Stain removal

Catch those stains before it's too late with our A-Z guide.

09mar stain removal hero

We offer advice on stain-removal covering everything from beer to red wine, as well as dry-cleaning, garment care and dealing with stains on carpets.

Where to start

You've got 3 options:

  • The first is professional dry-cleaning or carpet cleaning. We recommend this for valuable items.
  • The second is a pre-wash soak or stain remover. It may be good for some stains but not for others.
  • The third is a good old home remedy. Our A-Z stain removal guide tells you what you can use on everything from beer to wine.

The golden rules

  • Act quickly - before the stain sets.
  • Check the fabric care label. Wool, silk, synthetics and non-colourfast garments can be damaged by some chemicals such as bleach or meths.
  • Take expensive or delicate garments to a drycleaner.
  • If in doubt about a treatment, test on an inconspicuous spot first.
  • If you don't know what caused the stain, sponge it with neat dishwashing liquid then rinse.
  • Use light brushing or dabbing motions. Never rub a stain.
  • Rinse with cold water unless otherwise directed. Hot water can set a stain.

What you need

Stain removal kit

Immediate response is the key to successful stain removal - keep these home remedies handy.

  • Talcum powder - to soak up excess moisture.
  • An enzyme detergent - most laundry detergent powders contain enzymes.
  • Ammonia - you'll find cloudy ammonia in supermarkets.
  • White vinegar.
  • Chlorine bleach.
  • Glycerine.
  • An alcohol-based solvent such as meths.
  • A fat/oil solvent - turps, white spirits or kerosene.
  • A carpet spot cleaner for carpets or rugs.

Common household stain removers

Bleach kills mildew and mould and is good at removing coloured stains. Once the stain has gone, wash out the bleach thoroughly.

Downside: Strong bleach may fade or damage the item (chlorine bleach is particularly risky). Always dilute following the label directions. A mild bleach like hydrogen peroxide (mixed at 5tsp/0.5L water) is less likely to damage fabrics if used correctly.

Solvents remove stains by dissolving them. Nail polish remover works on lacquers and some paints and resins, as well as nail polish. Methylated spirits (meths) is good on adhesive tape, PVA, latex and water-based paints, ballpoint ink, waxes, makeup, correction fluid and chocolate. White spirits (used in lighter fluid), turpentine (turps), and kerosene can cope with fat or oil stains, tar and asphalt and some adhesives.

Tip: To remove sticky price labels or tape marks - try heating the sticker with a blow dryer or soaking it in hot water. With luck the sticker or mark will just come away. If that doesn't work, sponge it with a solvent such as meths or nail polish remover. Some solvents may damage plastic surfaces so check first.

Downside: Some solvents can damage fabrics so always check the care label first. The fumes can be hazardous - see "Safe cleaning" below.

Mild acids
Mild acids such as white vinegar, cream of tartar or lemon juice help remove rust and some food stains.

Eucalyptus oil
This can remove some adhesive glues, fat, wax, gum, and tar.

Lubricating agents
Lubricating agents such as glycerine or petroleum jelly help soften old stains.

Tip: To loosen an old stain rub in glycerine and leave it for an hour. (You can get glycerine from a pharmacy).

Washing agents
Washing agents weaken the bonds holding the stain so it can be washed away. Ammonia and borax are all-round cleaners. Enzyme-based laundry detergents, stain removers and soakers target protein-based stains, such as blood and egg-yolk.

Tip: Mix the laundry detergent to a paste with cold water before applying it

Dry cleaning

Dry-cleaning is necessary for clothes that would be damaged by cleaning with detergent and water, or to remove difficult stains.

Most dry-cleaners in New Zealand use a solvent called perchloroethylene or "perc". All traces of it should be removed during the dry-cleaning process. If there's a lingering smell, air the garment outside before storing.

Tip: For garments that only need pressing, use a sticky lint roller (available from supermarkets, pet shops or dry cleaners) and a good steam iron at home instead of dry-cleaning.

