7 Stain Removal Mistakes You Might be Making

Preserve your favorite garments by avoiding these common stain-removal slip-ups with the help of a laundry expert.

<p>BHG / Alicia Long</p>

BHG / Alicia Long

Stains are an inevitable part of life, but it can feel particularly upsetting when you drop makeup on a delicate blouse (always when you’re running late, of course) or spill red wine on your new cream-colored carpet. And while there is a proper stain removal method for just about every surface, the panic will set in faster than the stain itself if you’re not sure how to best treat it in the moment.

To help prepare you for unavoidable, we turned to the experts. Wendy Saladyga, stain expert and senior manager of technical performance for Henkel with Persil, is sharing the stain-removal mistakes she sees most often in her line of work—and how to avoid them. Save this guide as a reference for the next time you’re dealing with a tough or time-sensitive stain so that you can tackle it with confidence.

Related: The 9 Best Laundry Stain Removers, Tested and Reviewed

1. Letting Stains Sit

One of the most crucial errors you can make is waiting to treat stains. “Letting stains sit for too long can make them more difficult to remove, as the stain soaks into and dries in the fabric,” Saladyga says. Immediately blot excess liquid and then, as she recommends, apply a small amount of clear hand or dish soap if you can’t wash or clean the stain right away. This is especially vital if you spill something on yourself when you’re out and don’t have access to a washing machine right away.

Once you’re able to run the garment through a load (or after using a cleaner on furniture or rugs), Saladyga says to check if the stain is gone before the item is dry. If it isn’t yet, “repeat stain removal and washing steps prior to drying, as the heat from the dryer will further set in any remaining stain making it harder to remove,” she says. Essentially, time is of the essence when it comes to removing stains—so don’t wait to act. If you’re chronically clumsy, you might want to consider carrying a stain removal pen or individual wipes in your bag so you always have something on hand.

Editor's Tip: Never rub a stain—always blot! Scrubbing a new stain will simply spread it and potentially damage the fibers. Instead, blot excess liquid before treating and washing or cleaning the item.

Related: The 9 Best Laundry Stain Removers, Tested and Reviewed

2. Skipping the Pretreatment

If you are home when you drop something on yourself or your upholstery, you might be tempted to toss the item in the laundry or go in with a cleaner right away. However, you’re missing a potentially crucial step in the stain removal process. Pretreating stains, especially tough ones like turmeric, tomato, or chocolate, will help them break down better and make washing or cleaning easier.

And while you most likely have a stain remover sitting in your laundry room, Saladyga says it’s actually not necessary to use one. “Many think you have to purchase a pretreatment solution separate from detergent, but you can use a heavy-duty detergent,” she says. “Simply pour a small amount of the detergent on the stain, rub it in, and let sit for 5 minutes or so before washing with the same detergent.” Use this method if you’re out of pretreatment, in a hurry, or the stain isn’t too tricky to remove.

Related: 13 Things You Should Never Put in the Washing Machine

3. Using Too Much Detergent

Yet another common faux pas Saladyga sees frequently is overdoing the laundry detergent. In general, regularly using more than the recommended amount per load can lead to more maintenance on your washing machine. Lingering soap residue creates a breeding ground for bacteria which means you’ll have to clean the washer more often to eliminate mold, mildew, and unpleasant odors. It turns out that going in heavy with detergent can also have an adverse effect on fabric stains.

“When fighting against tough stains, the first instinct may be to pile on the detergent," Saladyga says. "However, using too much laundry detergent isn’t good as it may actually result in dingy-looking clothes, create too much foam or residues in the machine or on the clothes, and waste money over time.” Instead, use pre-measured discs, laundry pods, or stick to the cap measurements to ensure the proper amount is used. If you’d like to save money and the environment, there are various ways to do that when it comes to laundry. But, experts advise against making your detergent due to the risks of health issues and appliance damage.

Editor's Tip: Always rinse detergent out after treating a stain. Even if the stain appears to have disappeared, neglecting to thoroughly rinse out stain remover or detergent could result in discoloration over time.

Related: The 8 Best Laundry Detergents of 2024, According to Testing

4. Ignoring Care Instructions

“It’s important to check the instructions on the stained garment’s care tag to determine the best approach to stain removal as different materials can tolerate different techniques,” Saladyga says. This is an area, however, that can confuse even the most attentive among us. It’s easy to get laundry symbols mixed up because, although they’re universal (and international), there’s a lot of them to remember, and they can vary ever so slightly in appearance from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Most articles of clothing and linens list their materials and care instructions on their tags. But, if you remove them and forget, you could be out of luck. In this case, try to keep tags attached, no matter how tempted you are to tear them off—especially if you’re unsure of the fibers or if it’s an investment piece like an area rug.

When in doubt, Saladyga recommends following this guide to popular materials and how well (or not) they hold up during the stain removal process:

  • Cotton: Highly durable, can take more stress.

  • Washable Silk: More delicate, so be less abrasive and don’t expose to any heat.

  • Wool: Very delicate. Check care label instructions.

  • Leather and Suede: Generally needs professional dry-clean attention.

Related: 7 Common Laundry Mistakes That Can Damage Clothes

5. Reaching for the Bleach

It’s fairly common knowledge that bleach should never be used on colored fabrics. However, you should proceed with caution when dealing with stains on stark white items. That’s because depending on their material or care instructions, some aren’t safe to bleach. Rather, stick to an oxygen-based bleach or optical brightening solution.

Related: Here's How to Bleach White Towels Without Ruining Them

6. Using Heat or Hot Water

As Saladyga points out, running something through the dryer (or using an iron on it) before a stain is fully removed will cause it to set in. Likewise, using hot water to rinse or wash protein-based stains (like blood and sweat) has the same effect, so always use cold water when tackling stains.

7. Trying Overcomplicated Hacks

The internet is full of cleaning tips (case in point, #CleanTok currently has 3.7 million views) but not every TikTok hack is a helpful one. “While home remedies can be enticing, they can do more harm than good—not to mention take more time, which allows the stain to set further,” Saladyga says.

“Some home remedies, like rubbing alcohol or bleach, may damage different types of fabrics. Others, like too much vinegar, may damage plastic and rubber parts in your washing machine over time,” she says. This is further proof that you should stick with a reliable detergent and always use the correct amount.

Related: 10 Best Stain Removers for Clothes, Linens, and Upholstery Fabric

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