how to wash clothes the right way - and remove ANY stain
Published: December 09, 2019Updated: October 30, 202217 min read
So, for whatever reason, it has become trendy to not wash your clothes. I have been doing this forever with my denim, which I never wash. It upsets my parents and gets a general gross from most of my friends. But, all of a sudden my “eccentric behaviors” have hit the mainstream. The reason I don’t wash my denim is that it looks way better when you let it break in naturally. And, if you really need to clean it, a simple soak with a tiny bit of Woolite is more than enough. Anyway, I get it, most of you probably still want to wash your clothes. And, guess what? You can wash your clothes and still be sustainable. The key is to know how to do laundry. And, how to treat stains.
The “experts" got it wrong. You don’t have to totally stop washing your clothes, you just need to wash them correctly and to do that, you only need to know-how. Washing clothing is a bit of a science, and one technique does not fit all types of fabrics. So, here is everything you need to know about laundry and how to keep your clothes looking like new forever.
Telling a consumer how to care for their clothing is the law
Doing laundry is a serious business. So, serious that the US Federal regulations require anyone selling garments or textiles to clearly label how they need to be cared for. These labels must be sewn into the garment or fabric, and are called care labels.
How to clean fabrics
There are two main ways of cleaning fabrics. The first is laundering, and the second is dry cleaning. We will go over the pros and cons of laundry vs dry cleaning later in this article.
Know your dirt
If you are going to clean your clothes, first you need to understand what is making them dirty. Different types of dirt are cleaned in different ways. The two main types of soils that will make your clothes dirty are water-soluble and non-water-soluble. An example of a water-soluble stain would be when you spill coffee all over your shirt on your morning commute. Non-water-soluble is that spaghetti sauce stain, from when that lady and the tramp moment didn’t quite work out the way you envisioned. So what's the difference?
Water-soluble stains, like coffee, can be dissolved with only water if you soak them long enough.
There are different types of non-water-soluble stains and different methods for getting them out.
Foods tend to need the help of soaps and detergents to get them out.
Soot or dirt, like the kind from the ground
These stains can be removed by submerging the fabric in water, and shaking it up (the same way your laundry machine would).
Lint and dust
Lint and dust are attracted to fabrics through electrostatic forces. To destroy the magnetic grip this kind of dirt has on your clothes you simply need to submerge the textile in water.
Like from greasy pizza, it might need the help of a solvent. That is generally where dry cleaning comes in, but more on that later.
If the stained area has a lot of pigment in it, like the tomato sauce I mentioned earlier, even if you get all of the food parts off, it might have stained the fibers of the garment. After all, many foods have traditionally been used for dyes. To get the color out, a whitening agent like bleach is needed.
The take away from all of this. Some types of stains don’t even need detergent or chemical processing, all they need is a little water.
Different types of textiles cleaning
Laundering is what you do at home in your washing machine. Or, if you are like me right now in a bucket in your bathroom by hand (hey, India). Or, if you are like me in NYC - maybe you have it sent out with a laundry pick up service (hello, tiny apartment living with no access to washers and dryers).
Basically, laundering requires water, a little soap or detergent, and some agitation.
It sounds easy, but, in the world of textiles, nothing is ever that simple. How clean your clothes actually get depends on a bunch of things. The quality of the detergent, the quality of the water (if the water is dirty how can it get your clothes clean), water temperature, what is the textile that you are cleaning, the water-to-weight-of-fabric ratio (if you don’t have enough water, your clothes will never get clean), and more. Like, did you separate your darks, from your whites, from your colors?
Why a garment care tag is important to home laundering
If you know how to read a garment care tag correctly it will give you some clues as to how to clean your garment.
The fiber content is a clue to if the fabric is hydrophobic or hydrophilic. Hydrophobic fibers love oil, but hate water. Hydrophilic fibers love water but, hate oil.
Hydrophobic fibers are also known as oleophilic fibers. This means they naturally repel water but will suck up oil. This is good and bad news for your stains. An example of hydrophobic fibers are polyester and nylon.
