tips for removing unknown stains

Removing unknown stains on clothes without harming the fabric requires a gentle touch and the right stain treatment.

First, be patient. Zapping a drip, drop, or splat without zapping the fabric itself requires a gentle touch and the patience to repeat a treatment until you get that unknown stain out.

When you don't know what the stain is, rinse or soak it in cold water before treating. Get into the habit of checking wet clothes for stains before tossing them in the dryer, as this can permanently set the stain. 

Unfortunately, you're not always near a washing machine or stain stick when a clothing disaster strikes. Not to worry: These stain removal tips will work even on set in stains.

Presoaking is Key to Removing Set-In Unknown Stains

Presoaking is key to removing old unknown stains.

Pretreating works best on small spots and fresh stains.

But for old stains and set in stains, presoaking is key.

Fill a tub or sink with the warmest water safe for the fabric, add a healthy dose of detergent, and toss the garment  in for at least a half hour.

Then wash with detergent and a non chlorine bleach. 

Turpentine and Ammonia Homemade Stain Remover

To make this stain treatment, combine equal parts household ammonia and turpentine. (An equally-effective substitute for strong-smelling turpentine - Turpenoid - can also be used if you'd prefer an odorless alternative stain remover.)

Apply the solution directly on stained clothes, and let sit for 8 hours. Wash the treated garment separately from the rest of your laundry.

  Laundry Detergent Homemade Stain Remover

Enzymes in laundry detergent help remove protein-based stains, such as blood and chocolate, and are often quite effective on unknown stains.

To create this homemade stain remover, mix one teaspoon enzyme detergent into one cup of water. Work the solution into the stained area until fully saturated, and allow to sit for 10-15 minutes. Wash as usual in the warmest wash water temperature the garment can withstand.

Which laundry detergent works best here? Check out the top detergent brands from the Consumer Reports laundry detergent testing here.

Dish Soap and Hydrogen Peroxide Stain Remover

To make this effective stain treatment, mix one teaspoon dish soap and one cup water and apply to the unknown stain. Allow to sit for 30 minutes.

If a ring or slight stain remains, feather the edges or spotty areas with a cloth dampened with hydrogen peroxide. Rinse thoroughly with cool, clear water.

Undiluted Hydrogen Peroxide Stain Remover for Clothes

Three-percent, undiluted hydrogen peroxide is an effective bleach alternative for getting out tough stains. To use, pour hydrogen peroxide directly on the unknown stain. Use a toothbrush to gently work it into the fabric. Allow to sit for 5-10 minutes, then toss into the washer as usual.

Fels-Naptha Soap Paste Treatment for Unknown Stains

To mix this Fels Naphtha laundry soap solution, shave slices from the bar, then add one-part soap shavings to 10 parts water. Work the soapy solution into the stain, and wait 10 minutes. Then launder as usual.

WD-40 Stain Remover

Yes, WD-40 - the stuff you use to get the squeaks out - can often get mystery stains out of clothes, too. Apply it full-strength to the stained area. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes before washing.

If, after all your efforts, spot is still visible, defer to the expertise of  your dry cleaner. Professional chemicals can often dissolve greases and oils that consumer laundry detergents can't.

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