How to Remove Mystery Stains From Clothes

How to Remove Mystery Stains From Clothes

The Spruce / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 10 mins - 1 hr
  • Total Time: 1 - 8 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $5 to 10

It happens to almost everyone—you see a mystery stain on your clothes and wonder where it came from. Or, if you have little ones in the house, you pull dirty laundry from the family hamper and have no idea what that brown spot or sticky spot is on a shirt.

A stain usually offers three clues—the location of the stain, how the stain smells, and the color of the stain. Like an armchair detective, you will have to identify the stain and then treat accordingly. In most cases, high-quality, heavy-duty laundry detergent will solve the problem. Always use the most gentle stain removal method first on mystery stains.

Stain Type Varies
Detergent Type Heavy-duty laundry detergent
Water Temperature Cold
smelling a stain to help identify it
The Spruce / Michele Lee

Before You Begin

Before you begin trying to clean the stain, you should first attempt to determine what caused the stain. The location of the stain is a big clue. For example, 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 usually occur around waist level after cleaning in a kitchen or bathroom.

Old oil or grease stains may smell rancid, but appear dry. Gasoline and fuel odors linger, too. Of course, if the color matches a familiar smell, like a brown spot that smells like coffee or chocolate, or a red stain with a berry scent, you have more information to go on.

Typically, if a stain is brown, it is protein-based and needs a product with the enzyme protease as an ingredient (found in most quality laundry detergents). Or, if a stain is gray, it is in the oil or grease family and requires the enzyme lipase to remove the stain; this is also found in most heavy-duty laundry detergents.

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.

Preventing 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 that it is not leaving a bit to drip on the next load of dark clothes.

Sometimes, stain colors can be misleading. Rust-colored stains may be tea, coffee, caramelized sugar, felt marker, rust oxide, or another culprit. Cosmetics containing benzoyl peroxide can leave rust-colored stains. It may be tempting to use chlorine bleach to remove brown stains on white cotton fabrics, but this 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 cannot wait for a professional cleaner, try spot treating the stain.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Soaking basin
  • Washing machine


  • Water
  • Liquid laundry detergent
  • Stain remover stick, gel, or spray
  • Oxygen-based bleach (optional)
  • Dry-cleaning solvent (optional)


How to Remove Mystery Stains

  1. Soak in Water

    Fill a sink or basin 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.

    allowing the garment to soak in water prior to treating
    The Spruce / Michele Lee
  2. Pretreat With a Stain Remover

    Treat the stain with a prewash stain remover spray or gel 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 15 minutes.

    pretreating the stain with a heavy duty detergent
    The Spruce / Michele Lee
  3. Wash as Normal

    Wash as recommended on the fabric's care label. Make sure the stain is gone before you toss it in the dryer.

    garment in a laundry basket
    The Spruce / Michele Lee


    Never place a stained garment in the high heat of the dryer as this can set the stain and make it almost impossible to remove.

How to Remove Persistent or Dye-Based Stains

If the stain persists or is dye-based, it might require a special treatment with oxygen bleach. This technique is safe to use for all washable fabrics—white and colored—except for silk, wool, and anything trimmed with leather.

  1. Mix Oxygen Bleach and Water

    Mix a solution of oxygen-based bleach (OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener or OXO Brite) and tepid water following product directions.

  2. Submerge the Garment

    Place the entire garment in the solution so it is fully submerged.

  3. Soak

    Allow it to soak for at least four hours or overnight

  4. Wash the Garment

    Launder the garment as usual.


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

submerging a garment into a basin of bleach solution
The Spruce / Michele Lee

Additional Tips for Handling Mystery Stains

If you weren't able to remove the stain, you might have misidentified what caused it. The comprehensive list of stain makers could help you find the culprit—and be successful with a possible different stain remover than the one you already tried and you can still rescue your favorite shirt.

If all fails, you might be able to wear the garment as part of a layered outfit so the stain won't be visible. Or, you can disguise the stain in a creative way.