If you get a water-based stain on a hydrophobic fiber, like coffee or soda, act quickly. At first, the textile will repel the stain. If you move fast enough to dab it away it might not stain. But, if it has time to set in and leaves a stain, here is how to clean it.
Most people think that tough stains need more detergent. Wrong, very wrong. Tough stains on fabrics like polyester need more water.
Think about it. Polyester hates water. So, for the first ½ of your laundry wash cycle, water is fighting its way into the poly fibers to try and clean them. The longer they soak the more time the water has to get in and do its work. So, if you get coffee on your poly shirt, make sure to use an extra-long wash cycle, no need to add any extra detergent.
So, what if you get an oil stain on your poly shirt. Well, this is a bit of a bigger problem. Your shirt will want to hold onto the oil, and never let it go. Oil stains on hydrophobic fibers will need the hard-hitting chemical cleaners – meaning the dry cleaners.
Hydrophilic fibers are cotton, rayon, and linen. The bad news is they like to absorb all types of dirt, water-based, oil, insoluble – they love them all. The good news is that they also love water. This makes them much easier to clean. Cotton is considered one of the easiest to launder fibers out there.
So, if you are prone to stains like I am, stick to hydrophilic fibers.
The temperature that you wash your clothes in is important for 2 reasons –
shrinkage and fiber damage
Shrinkage and fiber damage
I think almost everyone that does their own laundry has had the experience of accidentally putting a sweater into the washing machine and it comes out chihuahua size. Some clothing can handle the heat, and be ok. Generally, fibers like polyester and nylon are shink proof, while others like wool are not.
This is especially important if you are investing in natural dyes. Fabrics are dyed by putting them in boiling hottest water with dye. The hot water opens up the pores of the fiber and allows the dye to penetrate. If you wash fragile natural dyes in hot water, the fibers will open back up and let the dyes out.
Chemical dyes, although not healthy for you, tend to be less sensitive to water temperatures and allow for easy laundering.
There are two types of cleaning agents in home laundering soaps and detergents. They are not the same thing, so, what’s the difference? Here is where things get sciency. The trick to knowing when to use a soap or a detergent lies within the type of water your home has.
What is Laundry Soap?
Soaps are made of sodium salts of fatty acid. They can do a great job of cleaning your clothes in soft water – that is water that does not have minerals in it. The problem with soap and high mineral content waters is that the minerals in the water will combine together with the soap to create a gray scum that will stick to your clothes. Have you ever seen those old-time cartoons where the water in a bathtub is drained and a ring of dirt is left around the tub? That is called a soap curd, and that is essentially what will get stuck onto your clothes if you use soap in hard water with a lot of minerals.
What is detergent?
Detergents are synthetic soaps. They are necessary for hard water conditions because they have been designed to not form scum.
Busting laundry myths
Are soap and detergent bad for fabrics?
Yes and No.
There are so many laundry commercials that claim that all other soaps and detergents are bad for your clothes, but theirs is superior. Is it true, or is it all a bunch of marketing b.s.?
Soaps and detergents generally will not degrade the quality of your clothes. But, if you buy a very alkaline detergent it will weaken the strength of more fragile fibers like silk and wool.
What really damages clothing is mechanical abrasions from your clothes being roughly thrown around inside washers and dryers.
While soaps and detergents won’t hurt the fiber they can remove finishes like waterproofing, or fire repellency. And, in some cases will remove dye from clothing.
Soap and detergent companies want to sell more products, so they recommend that you use more products than you really need. I spent a lot of time working in denim wash houses. Here is a secret. Sometimes part of the finishing process was just washing the jeans. When we did this we would use about 1/5 the amount of detergent (we would buy it from the grocery store, now I guess most people get it from Amazon) recommended on the box.
To be fair, hard water requires more detergent than soft water.
How soap gets rid of dirt
It’s not magic, it’s more science. Soap and detergents work by decreasing surface tension on water. When the surface tension of water is reduced it is able to better penetrate textiles. Once the water and soaps get into the fabrics they work by sticking onto the dirt and then washing it away. Once the soap or detergent has grabbed onto the dirt it’s done its job and won’t re-enter the garment as long as there is enough water present. This is because soaps and detergents hold the dirt in suspension in water. That is why I mentioned earlier that the laundry weight to water ratio is important.
