We’ve all been there: You’re at a friend’s barbecue and drop a plateful of strawberry cheesecake on your new silk top (guilty). Or you knock over a cup of iced coffee on your all-white outfit (guilty, again). Maybe it’s not your fault, maybe you’re just the casualty of someone spilling their red wine on you (also me). Whatever the reason, the result often plays out the same way: instant freakout, futile search for club soda, too much rubbing, mourning for a garment you’ll never wear again because you don’t know how to remove the food stain from your clothes.
Determined never to let another piece of clothing get bested by a barbecue, I reached out to three cleaning experts for advice on dealing with common food stains. Ahead, nine experts’ tips that’ll help you remove even the toughest of stains.
1. First things first: Scrape, then blot.
If you spill food on yourself, remove as much as possible as quickly as you can without rubbing it into the fabric, which will only make things worse. Experts advise scraping it off with a dull object, like a credit card or a butter knife, and then using a clean paper towel to blot.
2. Don’t panic—and put down the club soda.
“If you dirty yourself while you’re out, avoid the temptation of using paper napkins and club soda,” warn Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, who co-founded The Laundress, an eco-friendly line of detergent and home-cleaning products. It’s better to wait and treat the stain at home where you have the proper products, tools, and time to treat the affected area. “Any frantic attempts can end up making more messes, leaving you with traces of paper lint on the item and an even larger stain.”
3. Determine what kind of stain you’re dealing with before trying to get it out.
Food stains belong to one of three categories: protein, tannin, and grease. Understanding which category your food stain belongs to will help you determine the most effective treatment, Melissa Maker founder of Clean My Space tells SELF. “It makes stains far less intimidating to treat, and you avoid the mistake of just throwing it in the washing machine, hoping it’ll go away.”
Tannin stains include teas, coffee, juice, berries, chocolate, red wine, popsicles and condiments like ketchup and mustard, anything that is rich in color. Protein includes anything meat-based or dairy, like yogurt or milk. John Mahdessian, owner of NYC high-end dry cleaner Madame Paulette, tells SELF that if you scratch a stain and it’s white, then it’s usually a protein stain. Grease stains are from oils, including salad dressings, and butter.
4. Choose a cleaning agent that “goes with” the stain to pretreat it.
Tannin stains have an acidic value, and can be treated with a mix of water and vinegar. (You can also buy a product that’s specifically made for stain removal, like this scented vinegar, $10, from The Laundress.) For protein and grease stains, Maker recommends using a degreaser, like dishwashing detergent, since they have similar properties. She likes Biokleen All Purpose Cleaner, $12, to get the job done. Additionally, to help lift oil marks from garments, try cornstarch or baby powder: “Sprinkle it on and let sit for about 15 minutes so the powder absorbs the oil, then scrape off,” and pretreat with a degreaser, Maker says.
5. Test your cleanser of choice in an inconspicuous area before using it on the stain.
Sometimes, soaking a stain with water and a cleanser can leave water marks or ring marks. This often happens when you use too much product. To avoid this, first use a dull edge to scrape off the stain or blot the problem area with a clean paper towel or cloth to remove most of it, then apply a little amount of product—a soft-bristle cleaning toothbrush gives you good control over the amount. If a ghost ring still appears, flush the area really well with cool water to get all of the suds out. Otherwise, you’re good to pretreat the stain, The Laundress co-founders explain.
6. Depending on the severity and type of stain, pretreat for at least 15 minutes before putting your clothes in the washing machine.
These things need time to work, so leave pretreating solutions on for 15 minutes if it’s a fresh stain. For larger stains, Maker says you can let them soak up to 24 hours.
7. Wash grease and protein stains in cold water.
Generally speaking, you want to follow the fabric care label once you throw your dirty clothes in the washing machine. But no matter what the label says, don’t wash grease or protein stains in hot or warm water because because the heat will set the stain.
8. You can still treat old stains.
While its true that the sooner your deal with a stain, the higher your success rate, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get rid of old food stains. “After pretreating, use water pressure to help work the stain,” say Whiting and Boyd. “Follow by soaking the garment in a basin or sink for up to 30 minutes and repeat as necessary until you see the desired results, then launder according to the label.”
9. If you’re unsure what to do, don’t do anything.
When in doubt, don’t DIY it. The experts say it’s better to blot as much as possible with a clean paper towel and then take the item to a professional service rather than go at it yourself and risk damaging it, especially if the item is made of a delicate material like silk, satin, or merino wool. If you can get it to the cleaners within a few hours, you’ll have a good chance of salvaging it.