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
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?”
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.