Too much detergent makes your clothes dirtier
When you use too much detergent it will start to stick to your clothes, and not fully wash out in your washing machines rinse cycle. When this happens the left on film of detergent actually attracts more dirt, causing you to wash your clothes again, with more detergent – leaving you in a vicious cycle. To break the cycle give your clothes a few runs through the washing machine with water only to make sure all the detergent is gone.
But, be careful. If you use too little detergent it might not be able to do its job 100% and the dirt may not be held in suspension and redeposit back into the clothing.
It’s a careful dance. So, as a general rule, I usually tell people it’s safe to use at least ½ of the recommended amount of soap or detergent.
But, what about stains? Here is how to remove every type of stain ever. Here. We. Go…
Getting a stain on your clothes is not a reason to let them end up in the landfill.
The good news is that most of these techniques are pretty eco-friendly. Especially if you chose to use a low toxin spot cleaner and detergent, and then skip the store-bought synthetic enzyme treatment for good old lemon juice.
Adhesive tape/glue/ anything sticky
Use ice to rub the stain. Once the stain is frozen solid, scrape it with a butter knife. Dab the area with a sponge and a little spot cleaner, and then repeat the process as many times as needed.
Ink from a pen
Soak with hairspray, rinse, scrub with detergent, rinse, and repeat as many times as necessary. You can also try rubbing alcohol, glycerine, or a special stain remover pre-wash from the store.
Soak in cool water with an enzyme treatment. No need to get fancy with the enzymes, you can find them in your kitchen, a little lemon juice will work just fine and, is totally natural. You can also try using rubbing alcohol (but be careful, this can remove fabric dye if too much is used) or try ammonia (which is super stinky).
Put the garment in the freezer and scrape off as much wax as you can. Next, put some paper towels over the wax stain and iron it, the wax should stick onto the paper towel. Then dab with a spot cleaner or you can even try rubbing alcohol (again be careful not to use too much, that will remove the color from your clothes). Wash like normal.
Use ice to harden. Scrape with a butter knife. If that does not work you can try breaking down the gum with egg whites.
Chocolate, coffee, tea
Soak the garment in club soda. If you don’t have club soda, use cold water, and if you can, add some lemon enzymes (lemon juice). Dab with a spot cleaner, then wash with a detergent in hot water.
Wet the stain, rub with detergent. Rinse. Dab with spot cleaner, rinse. Wash in super hot water.
Scrape the excess crayon off. If it is really stuck on try using cooking oil to loosen it up (be careful if the clothes are oleophilic). Rub with detergent, rinse, then dab with a spot cleaner. Wash in hot water with bleach.
Rub with vinegar or alcohol, rinse, rub with liquid detergent, then wash in warm water.
Felt tip pen
Rub with kitchen counter cleaner, rinse. Repeat. Wash like regular. Even after a rigorous stain removal process, this type of stain may never come out.
If cotton, dab with a sponge soaked with nail polish remover. Any other fabric, use isoamyl acetate (street name banana oil). Then scrape with a butter knife and wash.
Fruit and fruit juice
Soak with lemon juice (the good kind of fruit), and wash. If that does not work try a white laundry vinegar soak and then wash in really hot water. If, even that does not work, and the stain is really stubborn, cover the stain with a paste made out of an oxygen bleach like OxiClean or a household staple of hydrogen peroxide and a few drops of ammonia for about 15 minutes.
Soak in lemon juice, rub with detergent, rinse with hot water and bleach. If the stain is still there try dabbing with a sponge soaked in alcohol.
Grease or butter
Scrape off as much as possible. Apply an absorbent powder like talc or cornstarch. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then brush it off. Apply a strong detergent to the stain, and let it soak for a bit. Rinse the detergent off, and then, dab the stain with a spot cleaner, wash a final time in hot water.
