Scientific stain removal

I like to write about the latest discoveries in cosmology and particle physics. But not all scientific research is focused on these frontiers. Some of it is aimed as close as–well, that spot of mustard on your pants.

Textile experts at Cornell University have published a pamphlet  with detailed, laboratory-tested instructions on how to remove almost 250 different types of stains.

Judy L. Price, a retired extension educator from Monroe County, N.Y., and Ann T. Lemley, professor and chair of textiles and apparel in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell, worked together to update a 1975 Cornell publication called Removing Stains at Home.

A stain is a chemical reaction between the staining agent and the fibers and finishes of a fabric. Because many different chemical reactions can be involved, depending on the staining agents and the fabric involved, no one method can remove all stains.

Everyone has their favorite stain removal tricks, often handed down verbally from generation to generation–and just like those time-honored traditional family concoctions, Cornell’s recipes use product found in most grocery stores or pharmacies.

There are a couple of caveats, though: the pamphlet notes that old stains are more difficult to remove than fresh ones, and that some staining agents are so strong that they permanently alter the fabric. (These include acids, acne medications and skin creams, strong alkalis, bleaches, an ingredient in some arthritis medicines called dimethylsulfoxide, disinfectants and germicides, pesticides, plant foods and fertilizers, epoxy cement, furniture stain, black walnut, some yellow dyes and, if left too long, urine.)

There’s also a reminder that many stains are really combination stains. Many products include artificial color, for instance, so you need to treat the fabric not only for the product itself, but also for food or fabric coloring. Other combination stains, such as coffee with cream, include both an oily (cream) and water-borne (coffee) component; you need to treat the oily one first, then the water-borne one.

The supplies called for include solvents (dry-cleaning solvent, paint-, oil- and grease-remover and amyl acetate); lubricants (dishwashing detergent, glycerin and pretreatment sprays for water-borne stains; lard, mineral oil and dry spotter for greasy stains); acids and alkalis, such as ammonia and vinegar; bleaches; and enzyme products.

The pamphlet organizes stains into groups, depending on the methods needed to remove them: fats, oil and waxes; food containing oils and fats; protein and starch; plastics and resins; tannin and glucose; water-soluble body waste, deodorants and red dyes; inks, dyes and pigments; asphalt, oxidizing oils and gums; and medicinal. 

You look for the staining agent on the list–say, coffee–then look at the instructions for that group of stains (Group 5), where you’ll find detailed instructions (briefly, sponge with water, apply mild detergent solution and a few drops of vinegar, flush with water, cover the stain with a pad soaked with alcohol, follow with a pad moistened with an enzyme product for 30 minutes, flush with water, bleach (with a medicine dropper), flush with water after each application of bleach, apply vinegar solution to remove excess chlorine from the bleach, then flush with water again. (This also works with jelly, juice, maple syrup, molasses, mud, soft drinks, tobacco, toothpaste, colored vinegar, whisky and wine.)

Finally, there are a series of special procedures for particularly difficult stains. Evergreen sap from your Christmas tree? Dampen a cloth with rubbing alcohol, vegetable shortening or petroleum jelly; rub or blot the spots, wipe off with a paper towel and wash remaining grease off with soap and water. If that doesn’t do it, try turpentine, followed by soap and water. (Rubbing alcohol or turpentine I might have thought of, but vegetable shortening? Petroleum jelly? See, this is why we need scientists.)

Other stains for which special procedures are provided include grass, lipstick, mildew, pencil, perfume, ruse, scorch, shellac, super glue, toner, white out, white shoe polish and “unknown stains.”

And then, of course, there’s that mustard you dropped on your pants at the beginning of this column. Brush or scrape off the excess mustard: apply a detergent solution with a medicine dropper, then blot; apply a vinegar solution, then blot; apply an enzyme product solution, then blot; flush with water, bleach, flushing after each application, and finally apply a vinegar solution to remove the excess chlorine, then flush again with water.

There you go. Thanks to the experts at Cornell, stain removal at home is now as easy as…as…

Well, actually, it sounds like a pain.

Anybody know a good dry-cleaner?


 I received the following note after this column appeared in the Regina Leader Post:

I’m a retired dry cleaner from here in Regina.  I also write for four dry cleaning trade magazines, and sit on an international forum for dry cleaners.

“I wanted to point out that dry cleaning solvent has been a controlled substance for the past ten years.  Only properly licensed persons can get the solvent used, and even then, it must be used only in a licensed and monitored worksite.

“I thought I would point this out, as your article refers to another article that recommends using dry cleaning solvent.  I’d rather the public NOT do so, as it could cause a serious environmental problem if untrained people attempt to use it. “

So…take heed!

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    • Kalie on April 23, 2022 at 4:50 pm
    • Reply

    Hey, I am using information from your article for a paper and I am needing to cite it, and was wondering what year this article was published?

      • on April 24, 2022 at 11:23 am
      • Reply

      Looks like 2002.

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