"Green" dry-cleaning

A handful of dry-cleaners use hydrocarbon or liquid silicone instead of perc. Although less toxic, hydrocarbon-solvents are still petroleum-based and aren't "environmentally friendly".

Liquid silicone dry-cleaning is gentle on clothes and degrades to sand, and traces of water and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the manufacturing of silicone solvents is anything but green.

When things go wrong

Dry-cleaning must be carried out with reasonable skill and care, and must be fit for any purpose you make known to the cleaner. General disclaimers or signs stating "all care and no responsibility" hold no weight under the Consumer Guarantees Act.

Before accepting a garment for cleaning, a dry-cleaner should examine it with you. If there's a chance it can't be successfully dry-cleaned but they go ahead without warning you of the risk, they become liable for any damage. But if they warn you of the risk and you have the garment cleaned anyway, then it's your problem.

If you think a dry-cleaner hasn't done the job with reasonable skill and care and has ruined your garment, discuss the damage with them. If that doesn't work, contact the Textile Care Federation of New Zealand (the dry-cleaning industry body).

It's possible the care-label instructions are at fault and not the dry-cleaner. If so, go back to the retailer who sold you the garment and ask for a refund or replacement garment.

Tips for garment care

Check the label

If you don't like hand washing or dry-cleaning, save time and money by checking care labels when buying new clothes. Look for machine-washable garments. Items that can be successfully washed by hand or machine should say this on the care label.

Tip: Most new front-loading (and some top-loading) washing machines have a "hand-washable woollens" cycle, gentle enough for hand-wash-only garments. See our test of washing machines for models with this feature.

Many cotton, linen and woollen knit garments don't need to be dry-cleaned (as long as they don't have special finishes or detailing such as pleats). If the care label says "dry-clean only" and it's a relatively cheap item that you'll only wear for one season, you may want to take the chance and hand wash it. This would be at your risk.

Remember: if you decide wash to rather than dry-clean, the manufacturer won't be responsible if the garment is damaged.

Wash, dry, and press like a pro

  • Use the right detergent for the job. Liquid detergents are less likely to deposit white residue on dark clothes.
  • Turn denim (and anything else you don't want to fade) inside out before washing to help preserve colour.
  • Line-drying is best but if you use a clothes dryer don't over-dry - it can damage fabric.
  • Dry woollens and other stretchable garments flat to keep their shape.
  • Always set your iron to the right heat setting for the fabric. Start by ironing synthetics then cottons.
  • Prevent the "shine" that irons can leave by placing a light cotton tea towel between the iron and fabric or iron garments inside out.
  • Iron heavy natural fibres like linen while slightly damp. It's easier to get out the wrinkles. Take washing off the line just before it's dry or use a spray bottle.

Little fuzzies

Rubbing from normal wear can cause fibres to unravel and loose ends ball up or "pill" on the surface of garments.

Washing with heavy fabrics (like denim) can often remove pilling from machine-washable garments. For hand-wash-only garments, remove by carefully skimming a razor, de-piller (similar to an electric razor) or pumice stone across the fabric while holding it taut.

Tip: Clothes made from tightly-woven natural fibre fabrics (like fine merino wool) are less likely to pill than those made from acrylic and other synthetic fibres.

Carpet stains

  • Treat the stain immediately.
  • First, remove as much excess as possible. For liquid stains, blot up as much of the liquid as you can. Dab the stain - don't scrub (it can damage the carpet pile and leave matted fibres). Next, dilute the stain with cold water and continue blotting until the stain fades. Don't saturate the carpet - if the backing becomes wet it can create new stains or even grow mould.
  • Candle wax, crayon and gum are easier to remove after being frozen with ice.
  • Treat the residue with an appropriate carpet spot cleaner. Test the cleaner first on an inconspicuous patch of carpet, to check that it won't affect the colour. To stop the stain from spreading, work from the outside edges in towards the centre.
  • Large or stubborn stains may need professional carpet cleaning. Some stains permanently change the carpet's colour, and are untreatable. These include types of dye (such as hair dye), chlorine bleach, mustard with turmeric, acid or alkaline cleaners, and plant fertilisers. You may need to get the stained section replaced.

