An expert's guide to stain removal: Pro-tips to get clothes clean safely

When to blot, when to bleach and when to leave it to the pros.

When to blot, when to bleach and when to leave it to the pros

(Credit: Dan Gold/

This article was originally published November 23, 2018.

We all have that one piece of clothing that we're a little obsessed with, whether it's a brand new sweater or those jeans we've been hanging on to for sentimental reasons. But whatever your relation to your wardrobe, the beauty of those treasured pieces can basically be compromised in the blink of an eye. A splash of spaghetti, a morning coffee gone rogue, a swipe of rouge... the list goes on.

Keeping our beloved pieces looking their absolute best sometimes requires a little elbow grease — and knowing just how to tackle dreaded stains. But what, when and how, exactly? It's smart to be cautious, since at-home treating can be tricky. "Pre- treatment, done incorrectly can not only can it embed the stain, [but] it can also leave a discolouration after the dry cleaning process," says Jonah Creed president of Creeds, a couture dry cleaner, with more than three decades of garment care experience. We turned to cleaning and clothing experts for their advice on how to keep clothing (and shoes) in top shape. Here, they talk treatments, share advice for when to leave it to the pros and even give us their recs for go-to products, so you can live your life a little less worried about the outcome of morning-coffee-meets-brand-new-peacoat.

Melissa Maker, cleaning expert and founder of Clean My Space, a Toronto-based boutique cleaning service

What's the best way to remove red wine stains?

Have some OxiClean spray handy. If you're a wine drinker … once the inevitable happens, blot like crazy with clean paper towel — you'll lift most of the stain and liquid out with blotting. When you're done, spray OxiClean on the stain and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Flush it with cool water, blot and repeat until the stain is gone. Trust me, it works.

What's best for banishing tomato stains?

A great way to get rid of tomato stains, especially oil-based stains (think: spaghetti party) is to remove the staining material by blotting with paper towel, applying a small squirt of grease-fighting dish soap and laundering. You can use a stain pre-treater, if you prefer. Here, you're trying to catch an oil stain, so the faster you work the better. Plus, remember to use cool water and cool dryer settings instead of heat. Heat will set an oil stain.

Any tips for how to brighten up white clothing? (Especially yellow underarms on white shirts.)

Ah, sweat stains. Here's a simple fix (and you're welcome in advance): Mix equal parts baking soda and hydrogen peroxide to create a paste; apply to yellowed pits and collars; allow to sit overnight and launder as usual. Don't believe me? Just try it. To brighten clothing, I also recommend adding baking soda to your wash — about a cup in the drum. Oxygen bleach powder works very well, too. Just add a scoop to the drum of your washing machine, then add laundry and detergent as usual.

My morning coffee just ended up all over my new dress. Is there any hope for it?

Certainly. Before we ever talk about stain removal, it's always important to remember to check the fabric care label. If that dress label says "silk" or "dry clean only," blot, stay calm and get it to a dry cleaner ASAP. But for anything that's machine washable and durable, you can try the following. First, as with any stain, blot. Apply any soap (yes, hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent — seriously) to the stain, rinse and allow [the dress] to dry. Coffee is a super easy stain to deal with, thankfully. If the stain hasn't fully lifted, it will when you launder it next.

How can I remove stains from leather coats? Will water hurt leather, and does it just need to be sent to the cleaners?

Yeah, there are little hacks and things you can do, but here's what I would actually do: take the leather to a pro. There are certain things you don't DIY, and dealing with leather stains is one of them.

What's your advice for getting rid of olive oil?

Olive oil, or any oily substance (looking at you, bacon grease) is considered a grease stain and is always treated the same way. Remove staining material with blotting, pressing the surface gently with clean paper towel until you don't see oil lifting off anymore. Next, treat the surface with an enzyme cleaner (Bac-Out and Puracy are great choices) and leave it for at least an hour, but up to overnight. If you're in a pinch, you can use dish soap. Then, launder as usual. I'm a secret stain-magnet and these stain bullies don't even phase me. I eradicate just about any stain that comes my way. Fear not the oil stain, my friend.

Do you have any tips and tricks for tackling grass stains? Blood stains?

Oxygen bleach — these stains are simple if treated quickly, soaked in oxygen bleach and laundered as usual. Gross blood-stain tip: blot up blood and then spit on the stain. Enzymes in your saliva will prevent a fresh blood stain from setting. There's your next cocktail party conversation starter!

How do you remove chocolate from your favourite article of clothing without just wiping it in further?

Lick it up — just kidding. Blot or scrape up the chocolate and then pre-treat the stain. You can use any stain-removing solution you have. Allow it to sit for at least 10 minutes (and up to overnight) and then launder as usual. The stain should be gone, but launder on cool settings and repeat if the stain persists.

What are your favourite products for tackling the trickiest stains? Are there any common household items that work best?

Always have an oxygen bleach product (like that OxiClean I was talking about earlier) on hand, as well as an enzyme cleaner (again, Bac-Out and Puracy are both great). Two parts hydrogen peroxide and one part dish soap is also an amazing stain remover that can be whipped up on the spot, and has very impressive performance. Finally, a great solvent (something that can lift oil) is eucalyptus essential oil! I love the Thursday Plantation brand for this. It's worked on the most random stains. Every time I saturate a stain in the stuff, and am not expecting the stain to be gone, it always is once I pull the garment out of the laundry.

Lorena Agolli, owner and head cobbler of Sole Survivor, a repair shop that transforms and repairs all types of shoes, boots, handbags and leather goods.

I've been wearing my favourite leather shoes daily, but now they're not so fresh. How can I remove the grime of the city from them?

The best way to clean your leather shoes before you store them away for the season is by using one part water and one part rubbing alcohol. Use this formula to clean all of the surfaces, and if scent becomes an issue, you can use lemon juice or essential oils to freshen it up. Once they're clean, you should condition the leather with a natural beeswax conditioner. Depending on the type of leather, coconut oil will sometimes work, too, but it won't project your leather like beeswax will. I recommend our in-house brand of Sole Survivor Leather Cream that's made out of all-natural ingredients and is safe to apply with your hands.

How can I keep white sneakers white? Does toothpaste actually work?

We love using Jason Markk at the shop; it works wonders on all types of sneakers and materials, including suede. But if you need a quick cleaning, then you can use some water and dish soap to clean off stains. We wouldn't recommend using toothpaste, as it can remove the finishing paint on your sneakers if you rub too hard.

My new leather shoes are tearing up my heels, and that also means I've got a few unsightly blood stains inside them. Is there a way to remove blood from leather?

Conditioning the leather straps on sandals will help break the leather in and soften the straps so that they don't cut into your feet. But blood is very hard to get out of leather and at times only dying the leather can make stains less visible. [My] recommendations: Sole Survivor Leather Cream, Huberds Shoe Oil, Famaco Leather Balm

Is there any hope for removing grass stains from shoes?

If your uppers are canvas, then a regular at-home cleaning won't do. It's best to leave it to the pros to clean the tough stains. However, if your runners are made of a hard shell material, then using just some water and dish soap will do the trick. In terms of product, I'd recommend Jason Markk or Lincoln EZ Cleaner.

If my leather shoes seem beyond cleaning, is there any hope? Can I dye them?

Remember that leather is skin; if we take care of it frequently, we can make it last and look healthier for a long period of time. Gentle cleaning and conditioning, as well as some polishing, can go a long way. But if all else fails, then, yes, dying is always the next option.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.