How to Remove Food Stains from Your Clothes

Red wine, coffee, grease? They don't stand a chance.

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Whether it's dipping your sleeve into the casserole sauce or spilling coffee down your shirt on the way to work, nothing is worse than trying to frantically scrub and sop up the mess, ruining clothes when treating a stain the wrong way.

Never fear! We've tackled the most common food stains with these eight top tips and tricks for getting stains out. We spoke with cleaning expert Donna Smallin Kuper about tackling the toughest stains from red wine to chocolate sauce and everything in between. You'll never be stuck with unsightly stains again.

Tip 1: Attack ASAP

One size doesn't fit all when tackling a nasty stain, but treating the issue as quickly as possible can be the difference between saving a garment or table cloth and throwing it in the garbage. If possible, act immediately, according to Smallin Kuper, who notes that "the fresher the stain, the easier it is to remove." A quick approach can prevent stains from setting and ensures you remember what substance you're dealing with, which will guide your stain plan of attack.

Tip 2: Employ a Butter Knife

Solids, such as egg yolk or food particles, should be scraped off with a butter knife or spoon before treating, as this will allow for deeper penetration of detergents or treating agents. Blot with a white towel or lint-free napkin that won't transfer and try not to rub as this can cause the stain to bleed further.

Tip 3: Each Stain Is a Unique Mess

Now, consider what you're working with: grease and other tough clinging foods will need a more intense method than coffee or tea. There are unique approaches or tricks for removing all types of foods, from chocolate to red wine to tomato sauce. In a pinch, most stains require a cold-water soak and then some kind of detergent remover.

A favorite all-around product is Fels Naptha soap ($2; Amazon), which works by simply rubbing the bar into the stain and then gently rubbing the material against itself. Notably different in approach are chocolate and fruit juice stains, which should use warm and hot water in Smallin Kuper's estimate, respectively.

Woman Cleaning Stained Shirt in Bathroom Sink
CasarsaGuru/Getty Images

Tip 4: Avoid the Dryer at All Costs

When clothing is wet, it's challenging to tell whether the stain is still in place or removed. Because of that, allow clothes to air dry, as putting them in the dryer will set the stain. If the stain persists, soak in cool water for another 30 minutes and retreat.

Pro Tip: Alcohol Be Gone

Tips and tricks can help make the difference between scrubbing and rinsing for hours and quickly washing up in minutes, and Smallin Kuper has plenty. For example, the best bet for getting out red wine is to turn the fabric inside out.

She says, "Remove excess residue from the stain by blotting with a paper towel. As soon as possible, rinse the stain under running water at sink; with the opposite side of stain facing up so that the water is pushing the stain out rather than through the cloth. Pre-treat and wash according to care instructions. Repeat as needed. These instructions also apply to beer, punch, cream liquor, like Bailey's, and margarita/daiquiri frozen blended drinks."

Tip 5: Forget About Treating Dry Clean Only

Armed with this new knowledge, you may feel like tackling all your messy food stains, but Smallin Kuper cautions against attempting to take down problems on items labeled "dry clean only." There is a high potential for ruining the garment. Instead, she advises to mark the area with a bit of painter's tape and take to the experts, as the delicate material could be easily damaged.

Tip 6: Toothbrushes Aren't Just for Teeth

There is good reason to keep your old (and cleaned!) toothbrushes — they are ideal for getting out tough stains. Grease and tomato sauce stains are notoriously difficult to remove; for that, combine the power of liquid laundry detergent and some elbow grease to work these types of stains out of clothing.

Tip 7: Play Detective

Unsure of what's plaguing your duds? Or worse, find a stain days or weeks after the fact? There's hope still. Start with a similar method, this time playing detective. Smallin Kuper recommends, "If you don't know what the stain is, consider its location on the garment: stains on the front of clothes are often food or beverage stains; collars and underarms are prone to perspiration stains; and black stains on pant legs at knee level may be grease or dirt stains from getting in or out of the car. "

Tip 8: On-the-Go? No Problem

We've all encountered the annoying instance of being out at a restaurant, spilling red wine, or having some of your meal fall into your lap. In these instances, with limited tools and perhaps only the bathroom soap, it can often be a toss-up between letting the stain sit and trying to fix it on the spot, only to worsen the situation potentially.

Smallin Kuper has some solutions. Carrying a stain treatment tool in your purse or bag, like the Tide to Go Instant Stain Remover Pen ($6.49; Amazon), can help pre-treat the issue after removing excess food and blotting the area dry.

While these types of on-the-go removers won't work a miracle, the stain should come away more easily when you launder your clothes later. According to Smallin Kuper, "Press the tip of the Tide To Go Pen several times onto the stain and rub tip gently across the stain to remove it. Blot with paper towel and repeat if necessary. Later, rinse the material and wash as usual."

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