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University of Illinois Extension
Unknown or mystery

Unknown or mystery

Treat stains as soon as possible after staining. The older the stain, the more difficult it will be to remove.

All stain removal methods should be applied prior to laundering washable garments. Stains that have been laundered and dried are almost impossible to remove.

Washable Fabrics

Steps to Clean

What to Do if You Don't Know What the Stain Is ...

If you don't know what the stain is, use your detective skills as a clue –

  • Is there an odor? 
  • Where is the location? 
  • What is the color?

Use your nose
Old oil stains may smell rancid, but appear dry.
Use your eyes -

  • Food stains are often on the front of garments;
  • Perspiration stains around collars and underarms;
  • Black grease is often on pants or skirts at car-door latch levels.

Stain color may be a misleading clue.

  • Rust-colored stains may be coffee, tea, old lemonade stains (caramelized sugar),
  • Or from cosmetics containing ingredients (which can bleach many colors to look rusty),
  • Felt marker, crayon, aged baby formula, or a number of other things.
  • If a heavy waxy or gummy residue is present, you may be dealing with a stain a dry-cleaning solvent.

General Tips

  • Since the appropriate removal method varies with the stain, start by using the least destructive stain removal methods.
  • If this doesn't work, and the item can be washed, pretreat with oxygen based bleach.  Wash and rinse thoroughly. 
  • If the stain persists, try dabbing on a dry-cleaning solvent or ammonia.  Beware: this can damage colors. 

Follow each step until stain is removed. Then wash garment according to care label instructions.

  1. If the whole garment can be submerged, start by soaking the garment in cold water (as for protein stains) for 20 minutes.  Work liquid laundry detergent into the area. Allow to rest for 30 minutes.  Rinse. Launder in the washer using the regular cycle with hot or warm water. Silk and wool should be soaked in warm water and agitated very briefly if at all. Air dry.
    (Protein stains –examples: dairy products, blood, baby stains)
  2. Soak the stain overnight in an enzyme presoak. Launder.
  3. Sponge stain with dry-cleaning solvent. Let stand for 20 minutes. Rub with detergent. Rinse thoroughly.
  4. If not a protein stain, use warm water and spot treatment technique.
  5. Next, use liquid detergent and lukewarm or hot water, rinse and let air dry (as for oil stains).
  6. If you suspect the stain is iron rust, treat with rust remover before bleach. If stain persists, use a pretreatment spray or solvent (as for combination stain) and all-fabric bleach.
  7. If the all-fabric bleach is ineffective on the stain and the garment is colorfast or white, finally try a dilute solution of liquid chlorine bleach.
  8. If fabric can be bleached, mix equal parts liquid chlorine bleach and water and apply with an eye dropper. Do not use on wool, silk, spandex, or non-colorfast items. For these fabrics, sprinkle oxygen bleach on the stain and dip briefly in vary hot or boiling water. Launder immediately

If stain remains after all these steps have been completed, nothing can be done to remove it.