What Causes Spots on Clothing?

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Dear Home-Ec 101,
I saw your email reply to someone asking why they were getting grease-like stains on their clothing after washing them. Your reply said it was from a liquid fabric softener. The problem is I don’t use fabric softener, and I get these grease like spots on my clothing quite regularly. I cannot tell you how many shirts have been ruined from these spots. I try to get them out by putting stain removers on them, and nothing helps, so once again, I end up tossing out another shirt. It’s very frustrating. Are there any suggestions you have for me? I do use liquid laundry detergent. Could this be the problem? If so, then how do I prevent it from happening? Should I all together quit using liquid detergent? I appreciate your help!
Spotted in Spokane

what causes spots on clothes

Dear Spotted in Spokane:

Let me set a scene for you. I’m at a social event—a rare enough occurrence for me, but that’s another story—and naturally, the topic of “What do you do?” comes up.

I explain that I run a website called Home Ec 101, which teaches life skills to adults. Typically there’s a slight head tilt and a quizzical look. I generally elaborate that it’s sort of an advice column that focuses on food and household problems.

“Like Dear Abby for domestic stuff?”
“Exactly that.”

At this point, people almost always decide that it’s time to play grill Heather on bizarre stain situations. Actual example, “Three months ago, my kid ate hot dogs and red Kool-Aid, and then threw up on my rug. I can’t get the stain out. What do I do?” I stood there, drink in hand, and blinked slowly, complete with the slight head tilt and a quizzical look. Was I really being asked about kid vomit at a party? I decided it’s a hazard of the job (I have a comedian friend, and people ask him to “be funny” at social events, so I guess I get it).

Possible answers for that one include: Try an enzyme cleaner, rearrange the furniture, replace the carpeting. (Kool-Aid is notoriously evil at staining, and stomach acid can bleach some carpeting, so the stain may very well be permanent.)

Solving stain issues is a little like playing detective. In today’s reader question, the reader had done some research to figure out why clear stains were showing up on her clothing. She found my post on how sometimes fabric softeners can leave clothing spots, but she didn’t use fabric softeners.

In medicine, there is a phrase, “Don’t look for zebras when you hear hoofbeats.” It implies that the most common reason is probably the cause of a symptom.

While fabric softeners can cause clear stains on clothing, clear stains on clothing are generally caused by oil or grease.

How do you determine what caused the stain?

Just like in real estate, it’s all: Location, Location, Location!

Spotted and I exchanged several emails, and I finally concluded that the stains were isolated to the front of shirts and the lap area of pants.

Unless zebras are loose in the washing machine, these stains occur from grease drips and splatters through normal life. A drip here, a spatter there, grease stains occur over time, and because they are clear, it’s tough to notice them until after they are set.

So how do you deal with grease stains?

Pre-treating is the best way to handle grease and oil stains.

Before loading the washer, inspect each item of clothing, look for grease spots, and if you find them rub a small amount of liquid detergent directly into the spot and allow it to soak in for a little while. Spray stain treatments like Shout Advanced, and Charlie’s Soap Laundry Pre-Spray both are great for this. Some of you may prefer the gel you rub in. The whole point is just to make sure some detergent is applied directly to the stain.

You may also find it useful to keep something like Shout Wipes or a Tide Stain Pen in your purse or car to treat food stains as they occur.

Wash the garment in the hottest water approved by the manufacturer. (The heat helps make the oil and detergent more water-soluble, which helps it wick out of the fabric and into the wash water, where it can be rinsed away)

Do not dry the garment until you are sure the grease stain has been completely removed.

If you have an old grease stain, acetone may be used, provided it’s safe for the material.

how to remove stains from clothes
Click the picture for more tips!

Bobbie sent me a quick note to let me know her mother always used Lestoil and that it also works well for old grease stains. (Be sure to test the fabric for colorfastness first, but you knew that, right?)

So the takeaway?

