From fast food joints to cafeterias to backyard barbecues, no two condiments are as ubiquitous in the United States as ketchup and mustard. It's also why, when it comes to a saucy substance shooting into your lap, these guys are the most likely culprits. But just as people can be extremely opinionated on which one makes for a better burger topping, ketchup and mustard can also elicit quite a debate over which one is worse to get on your clothes. With its bright red hue, ketchup would seem like the obvious answer for creating a more conspicuous stain, but experienced klutzes will often attest to mustard's steadfastness when it comes to actual cleanup.
So which camp is correct? We reached out to several experts with a very simple question, "Which stains worse: ketchup or mustard?" And the answer was essentially unanimous.
As founder of Mulberrys Garment Care, a mini-chain of about a dozen eco-friendly laundry and dry cleaning stores in San Francisco and Minneapolis, Dan Miller knows about stains, and his answer was unequivocal. "Definitely mustard," Miller tells us. "Mustard is what we call a combination stain so it requires multiple steps to remove. Ketchup is relatively straightforward." Okay, well if ketchup is so easy, how do you get the stain out? "Ketchup is a plant-based stain," he explains further. "These can be removed with acids such as lemon juice or vinegar. To treat, simply blot the stain with a towel or dish cloth, then pour vinegar on the stain and let sit for five minutes. Then rinse with cold water and pre-treat with an enzyme-based stain remover such as Zout, and then wash." Meanwhile, with mustard, Miller says you're going to need to grab some bleach to finish things off. "[Mustard] has dye from the turmeric. To treat the stain, first blot the stain with a towel. Then put a small amount of laundry detergent or enzyme-based stain remover to break down the base of the stain. Then to remove the dye, use a color-safe bleach such as hydrogen peroxide. Let this sit for 10 minutes and then wash."
Speaking of bleach, we decided to reach out to Clorox to get its opinion on the subject. The well-known brand put us in touch with Mary Gagliardi, the company's in-house laundry and cleaning expert who goes by the prestigious title Dr. Laundry. Though not an actual doctor, she does have more than 15 years of experience as a scientist in laundry product R&D at Clorox. "Mustard typically includes turmeric to increase the yellow color, which will make the stain more difficult to remove than a ketchup stain," she tells us. "Ketchup's color is often just cooked tomato. Anything with added color will be more challenging to remove, but if you have the right laundry products, it doesn't have to be difficult."
Our fabric experts agreed as well. We got in touch with Vikki Martin, vice president of fiber competition for Cotton Incorporated, the cotton trade association you probably recognize from their "Seal of Cotton" logo and "Fabric of Our Lives" campaign. "Mustard is more difficult to remove than ketchup," Martin asserts. "It's essentially a homemade dye when turmeric and vinegar combine." Similar to Miller's advice, Martin says that whereas ketchup can be fought off with a little diluted vinegar before washing, mustard will likely require breaking out all the stops. "Launder using the hottest water and the type of bleach listed on the care label that is safe for the fabric," she says. She also warns that with both stains, "It might take more than one wash."
Meanwhile, Mary Zeitler, Fabric Care Lead Consumer Scientist at Whirlpool Corporation – a company that has been helping people clean clothes for over a century – went so far as to call mustard one of the worst stainers out there. "Of all the condiments, yellow mustard is one of the toughest stains to remove," she said via email, before reiterating a common theme. "That's because it is filled with turmeric, which can act as a dye on fabric, in order to achieve its signature yellow color."
Still not convinced? We spoke to one last cleaning expert, Debra Johnson who works with Merry Maids, one of America's largest home cleaning services. Again, her choice was clear, once again focusing on the dreaded "T" word. "Condiments are some of the worst stains to get on any fabric, but yellow mustard wins this debate hands-down," she explains. "This is because of what gives it that yellow color: turmeric. Turmeric is a huge culprit when it comes to food stains, and unfortunately, if you don't treat it immediately, it will likely ruin whatever clothing, furniture or carpet it has found itself on this time." Her advice… move fast: "Mustard might not come out if you wait too long."
So there you have it: Five experts, all from slightly different fields, all with one identical answer… Personal tastes aside, mustard stains far worse than ketchup. Maybe that helps explain why ketchup is so much more popular? Could it be we're all just a bit more subconsciously concerned about stains than we thought?