Stain Fighters

My toddler loves pureed carrots. And she loves to feed herself. Needless to say, it's a laundry nightmare waiting to happen. 

So I was more than excited to discover a slew of natural stain-fighting recipes online and in books. That is, until I actually attempted to make them. Complicated steps and random ingredients seemed daunting. After all, having a toddler meant I didn't have time to decipher elaborate instructions or turn my laundry room into a science lab. 

There had to be an easier way. To find the simplest tricks for treating splotches, dollops, and smudges, I turned to the experts -- chemists and parents alike. The first rule, they told me, is to act with speed. The longer a stain has to set in, the harder it is to remove. 

Second, don't be afraid to scrub, scrub, scrub when necessary. "Elbow grease is a real cheap stain remover," says Thelma A. Meyer, the inspiration behind the Mrs. Meyer's Earth-friendly line of cleaners, mother of nine, and author of "Mrs. Meyer's Clean Home: No-Nonsense Advice that Will Inspire You to Clean Like the Dickens." 

Third, keep that stain away from the heat. The dryer will set a stain in. Finally, when all else fails, rinse and repeat: Sometimes it takes a few tries to remove the toughest accidents.

Rules aside, not all laundry stains are created equal. Most fall into one of four categories: oil/grease, protein, mineral, and colored (such as tannins) -- and some may overlap. Each requires its own way of handling, but apparently most need only simple soaps and detergents that you probably already have hidden in your kitchen and laundry room. Could banishing stains really be this easy? I decided to put the theory to the test.

Salad Dressing Splatter
We all know that water and oil don't mix, so rinsing oil and grease stains under the faucet won't work. What you need is a surfactant -- a substance that, when dissolved in water, lowers the surface tension of the water and increases the solubility of organic compounds. Luckily, most of the dish and laundry liquids underneath your kitchen sink contain surfactants.

I found that applying either one directly onto a splotch of salad dressing (without adding water) and letting the material soak prior to normal washing worked well at eliminating even the outer ring that tends to linger on these stains. Make sure to cover the entire blotch with soap or detergent, as it really needs to saturate.

Be mindful, too, of the fabric. Dish liquid makes a better choice for delicate materials like silk, while sturdier garments can take detergent.

Grass Challenge
From bloody knees to grass stains, speed counts when you're dealing with proteins. "If you catch a stain like blood early, hydrogen peroxide will remove it," explains Martin Wolf, director of product sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation. "But if it's had a chance to set in, the solution will be ineffective."

Fortunately, we have a second line of defense: enzymes. Most premium detergents contain these naturally occurring substances, which, just as in your body, disassemble certain molecules such as proteins. Check the label if you're unsure. While cold water is sufficient for most stains, enzymes work best in warm water. (Remember, though, that warm water consumes a large amount of energy, so save it for the really tough loads.)

Immediately soaking a grass stain in an undiluted enzyme detergent for two hours prior to washing gave great results. The green was completely gone with just a few hints of brown remaining from the dirt. Letting another grass stain sit untreated for two hours before washing in an enzyme detergent was not too bad, but not as good as the one that soaked. 

Makeup Madness
The only thing harder than finding the right shade of foundation is trying to remove it from your clothes. Mineral-based stains found in colored pencils, lipstick, and makeup tend to linger because of the electrical charges that cause them to stick to your skin. Here you need an "antiredeposition" agent combined with agitation. In layman's terms: a good ole' spin in the washer with a premium detergent.

Pretreating doesn't help much because it's the agitation from the washing machine that acts on the stain. A schmear of creamy eye shadow and blush disappeared in the wash, as did a light rubbing of foundation. But the heavier spots of the same foundation proved impenetrable.

Color Conundrum
For this group of stains, you need to remove the color itself. Science holds that the best way to do this is with an oxidizing agent such as hydrogen peroxide or a natural cleaning solution like oxygen bleach. I found that soaking these stains -- like tomato sauce and pureed carrots -- in a solution of cold water and dish liquid, along with tough scrubbing (I used my hands, but a toothbrush would do), worked just as well. Note: Delicate fabrics like linen require a lighter touch.

When attacking a dried tomato stain, I was impressed when the soaking water turned pink. After a machine wash, I hardly noticed the stain. Another round of soaking, scrubbing, and washing would do the trick.

Same tactic applies for coffee, but in this case it needs to stay wet. I found that if coffee dries, no amount of scrubbing helps. As for stubborn red wine, hydrogen peroxide was powerless. The red color faded, but in its place was a pink mark. Instead, I reached for the chlorine-free bleach. Even that only helped to fade the pigment, not remove it entirely. I guess there's a reason they're called "stains."

Text by Jennifer Blecher

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