How to Remove Mystery Stains From Clothes

Young boy looking at shirt's food stains

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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 guess what the stain is, then wash accordingly. In most cases, high-quality 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

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 10 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 hour to 8 hours (tough stains)

Before You Begin

Before you begin trying to clean the stain, you should first attempt to determine what the stain is. 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-flavored smell, 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 many other culprits. Cosmetics containing benzoyl peroxide can bleach many colors to look rusty.

It may be tempting to use chlorine bleach to remove stains, even 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

Supplies

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

Tools

  • Soaking basin
  • Washing machine

How to Remove Mystery Stains From Clothes

  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.

  2. Spot Treat With 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.

  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.

    Dryer Beware

    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.

  4. Use Dry-Cleaning Solvent on Waxy, Gummy Stains

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

remove stains from clothes
Ashley Nicole DeLeon/The Spruce

If the stain persists, soak the item in oxygen bleach and water. Mix a solution of oxygen-based bleach (such OxiClean, 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.