How to Remove Mystery Stains From Clothes

Young boy looking at shirt's food stains

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You're enjoying that jelly doughnut and cup of latte right up to the point the jelly dribbles onto your shirt. You know immediately what caused the problem and how to tackle the stain (or you quickly look it up).

But, sometimes mystery stains appear on clothes, and you don't remember how they got there. Or, when you pull dirty laundry from the family hamper, the members of your household offer no clues as to how that brown spot or sticky spot ended up on their shirt. So, where do you start to remove the stains effectively?

There are three clues—the location of the stain, how the stain smells, and the color of the stain—that will give you a starting point on how to remove the stain. 

Location of the Stain

  • Food stains are often on the front of the garment or the seat of trousers.
  • Perspiration stains are typically under the sleeves and around the collar.
  • Black grease is often on pants or skirts at car door levels.
  • Bleach stains can occur around waist level after cleaning in a kitchen or bathroom.



  • Typically, if a stain is brown, it is protein-based and needs a product with the enzyme protease as an ingredient.
  • If a stain is gray, it is in the oil or grease family and requires the enzyme lipase to remove the stain.
  • The absence of color means that the color has been bleached from the fabric. This is most often caused by splashed or spilled chlorine bleach. There is no way to reverse bleach stains. If you use chlorine bleach, always clean up the work area carefully before moving to the next laundry load. This is especially important in shared laundry rooms and laundromats. Check that your washer's bleach dispenser is working properly and not leaving a bit to drip on the next load of dark clothes.
  • However, stain colors can be misleading. Rust-colored stains may be tea, coffee, caramelized sugar, felt marker, rust oxide or many other culprits. Cosmetics containing benzoyl peroxide can bleach many colors to look rusty.

Stain Removal Treatments to Try

Just like a physician, the motto in the laundry room should be, first do no more harm. Always use the least destructive stain removal method first on mystery stains. If the fabric is washable, fill a sink with cold water and completely submerge the stained item and allow it to soak for at least 30 minutes to see if the stain lightens.

Next, treat the stain with a prewash stain remover spray or gel like Zout or Shout or Spray 'n Wash or a bit of heavy duty liquid detergent (Tide or Persil are rated as the best brands that contain enough enzymes to break apart stains). Work the stain remover or detergent into the stained area by rubbing with your fingers or a soft-bristled brush. Allow the cleaner to work for at least fifteen minutes and then wash as recommended on the fabric's care label. Check the stained area before you toss it in the dryer. Never place a stained garment in the high heat of the dryer which can set the stain and make it almost impossible to remove.

If the stain is still there, it's time for an oxygen bleach and water soak. Mix a solution of oxygen-based bleach (brand names are: OxiClean, Tide Oxi, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) and tepid water. Submerge the entire garment. Allow it to soak for at least four hours or overnight and then launder as usual. This technique is safe to use for all washable fabrics—white and colored—except for silk, wool, and anything trimmed with leather.

If the mystery spot is waxy or gummy, the stain will probably respond best to treatment with a dry-cleaning solvent.

Even though it may be tempting, using chlorine bleach to remove stains, even on white cotton fabrics, should be avoided. If the brown stain is actually rust, chlorine bleach will make the stain permanent.

If the garment is labeled as dry clean only and stain removal can't wait for a professional cleaner, try spot treating the stain.

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Illustration: Ashley Nicole DeLeon. © The Spruce, 2018