Cooking is messy. Spilled wine, bacon grease and marinara are all bound to find their way onto clothing (and chairs and napkins and tablecloths). Here, experts break down how to tackle tough stains.
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dish soap on a chocolate stain
Credit: Getty Images / Paperkites (chocolate), Getty Images / imagestock (soap)

Even the most careful and calculated people wind up with pesky stains on their clothing, upholstery, rugs—you name it. It's an all-too-common storyline, but one that doesn't have to have an ending involving you scrubbing for hours at a time or—worse— having to toss the stained item out altogether.

Yes, stains can be stubborn and hard to remove, but with the right level of promptness (seriously, the longer you let it soak in, the harder it is to get rid of!) and know-how, and the right techniques, not all hope is lost. Follow this guide to tackling any type of stain.

Coffee and Tea

How's that for a start to your day? To remove coffee or tea, rinse the stain in cold water. Soak in a container filled with 1 quart warm water, 1/2 teaspoon dishwashing soap and 1 tablespoon white vinegar for 15 minutes, advises the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Rinse and launder as normal, using nonchlorine bleach if the stain is still visible.

If you're removing the stain from furniture or a rug, mix 1/2 teaspoon each dish soap and white vinegar with 2 cups warm water. "Use a clean cloth or paper towel to blot the area with the mixture until the stain is lifts out," advises Derek Chiu, co-founder and director of the house cleaning service UrbanMop, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Wine or Fruit

Strawberries are juicy—and maybe too juicy sometimes. Blot off as much of the residue as you can without rubbing. Next, combine about three parts hydrogen peroxide to one part dishwashing liquid; apply it to the stain and allow it to sit for a few minutes before tossing into a cold wash. "The hydrogen peroxide weakens the stain, and the dishwashing liquid breaks down dirt and other stain-related particles," adds Leanne Stapf, chief operating officer of The Cleaning Authority, which provides home-cleaning services across the U.S.

Chocolate

Did some gooey chocolate from that s'more drip onto your clothes? First, scrape away any excess. Next, Stapf suggests rinsing the area with a mixture of cold water and laundry detergent and letting it sit for 5 to 10 minutes before soaking in a tub of plain, cold water for another 30 minutes. Rinse and toss in a cold wash. For upholstered furniture, pour cold water directly on top of the stain, then rub with a clean cloth and dishwashing detergent.

Tomato Sauce

It's almost a rule that the pasta sauce will bubble and splatter somehow during cooking. To deal, run cold water over a clean cloth, wring it out and blot the stain to prevent the stain from spreading, says Stapf. "Then, rub a slice of lemon into the stain. The acidity helps lift the sauce from the fabric," she says. "Finally, pour a generous amount of cold water to cover the area and blot again with a dry, clean cloth before throwing in a cold wash."

Gum

No matter how many small pieces you pick off, more always seems to remain. Use ice cubes to freeze the gum on items like clothing, carpet or upholstery, says Emil Perushanov, CEO of the U.K.-based professional cleaning service Top Cleaners. Once hardened, use a butter knife to gently scrape it off.  

Grease

A splatter of grease really goes everywhere. First, scrape off any remaining food using a butter knife. Then gently blot the stain with some paper towels to absorb as much of the grease as possible, suggests Stapf. Sprinkle baking soda or cornstarch on both sides of the fabric and let sit for 30 to 60 minutes. Next, apply dishwashing liquid, which Stapf says soaks in better than laundry detergent or stain spray. Let that sit for a few minutes, then rinse.

That said, If the grease stain happens to be on silk, satin or suede, you're better off ditching your DIY efforts and taking it to a dry cleaner.

Food Dye or Ink

You thought that shirt was a goner, huh? You can triumph, according to the University of Illinois Extension, but you'll need to go through several steps first. The following is for blue, green and purple food coloring. (If it's red, the steps are different: find them here.) Dab liquid detergent onto the stain. Next, soak the fabric in an oxygenated bleach (a formula that contains nonchlorine bleach) for 15 minutes.

When it comes to ink, a 15-minute soak in rubbing alcohol should do the trick, says Chiu. Next, blot the stain until you can no longer see it before tossing it in the wash. If the stain still shows, soak it again, until it's as light as possible.

Grass or Mud

Hanging out in your yard at that BBQ or picnic can lead to grass stains on your favorite jeans. Chiu recommends applying a liquid detergent and letting the item sit for five minutes. "Depending on the type of material, you could instead use a cleaning agent like white vinegar, rubbing alcohol or nonchlorine bleach to scrub away the stain with a clean cloth before throwing it in the wash," he says.

For any of these stains, best practice is to check on the stain's progress after the wash. Do that before tossing it into the dryer. Then, treat again if necessary, since the heat from the dryer can set stains into clothes. Now, out darned spot!