Important: if the stain isn't liquid and looks serious - for example, tracked in oily footprints - don't touch it until you've called your insurance company. You may find that repairing the damage is covered by your contents policy.

Removing mould or moss

Winter damp can bring some unwelcome visitors - slippery paths, shabby roofs, ruined clothes and unsightly paintwork. The culprits are mould, mildew, lichen or moss. Here's how to deal with them.

Mould and mildew

Mould and mildew are types of fungi. The spores are everywhere, but to grow they need moisture. To combat the problem, try the following:

  • Use heating to increase the air temperature.
  • Install extractor fans in the bathroom, laundry and kitchen.
  • If the ground under your house is wet, cover with polythene sheeting, taping the joints and ensuring a fit around the piles.
  • Make sure the air vents in your home's foundations are clear.
  • Increase the airflow in your home by opening windows or install a forced ventilation system.
  • Remove moisture from the air using a chemical moisture absorber or a dehumidifier.

But what about existing mould? There are many products on the market which claim to help but if you want to save some money, use household bleach - possibly in a spray bottle. This uses the same main active ingredient (sodium hypochlorite) as more expensive products. Whichever you use, remember to follow the instructions and test on a small area first.

Moss and lichen

Slippery moss pathways and steps can be quite a danger. Again, dampness is the cause. To lessen the build-up, keep the area clear of dead leaves and other debris, and remove overhanging vegetation. In extreme cases you may want to install drainage alongside the path to catch seeping water.

To remove existing moss or lichen you could use either a water blaster or chemicals. A water blaster is relatively quick - but messy, and they can damage asphalt paths and driveways. With chemical treatment, simply apply to the problem area, wait a couple of weeks, then hose off the debris. Domestic disinfectant uses the same active ingredient as some specialist moss/lichen products (although some do have additional ingredients to assist with cleaning).

As a starting point we suggest you try a supermarket bulk-brand disinfectant - look for one with the strongest concentration of alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride. When applying, try not to splash surrounding plants as they may be damaged. And whatever you do, don't mix household chemicals yourself, as this can create poisonous gas.

A-Z stain guide

Here's how to treat spots and stains on fabrics. In most cases, the item should be rinsed or washed straight after treatment.

You can also download a PDF copy (194 KB) of our stain removal guide to print out and keep handy.