There are two.
Put a napkin in your lap while eating (there’s a reason this is considered normal etiquette) and use an apron or grease splatter screen while cooking.
The best way to prevent stains on your clothing from becoming difficult to remove is to treat them as soon as possible.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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29 thoughts on “What Causes Spots on Clothing?”

  1. We started having mysterious holes in our t-shirts we couldn’t figure out. We thought somehow the zippers on jeans and sweatshirts were causing them. Then I read an article about how someone figured out that the holes in their t-shirts were caused by opening beer bottles with the shirt. Had to slap my forehead with that revelation (and start using a dishtowel instead!)

    • @KCDebi knit shirts are notorious for this. If you google small holes in knit shirts, you’ll come up with a lot of message boards where people are trying to Sherlock the cause.

  2. Here’s the very easiest way to take out grease stains and it works even after they’ve been set by the dryer! Rub some blue Dawn dish soap into the stain. Just a blob. Throw it back into the laundry pile. Wash as usual. That’s it! I swear. I have four kids who use their sleeves and shirt fronts as napkins. I keep a bottle of Dawn next to the dryer. As I’m folding and notice stains, I blob some on, throw it back into the next load, and voila! No more stain. I use it on my clothes, their clothes, dad’s clothes… I can count on one hand the number of times in 20 years it has NOT worked.

    • @KarenKellySunderland great tip! Just be sure not to use the kind with bleach (do they still sell that? It’s worth double checking, though. 🙂

  3. My Mom almost never spent money on herself for clothes. So when she bought an extremely expensive (to her) tank top that she fell in love with, she was soooo devastated when it had a huge grease spot on it the 2nd time she washed it. So we went on a search for a solution. We found a recommendation (I believe in a book called Haley’s Hints) to spray the spot with WD-40, work it in, and then rub in some plain blue Dawn dish soap. We were very skeptical about the WD-40 part, but we’d already tried everything else, and the shirt was already ruined at that point, so we gave it a try. That tank ended up being a part of her wardrobe for the rest of her life. I’ve used it on many different grease/oil-based stains since then, and never had it not work. It’s worked particularly well on lipstick and chapstick stains. Once when my hubby was trying to be helpful, he tossed my jeans into a load of laundry he was doing with our son’s brand-new school clothes….with my chapstick in the pocket still. When we took it out of the dryer, there was chapstick EVERYWHERE. I cleaned the washer and dryer, and then set to with the WD-40 and soap….ALL GONE! I’m actually about to use this technique on the shirt I wore yesterday, which looks like I dripped something on the last time I wore (and didn’t notice till I was under fluorescent light).

      • @HeatherSolos Good to know! 🙂 I haven’t done my nails in years, so acetone isn’t normally here in the house, but with a mechanic as my husband, I’ve always got WD-40! 🙂 Plus, his workbench is right by the laundry area, so it’s easy to grab!

  4. first off-thanks for the tip, really, really helpful and I’m getting some “dawn” next time I’m at the store. Secondly, thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who can’t seem to find her mouth when eating!

  5. My mom would always rub a little dishwashing liquid on grease stains as soon as she noticed them (i.e. while eating or cooking). I haven’t had one that wouldn’t come out this way, but we always air dried the item once washed to make sure it was gone before the dryer “set” the stain. Think about it – dishcloths never have grease stains and goodness knows they get greasy and dirty! 🙂

  6. I’ve found that spray oxyclean also helps on grease stains – it was able to get out some old ones that had been set for a long time But you do need to do a second rinse, or you will sometimes end up with holes where the oxyclean was sued – not right away, but eventually. I guess it weakens the cloth? Thank you for a very helpful post! Though wouldn’t the best way to prevent the stains be to wear an apron while cooking and use a napkin while eating? 🙂 Aprons are woefully underused these days, I feel, and are a lot easier than treating stains!

