The Ugly Truth About Set-In Stains

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

How do you get out set-in stains, especially in clothes?
They have been there a while. I don’t want to have to throw these tops out.

Teresa the Terse in Terra Haute

Heather says,

I wish I were more comfortable on camera. Sometimes long answers, like those about set-in stains, are better heard than read. However, I’m still pretty camera-shy, so get a cup of your favorite beverage and settle in.

While I’m writing this post, there are currently 131 posts about laundry on this site, this will bring that to 132, and by the time I retire, there will be many more.

What makes stain removal so complex?

It’s chemistry, baby, chemistry.

Dye Stains and Bleach Stains

For a few moments, I want to use hair dye as a metaphor. Like hair, the cloth is made of fibers (and some is even made of animal hair, wool sweaters, for instance). These fibers can absorb chemicals that change their color or structure (like a perm), like hair.

So let’s say you want to go from dark hair to blonde. You wouldn’t have good results if you just used blonde dye on dark hair. You have to bleach the hair first, stripping the color.

Some stains work like this, removing the color from your clothing. There’s no fixing the bleach spots caused by your whitening toothpaste or acne cream. So use those items carefully.

To FIX a bleach stain, you can get a dye pen that closely matches the fabric and re-dye the spots, but that’s different than removing a stain.

Returning to the dye metaphor, there’s a “temporary ” dye I see on Facebook, Overtone, I think. This dye is made to wash away, and it will, mostly. Sometimes the best you’re going to get from the white towel you used with the red “temporary” dye is very light pink. Why? The dye molecules soaked so far into the fibers that the detergent molecules wouldn’t trap them in the washing machine. (Learn more about how clothes get clean in your wash here.) Ink, Kool-aid, food coloring, etc., are dye stains.

Many dye stains are permanent, but you can try heavy-duty detergent and soaking. With ink, you can get lucky with rubbing alcohol. These tips tend to only work on fresh stains, but sometimes you can get lucky, so give it a shot.

Protein Stains

Yup, we’re going there, sorry.

Now we’re going to change metaphors. I want you to think about a raw egg, now think about cooking that egg, now back to the raw egg.

Oh wait, you can’t go back to the raw egg.

In chemistry, that process is called a physical change. The protein molecules in the egg change shape and can’t go back to the way they were before the heat was applied.

Some stains, like blood and other bodily fluids, contain proteins. Those proteins work their way into the spaces in the fibers of your material. They get very comfortable, don’t get removed, and then either get cooked in hot water or the heat of your dryer.


Enzymatic cleaners like Kids’n’Pets can be very helpful. Remove what you can of the stain by scraping, rinse away what you can with COOL water, and then use an enzymatic cleaner. If the stain is fresh, you only need to let it soak for a few minutes, but you may need to give it an hour or more if the stain is old. Repeat this process until the enzymatic cleaner no longer changes the appearance of the stain, or the stain is gone. At this point, your last chance is that oxygen bleach or chlorine bleach (if it is safe for the material) is your best bet. Launder on cold with detergent and the appropriate bleach.

Oil Stains

These aren’t too bad. The biggest problem with oily stains is that they are stubborn and usually aren’t just oil. They tend to bring their protein friends along for the ride, so the techniques you use to get rid of the oils, cook the proteins.


For straight-up oils, butter, grease etc., a laundry pre-treatment either with detergent applied directly to the area or a stain stick or spray is your best bet.

Tannin Stains

These are your wines, teas, soda etc. Here’s where the club soda trick got started. You don’t even need club soda. Plain water will do.

Don’t use soap that can set the stain.

But Wait, There’s More

Oh, you didn’t think it would be this simple, did you?

Of course not, don’t forget that you also have to factor in what fabric was stained for every stain. Always consult the care label. Don’t use any method that would damage the fabric.

For combination, stains work from the gentlest to the harshest method. For instance, if you had a chili dog with mustard and dropped it in on your white cotton t-shirt. You’ve got a protein, grease, and dye stain. Yay.

First, rinse the shirt thoroughly with cool water to remove as many of the food particles as possible. Look at the shirt. Are they all gone? Great. Now pre-soak the shirt in detergent and water and rinse again in cool water. We’re giving the detergent some time to work on both the protein and dye stains. Finally, only after all of the mustard is gone get your stain stick and heavily treat the area before washing on the hottest water the shirt will tolerate to remove the grease.

About Those Set-In Stains

Can you remove them? I don’t want to give you false hope. I also want to warn you that if the clothes are referred to as “fast fashion,” which means pretty much anything from Kohls, Target, Walmart, etc., around that price point… it’s not likely to survive the trauma of the stain removal process.

And for the record, I want to be very clear; I am not making any judgment about wearing fast fashion. I want to set expectations for the lifespan of the article of clothing. They are not made to last. It’s pretty much all I own, too. I’m trying to save and buy quality pieces for myself, but my wardrobe tends to take a back seat since we have six kids. So when I say I get it, I really do.

*crap falls under combination stains if you really wanted to know…

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Woman looking at an item of clothing
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