How To Remove Set-In Stains From Your Kid’s Clothes

How To Remove Set-In Stains From Your Kid’s Clothes

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert, advice columnist, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. Her flagship column, “Ask a Clean Person”, debuted in 2011. Here on Lifehacker, we’ve launched a new iteration of it, focusing on parenting and all the messes it brings.

As a parent to a toddler, my question is if a shirt is truly a lost cause once you’ve washed and dried a stain into said shirt?

For example, let’s say my son eats strawberry/tomato sauce/raspberry (this combo happens more often than you’d think) and smears it on his nice white shirt that I apparently had a stroke when I bought, thinking white shirts on a toddler were a good idea. And then my well-meaning husband just tosses the shirt into the wash without any stain remover like a HEATHEN.

I usually consider that shirt a goner when I take it out of the dryer and am greeted by a nice, faded stain. Can these shirts be re-washed and somehow bleached/saved?

Conventional Clean Person wisdom states that once a stained garment has been through the dryer, that stain is set-in. Of course I’m not a conventional Clean Person! I’ve also had personal experience with stained items going through the dryer, and so I’ve lived this and can attest to the efficacy of a stain-removal technique I refer to as The Long Soak.

The Long Soak

Let’s talk about this technique, because it’s really the technique that’s so critical, much more so than the stain removal products. Those are important, too! But it’s the extended exposure to the product that’s really going to do the job here.

So here’s what you’re going to do: Dissolve a generous scoop of a powdered stain remover (more on those later) in enough hot water to fully submerge the stained clothes. Hot water is ideal because it will dissolve the powder more effectively than cold water, and also because hot water has extra stain-fighting power.

Now, the water will obviously cool down while the soaking takes place, and that’s OK. You won’t need to go in to refresh the soaking solution to keep it hot, but starting with hot water is good, provided the fabric being soaked can tolerate it. That is to say, don’t use hot water on woollens!

And where shall this soaking take place? Well, sinks are a good option, but you’ll need to take into account that the sink will be out of commission for several hours. So while a kitchen sink might be the right size for soaking a few sauce-stained shirts, it might not be ideal not to use your kitchen sink for those few hours.

A utility sink, the bathtub, a large bucket, a kiddie pool – those are all options. The idea is just that you need a vessel big enough to hold water and the stained garments that can be left undisturbed for an hour up to overnight.

If you have a standard washing machine that allows for it, you can also do the soaking right in the machine by filling it up and then stopping the cycle for a few hours.

Speaking of an hour up to overnight! The longer you can leave the garments to soak, the better. Now, that isn’t to say you should leave them for days, but the soak will be much more effective if you leave the clothes be for several hours. In my own life, I’ve found that putting a batch of stained items in solution right before I go to bed and then laundering them the next morning works well.

After soaking, drain the soaking solution, and press down on the clothes to extrude water (avoid wringing them out, which can stress the fibres). Then simply launder as usual. Just remember that the clothes are already saturated with whatever product you soaked them in, so you won’t need to add extra to the washing machine.

Stain Removal Agents

But what products to use for this Long Soak? Well, you have options! Some are harsher than others, so you’ll want to consider how relatively sturdy the garment in question is and choose a gentler formula for more delicate items.

Oxygen bleaches

Oxygen bleach formulas (which are different from chlorine bleach, and can be safely used on colours) that also contain enzymes are great choices for The Long Soak.


Borax is a mineral compound that is used for a number of household uses, including as an insect repellent. It’s also quite good as a stain remover, and a popular laundry booster for that reason.

Fun fact: My mum used to use it on my baby clothes. She also sent me a very huffy email when I first started writing Ask a Clean Person demanding to know why I hadn’t mentioned borax when, after all, it was what she used to keep my baby clothes stain-free. I was like, “Umm, Mum? I didn’t know you used borax on my baby clothes because I was a baby.” LOL mums, thank God for ‘em.

Dishwasher detergent

This is what I call The Big Guns: Dishwasher detergent. Yup! It must be the powdered kind, and you’ll definitely want to be aware that it can have a bleaching effect, so it’s best reserved for white and light-coloured clothing. But it is very, very, very good and, in fact, was the product I used to get the black marks out of the white towels that had gotten stained in the dryer thanks to those blasted hedgehog dryer balls.

Concerns About Skin Sensitivity

One last tip for those concerned about lingering product residue on clothes coming in contact with baby’s sensitive skin: If your washing machine offers an extra rinse cycle, use it. The extra rinse will help to full relieve the garment of detergent and laundry boosters used to remove tricky stains.

If you don’t have an extra rinse cycle, simply run a second wash cycle without any product to wash away any product residue.

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