When I was little me and my sister were only allowed two types of ice cream. Vanilla and pink (known to everyone else as strawberry). My mother banned all chocolate from our home because she did not want to deal with the stains. If only she knew this. Soak in lemon juice, rub with detergent, rinse and let dry. Next dab with spot cleaner, rinse again, and wash it hot water with a little bit of bleach.
Soak in ammonia.
Apply glycerine to the stain and let sit for 5 minutes. Wash normally.
Mayonnaise and oily salad dressings
Rub with detergent, rinse, dry. Dab with a sponge soaked in spot cleaner, rinse, wash in hot water.
In Goa, during monsoon, everything gets really mildewy. The easiest and most natural way to combat this is to put everything in the sun. The UV rays and dry heat will kill all the mildew. If the stain remains - for really tough jobs try soaking in lemon juice before putting out in the sun.
Soak in lemon juice, rinse, rub with detergent, wash normally.
Unless you are mud printing in Bagru, you don’t want mud on your clothes. Soak the garment in a mixture of water with dishwashing detergent and laundry vinegar. If that does not work try dabbing with an alcohol-soaked sponge. Last resort, try bleach.
Treat with a spot cleaner, or try rubbing with bar soap, like Dove. Then, rinse in hot water.
Quick! Don’t let that paint dry, if you do, you're done for. If it is an oil-based paint dab with a sponge and turpentine or paint thinner. Then rub with bar soap, and wash. If it is water-based paint or latex paint scrub with soap and water as quickly as you can, then throw it in the wash.
Pour mineral oil on the stain, this will loosen up the peanut butter. Apply a spot cleaner and then blot with a clean paper towel, rinse and then wash normally.
Soak in water, lemon juice, or baking soda. If it’s really stinky try all three. Rinse. Rub with detergent. If the stain is new try a little ammonia. If the stain is old and dried in, try white laundry vinegar. Rinse, and wash normally.
Dab with a sponge soaked in cold water. Rub with detergent. Wash in hot water.
Same as fruits and fruit juices. If the stain just happened, forget about that the old wives' tale of club soda and instead quickly sprinkle it with salt so the stain does not set in.
Advanced level laundry – beyond simple soaps and detergents
Time to level up to more advanced laundry skills.
Soaps and detergents are more than they seem.
A lot of the time the soaps and detergents that you buy at the store contain additives, but you can also buy them separately and whip up your own laundry concoction.
As mentioned before, surfactants work to reduce the surface tension of water and help water to get into your clothes to clean them. They are also basically magic because once they grab the dirt they leave the garment and then are suspended in water and won’t re-enter.
Bleach is not used to clean clothing. It is for whitening and helping to remove some stains. Be careful with bleach. If you use it too much it will weaken your clothing and you won’t be able to wear it as long as you like. There are two types of bleach, they are chlorine bleach and non-chlorine bleach.
Never, ever wash spandex of protein fibers (wool and silk) with chlorine bleach. This will make them turn yellow, brittle, and fall apart. Chlorine bleach is ok on all other types of fibers.
These are chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and sodium percarbonate. The yare not as strong and chlorine. But, they are safe on all fibers.
Fluorescent brighteners, aka optical brighteners, work by absorbing short-wavelength lights like ultraviolet rays and then emitting longer wavelengths back out in the form of blue light. Basically they make things low-key glow. Fluorescent brighteners don’t remove dirt, they only add a glowing effect.
Long before the invention of brightness something called a blueing agent was used to get white fabrics whiter. Basically a blueing agent is a very low-grade blue dye (have you ever noticed how most detergents are blue?). Blue sits across from yellow (generally white clothes turn yellow when they start to look dingy) on the color wheel. The blue, in theory, cancel out the yellow, and your clothes look white again. But, blueing agents can be difficult. If you are not careful they could end up dying your white clothes blue.
Remember how I mentioned that hard water was not good for soap because it creates a scum? Well, their solution to this is something called a water softener. Water softeners basically go in and bond to the minerals (calcium and magnesium) that make water hard, and allow the soap to do its work.