Stain removal - A-Z stain guide - table

Stain Treatment
Beer Soak in a solution of 3 parts water / 1 part white vinegar.
Beetroot juice Rinse straight away in cold water, then apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water.
Blood Soak for several hours in a solution of 1 tsp salt/600ml cold water, then rinse and apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water. Don't treat the stain with hot water as this will set it.
Candle wax Scrape off as much as you can, then allow the stain to harden (applying ice cubes or placing the garment in the freezer will speed up the process). Place stain between layers of white paper towels and press with a warm iron, changing the paper as it becomes soiled. Sponge the residue with meths.
Chewing gum Freeze with ice and break off as much as possible. Treat the residue with turps and wash in hot soapy water.
Chocolate/cocoa Scrape off excess chocolate then apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water.
Coffee/tea Soak in warm water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. If the stain persists, soak a black coffee or tea stain in a solution of 2 parts water / 1 part white vinegar. Try a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water on a stain from white coffee or tea.
Crayon Treat the same as candle wax.
Curry A tricky stain - take garments you value to a dry-cleaner. Otherwise, soak the garment in warm water, squeeze out the excess, apply glycerine and leave for an hour. Rinse, then try a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water.
Deodorants/antiperspirants Sponge or soak in a solution of 1 Tbsp ammonia / 1 cup warm water with a squirt of dishwashing detergent. Treat residual traces with turps.
Egg Apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water. Don't treat the stain with hot water as this will make it harder to remove.
Fats & oils Sprinkle with talcum powder, leave for 30 minutes then scrape off. Lubricate older stains with glycerine, then sponge with dishwashing liquid and warm water. Treat residual stains with turps.
Fruit juice Rinse immediately in cold water. If the stain persists, and the fabric will stand it, spread the item over a bowl and pour boiling water over the stain. Otherwise, sponge or soak the stain in warm water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. Treat residual stains with meths.
Glue Soak cellulose-based glues in cold water with a squirt of dishwashing detergent. Meths works on PVA. Other glues may only respond to nail polish remover. (Spot test first.)
Grass Sponge with meths, dry, then soak in water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid.
Hair dye Blot with warm (not hot) water then sponge with a solution of 1 Tbsp ammonia in 1/2 cup water. (Spot test first on coloured fabric.)
Hair spray Sponge with meths.
Ink (ballpoint pen) Sponge with meths, then rinse thoroughly in cold water. Repeat as necessary.
Ink (liquid & marker) Remove excess with absorbent paper. Sponge or dip in a solution of equal parts ammonia and water. (Spot test first on coloured fabrics.) Rinse in warm water.
Lipstick/makeup Gently rub in glycerine to loosen the stain, then treat with meths.
Mildew/mould Treat white cotton or linen with a mixture of 1 Tbsp chlorine bleach / 1L warm soapy water. On coloured fabrics dilute the bleach even more, and be prepared for some fading. See "Removing mould or moss" for more tips.
Milk/cream/ice cream Rinse in warm (not hot) water and dishwashing liquid, then apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water and soak. Treat residual fat stains with turps.
Motor oil Scrape away as much as possible and sponge with turps. For washable fabrics rub glycerine into the stain. Rinse under a hot tap, then soak in water with dishwashing liquid.
Nail polish Treat non-synthetic fabrics with nail polish remover. (Spot test first.) Treat any residual marks with meths. Never treat acetate fabrics with nail polish remover - it can melt them!
Paint (oil-based) Scrape off as much as possible and sponge residue with turps. If paint has dried, soften with glycerine first.
Paint (water-based & latex) Wash away fresh paint with cold water. Remove residue with meths. Once dry these paints are virtually impossible to remove.
Perfume Apply glycerine, then soak in a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water.
Perspiration Sponge with a solution of 1 part ammonia / 5 parts water, then rinse. Follow up by soaking in a solution of 1 part white vinegar / 3 parts water.
Rust Dab in a paste of lemon juice and salt and leave for an hour. Rinse and repeat if necessary.
Scorch marks Light marks can often be removed by immediately washing in warm soapy water, rinsing and drying in the sun.
Shoe polish/cleaners Scrape off the excess then apply a solution of equal parts ammonia and water. If the stain is stubborn treat with meths.
Sunscreen Absorb excess with tissues, then sponge with meths.
Tar/bitumen Scrape off as much as possible. Rub in glycerine to soften the stain, leave for 30 minutes, then apply turps or eucalyptus oil.
Tomato sauce Sponge with dishwashing liquid, then rinse. Apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water and soak.
Urine Soak in a solution of 1 part ammonia / 5 parts water. On stubborn stains follow with a solution of 1 part white vinegar / 3 parts water. Or use a nappy soaker.
Vomit Remove excess, rinse in cold water, then apply a paste of a laundry detergent containing enzymes and water and soak.
Wine (red) Flush with lots of cold water, then pour salt on the stain, and let it stand for an hour. Scrape off the salt and rinse thoroughly. But see "Carpet stains" if the wine is on the carpet.

Safe cleaning

Follow these safety guidelines when handling stain removal chemicals.

  • Many stain removal chemicals are poisonous. Store them out of the reach of children.
  • When treating a stain with meths, turps, kerosene, white spirits, or nail polish remover stay well away from naked flames or burning cigarettes.
  • Keep a door or window open to ventilate the area and avoid breathing the fumes.
  • Never use ammonia with products containing chlorine bleach - the fumes given off by the mixture are dangerous.

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