  7. Heather, I just had to say that you are not the only one who gets awkward questions at inappropriate times. I am ordained clergy and a metaphysical counselor (among other more mainstream pursuits) and when people find this out, the strangest things can come out of their mouths. It’s like the subject causes them to forget their other social contexts. I’ve gotten everything from stories about ghosts, demons, and UFOs, to religious rants – in professional settings and at parties, even once at a wedding. I learned long ago not to bring this subject up in certain situations, but there’s not much I can do when a Connector-type friend drags somebody over to me, primed to pick my brains about their teen’s vampire fetish and whether that means they are going to hell. The best I can do is reset their social filters (“this requires some deeper discussion that probably should be kept private”) and hand them my card and ask them to call or email me later for a followup. Perhaps something similar would work for you?

    • @Hewitt My first line of defense as well! My family & friends think I’m pretty funny wearing an apron…they think its quite old fashioned. I think its just SMART! I know I am going to get oil on myself when I am COOKING! LOL

  8. Here are a few other ways to clean oil stains: greased lightning spray, orange de-greaser spray, baby powder or corn starch (set on stain and allow time for powder to absorb,) Murphy’s Oil Soap (spot treat wash once, do not dry; repeat,) Dawn & peroxide, and I make my own spot remover, too. In a spray bottle I mix about an inch of Tide, an inch of greased lightning and fill with hot water (just to mix it.) Then I spray away. I will even spray the fronts of my shirts “just in case!”

  9. I usually put a little drop of liquid dish soap on my greasy spots. After all, it cuts through grease in the sink, why not on a shirt? It works most of the time.

  10. Another Dawn user here. I have also used Simple Green (2 parts water, 1 part Simple Green) in a spray bottle with success also.

  11. Thanks for posting this. I am getting so tired of these spots! Always on my dark colored t-shirts and ALWAYS on the front only. It’s the only thing that makes sense. All these other sites say: Washer transmission leaking, fabric softener, dryer sheets, oily rags, etc. Then how is it that it’s only on the front of MY shirts and no one else’s? I am the only one who cooks, that’s why…and I’m not above dropping food on myself while eating.

  12. I discovered that the drier sheets are causing the oil spots on our clothes. I placed a drier sheet on an old tee shirt, then turned my hair bower on both the sheet and tee shirt. Guess what happened. The oil spots that keep turning up on my clothes appeared. Will no longer be using drier sheets. Hope this saves you time and money. I’m so happy that I solved this problem it was really fustrating and expensive. I did get the stains out. Used resolve,dish soap, bar soap and a lot of time.

    • Cooking splats make the most sense! I am the only one who cooks in my place and the only one who ever has oil marks after washing and these oil marks are ALWAYS on the Front of my shirts!! Bacon splats prob the main culprit! WoW I wish I looked this up years ago! So many thrown away t shirts! Thank you all for this Info!

  13. re: testing the fabric for colorfastness with acetone, Lestoil, etc…

    What’s the proper “method” to use for this type of test? I can understand if it’s a shirt that gets tucked in you would test on one of the shirttails. But what if it isn’t? Or is a pair of pants or something else that is fully visible? What location of each type of garment would you test?

    I have never bothered with the “testing” bit, since if the garment is already ruined to the point where I can’t wear it in public (like every single white shirt that I have ever owned, ever), then just proceed. If the treatment ruins it, I’m not any worse off than I was before…

  14. In my experience – because I have little kids- the grease stains/ color-less stains are caused by oils in food. Even a little bit of oil from food- like ginger foods- can cause a grease stain on clothing. Making sure to put liquid detergent right on the spots and letting the detergent soak in for a couple hours prior to washing in hot water will work to get them out. I really doubt it’s the drier sheets that are causing the grease stains. Maybe they make them more apparent, but the culprit isn’t the drier sheet. It’s the oil from food. Or from any sort of oil- like in some oily lotions or dry oil that some people use for dry skin. And when they rub off a bit on clothes, it will leave a grease stain. Allowing the liquid detergent to sit and soak into the stain/area in combination with a hot water washer cycle will work to get them out. And check that the stain truly came out in the washer- as once you put it in the dryer, it will set for GOOD and there’s no getting it out. Again, make sure the stain is gone before you put the garment in the dryer! If it’s not out yet, then re-wash it!


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