Water softeners are usually not eco-friendly
A common chemical is water softeners, and a chemical that is added to many detergents is phosphates. While they do their job to soften the water and help your clothes get clean, they are damaging to local water systems. They are so destructive that a bunch of states has banned them.
A safer more eco-choice are water softeners that are made of sodium carbonate.
Fabric softeners are basically like lube for fibers. The softeners coat each fiber, creating less friction. With less friction between fibers (if you don’t know what a fiber is, and how they affect a fabric and overall garments quality read here) the fabric becomes much softer and silkier.
But, there is such a thing as too much. Fabric softener builds up quickly. So it is important to use it every so often, only when the fabric really needs it. Not every wash cycle.
Pro tip use softener to combat winter static cling
Fabric softener helps fibers to hold moisture. And, when fibers hold moisture they have less static.
Starch is basically the opposite of softener. It helps to make fabrics stiff and crisp. Many starches are made out of vegetables (yay), but look out for ones that are made with petroleum, and try to avoid them. Starch will wash out with every wash, so it needs to constantly be reapplied.
“sniff sniff hooray”
That just out of the laundry, clean smell is manufactured in a test tube. And, today many people are finding that they are allergic to fragrances which can cause itching and rashes. If you are one of those people look for fragrance-free detergents and soaps.
Pretreatments are made of enzymes that are for extra hard to remove stains – like blood, grass, and chocolate. While they are great at giving stains the one-two punch, they are also great and degrading the strength and quality of your fibers. So, for that reason only use them when they are really necessary.
Speaking of hard to remove stains, what about dry cleaning?
Here is an article I wrote about everything you need to know about dry cleaning...
Laundry of the future. Have you heard of ultrasonic washing?
This is pretty cool. Clothing is put into a water bath, then ultrasonic sound waves are used to agitate the clothing and get all the stains and dirt out. Ultrasonic means that we can’t hear the sound.
Sounds kind of fancy, and futuristic. What are the benefits? Ultrasonic cleaning happens super fast, like, it takes seconds to do a load of laundry! And, it uses less energy and water. And, it is believed that the process is gentler than conventional laundry so clothes last longer!
The laundry police
Taking care of textiles is a serious business. Remember how I mentioned that brands legally have to include how to care for the clothing they sell? Well, there are two main associations that are in charge of regulating this. They are the International Fabricare Institute and the Neighborhood Cleaners Association.
The National Cleaners Association. "Offering a wide range of programs, customized services, educational opportunities and authoritative publications for the benefit of both its membership and the consumers they serve, NCA has established itself as the premier dry cleaning organization in the industry."
That’s a lot of people that are into laundry.
These groups don’t just police the industry they also research, and test new methods and products. And, they even offer courses and business seminars all dedicated to laundry practices. Talk about a niche.
And, like every industry, there are even trade shows dedicated to laundry and garment cleaning. One is called the Clean Show. And another is the Texcare Show. If you are outside of the USA you can check out LORSA, which is held all over the world.
What about water repellent fabrics? And, other special fabrics?
So, by now you understand that garment cleaning works by going into the fibers, grabbing the dirt, and removing it. But, how do you clean something that by definition is waterproof, and should be impenetrable?
Well, the first thing to do is NEVER use detergents. Detergents will break down water repellency, which we don’t want. The best way to clean water repellent garments is with plain water and a little elbow grease.
Other special fabrics and how to clean them – the following should NEVER be dry cleaned.
Vinyl plastics and vinyl-coated fabrics
Because vinyl products often contain plasticizers that help to soften the textile these components will react to dry cleaning solvents and cause them to leach out of the fabric leaving the textile that was once soft hard and brittle.
Used in many plastic buttons, buckles, snaps, etc.
Dyed leather will often run when exposed to dry cleaning solvents. Be extra careful with dyed leather trim, you don’t want the dye to wash off on to the rest of your garment.
These need special care. These drinks contain something called tannins. Tannins are invisible until exposed to heat. When dry cleaning there is a lot of heat, and the heat from the pressing will cause the stain from the tannins to become visible and permanent. So, watch out.