossible to remove a stain that’s been set, but the task will be more challenging!
  • Blot up excess liquid from a stain before treating it. Use a clean white cloth when possible. 
  • Brush or scrape off excess solids (like dirt) before treating the fabric. Use a soft brush or a dull knife for this and be gentle to prevent fabric damage. 
  • Put a stained fabric under running water right away. This is helpful in washing away as much of the stain as possible. For most stains, start with cold water when attempting to remove them —  hot water is more likely to set the stain. 
  • Pretreat stains before washing. That way the ingredients can penetrate the stain and lift out the oil and dirt. Either spray a stain remover directly on the fabric or let the item soak in a pail or sink of water with a stain removal solution. Either way, let the fabric sit for half an hour (or up to overnight, for stubborn stains) before laundering.
  • Try laundry detergent. For some stains, a simple application of your usual laundry detergent (wet or dry) directly on the stain will do the trick. Apply, rub in gently, rinse, and launder the item as usual. (If using dry detergent, wet the fabric first.)
  • Apply stain remover to the back side of a stain. That way the stain is rinsed off the fabric rather than through it. 
  • Place a clean white towel under the item you’re treating.
  • Use distilled water when making DIY stain removers. The minerals in tap water can leave water marks. 
  • After applying a stain remover, gently rub your fabric together. You can also use a soft toothbrush (my fave) or even your fingernail to work the remover into the fibers and loosen the stain. Don’t scrub too hard, though, or you may damage the fabric.
  • Whenever possible, test your stain removal formula in an inconspicuous spot before use. 
  • After treating a stain, use the hottest water that’s safe for your fabric when laundering.

Natural ingredients for stain removal

baking soda sprinkled on a coffee stain on white fabric

These safe ingredients can handle all kinds of stains. If one doesn’t work, try another! You’re likely to come up with your favorites after a few attempts. 

Baking soda is handy for making a stain-removal paste. Mix it with white vinegar, then gently rub into the stain. Let sit about 20 minutes, then wash. Repeat if necessary.

Cornstarch is excellent for oily stains and ink stains. For oily stains, sprinkle the cornstarch directly on the stain. Let it sit for 15 minutes or longer, then brush away. Wash the item as usual. For ink, make a paste using cornstarch and white vinegar, then rub into the ink stain. Let dry, then launder. 

Hydrogen peroxide brightens whites, and it works to remove yellow underarm stains, red wine stains, blood, grass, sweat, coffee, nail polish, fruit, and other food stains. Either spray directly onto wet fabric, or mix a little dishwashing liquid into the peroxide first and then blot onto the stain. Because it breaks down into water and oxygen, hydrogen peroxide is safer than chlorine bleach. Use 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (this is the kind available in most drugstores). Industrial strength (over 30 percent) is too strong. Three percent is safe for whites and some light fabrics, but test it in an inconspicuous spot first, because it can bleach the color out of some fabrics.

Lemon juice is terrific for brightening whites without the use of bleach. It helps remove rust and grease stains and underarm stains on white shirts. Make a paste of salt and lemon juice and apply to the stain. You can also combine equal parts lemon juice and water and soak white fabric in it to bleach it bright. Keep in mind that lemon can discolor colored fabric, though.

white nightgowns hanging on a clothesline

Sunshine will whiten and brighten whites. If you have a stubborn stain, spray it with some vinegar or lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide and hang in the sunshine. Then wash and dry again. If your white laundry is looking a little dingy, simply hang it on a clothesline on a sunny day, and it’ll be brighter in a few hours. 

Table salt will absorb some stains — like red wine, rust, and even ink stains if they haven’t set yet. It also helps absorb liquid stains before they set. Sprinkle it on your stain, brush it off (after it absorbs the stain), then wash well. (If left in the fabric, salt can discolor the fabric, so make sure you wash the item well.)

White chalk can be rubbed onto an oil stain. The chalk will absorb the oil, similarly to cornstarch. Let it sit for a bit, brush it off, then launder the item.

White vinegar will help remove underarm stains and mildew stains, and it will whiten and brighten fabrics. Add a cup to the final rinse of the wash cycle of your whites. Or dab equal parts vinegar and water on the stain, let it sit for 15-30 minutes, and launder. You can also make an overnight soak by combining 1 cup of white vinegar, ½ cup of liquid detergent, and a bucket of water. (As I suggested above, white vinegar is also good for making a stain removal paste when combined with baking soda.)

A note about why I haven’t included borax: Borax helps removes stains by boosting your detergent. It’s often used in laundry products, including DIY recipes. While it’s a naturally occurring mineral made up of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water, it can be harmful. It’s certainly not safe to ingest, and inhaling it isn’t healthy, either. Read about the short- and long-term health effects of borax.

Commercial stain removers

a hand in a rubber glove rubs pink fabric with a natural stain removal bar

Experimenting with the above ingredients as stain removers will give you an array of options. Not interested in DIY? Happily, there are now some excellent natural stain removers you can purchase. Some options:

The Laundress Stain Solution

Puracy Natural Stain Remover

Soul Shine Soap Co. Laundry Stain Stick

Celsious Wunderbar Stain Removal Stick

Do you have a favorite stain removal recipe or product? Please share! 

BTW, we’ll talk about stain removal on carpets, upholstery, and hard surfaces in future posts!

You might also enjoy:

How to hand wash clothes

Tights — How to make them last

Prevent pilling — How to keep sweaters, bedding, and other items from pilling

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