Stain Removal: Back to Basics

by Wash Wizards Los Angeles Laundry Service

Assessing the Garment

The very first thing to do is to figure out what type of fabric the garment is made of, as well as taking note of its color. After all, some colors are unstable and don’t colorfast well. Some of the obvious culprits are reds, blacks and darker blues; many of these garments won’t hold their colors.

Also, a number of clothing manufacturers these days are producing their garments as cheaply as possible, so they’re using lower-quality dyes, which tend to bleed easily.

As for fabric type, most of the items you’ll receive from your wash-dry-fold customers likely will be cottons and polyesters, which can easily be treated, once you’re sure of their colorfastness and feel comfortable using stain-treating chemicals on these garments.

Obviously, as a laundromat, you’re not equipped to handle certain fabrics such as silks, rayon and so on. These fabrics would require the work of a professional cleaner.

However, for the cottons and polyesters, the next step is to see if the garment is treatable. With a damp white cloth, aggressively rub a small, less-visible area of the garment. This is a quick way to tell if that garment is colorfast. If there is any movement of color onto the white cloth, more than likely that garment will bleed – either during the wash cycle or the stain-treating process.

A second “test” would be to place a small amount of stain-treating solution onto your white cloth, and again see how the garment’s dyes react.

To sum up this first step: look closely at the garment, identify the fabric, decide whether or not you have the ability to treat that particular fabric, and then determine if the fabric will hold its color during the stain-removal process.

Identifying the Stain

Once you’ve thoroughly assessed the garment, you can begin to look at the stain itself and try to identify it. This is a critical part of the process and will help immensely when it comes choosing a specific stain-treating strategy.

The first step is to ask the customer about the stain. If you can find out exactly what it is, that’s going to make your job a lot easier.

However, more times than not, the customer won’t know what the stain is or where it came from. Therefore, you need to be prepared to answer those questions yourself.

You wash-dry-fold business likely will face three main categories of stains: proteins, acids and oils.

Typically, protein stains are anything that comes from our bodies or an animal. Common examples are food, dairy and blood stains.

Stains derived from an organic base are generally acid stains. Some common acid stains are caused by fruit juices, wine, alcohol, vegetables, grass and rust.

The third primary types of stains you will come across are oil-based stains, which will include just plain oil and grease stains.

Ink stains also are oil-based stains. Most inks today are derived from soy products and actually come from the oil of the soybeans.

Other common oil-based stains you’ll likely run across a lot in the drop-off laundry business are massage oils, which are usually derivatives of nuts or other types of organic material.

Oil stains can be tricky because a combination of a protein stain and an acid stain might best be treated as an oil-based stain. A perfect example of this is a pasta sauce stain, where you’ve got oil, protein in the meat and acid in the form of the marinara-type sauce. You’ve got a combination stain that you might need to treat individually, yet it’s usually better to treat the stain as a whole.

In addition to the three major classifications of stains we’ve just discussed, there are some other specific types of stains you may be asked to tackle from time to time – and for these particular stains, it might be best to use a specific stain-treater.

A good example of such a specific type of stain is mold, which you would want to treat with a mold remover. Another example is a paint stain, where you could use turpentine or an acetone type of material to remove the stain from the garment – after you’ve determined that the fabric can handle it, of course.

Again, you’re probably not going to see a lot of those types of stains, but you may want to have some specialty removers and/or stain-treaters on hand for such occasions.

Determining the Treatment

Of course, the final step is removing the stain. You’ve identified the fabric, you’ve identified the stain… now it’s time to figure out exactly what to use on it.

The three things I think everybody should have in their toolbox for treating stains are a protein stain-treater, an acid stain-treater and an oil stain-treater – those are the basics. And, of course, you can have variations of these, as well as different mixtures.

At my laundry, we have a protein-based stain-treater, which is basically a homemade 50/50 blend of ammonia and Dawn dishwashing soap. This works phenomenally well. In fact, for laundered shirts, we use it on every cuff and collar we touch; that blend goes on every shirt before we wash them – and all of our cuffs and collars come out immaculate. We simply put on a little bit, scrub it for a second, let it sit for about an hour and then wash those loads.

That mixture is a great all-around protein-based stain-treater. We use it on blood, meat, dairy, pet urine and more.

The key to any kind of protein-based stain treating is letting that chemicals sit on the stain for at least 20 to 30 minutes before processing, because it takes a while to break down that protein.

The next critical item in your stain-fighting arsenal should be an acid-based stain-treater. Although there are a number of vinegars and other acid-based stain-treaters you can purchase over the counter, I like acetic acid, which you can get from your local drycleaning chemical supplier. It’s a great all-around acid that can knock out most of the acid stains you’ll face, such as wine, juice, alcohol, fresh vegetables, grass and rust.

Unlike protein stains, acid stains react very quickly to chemicals. Generally, you’ll see immediate movement of the stain, especially on polyesters. You can wash those stained garments almost immediately after you treat them.

The next group of stain fighters to have in house are oil-based stain-treaters. Oils tend to hold onto the fabric of a garment much more than traditional acid-based stains, so you need something to get in there and vigorously break loose that oil.

A less-expensive, over-the-counter version of this is Simple Green. However, you can buy some great products from your chemical supplier, and in my opinion, they do a much better job.

Another product is Formula 409 in spray bottles. It’s not engineered specifically for laundry, but it’s a great all-around cleaner. It’s an ammonia-based solvent, so it tends to be most effective on protein stains, but it also reacts well with many minor organic stains. We pre-treat areas here and there with 409, and it does a great job.

The Final Word

My final comment about any kind of stain treating is to not always count on getting out a stain 100 percent. As a self-service laundry owner, you simply don’t have all of the tools you truly need to do that. For instance, you likely don’t have a steam table with an air compressor or all of the other items that professional cleaners have access to – therefore, you can’t always expect optimum results.

We can treat a lot of different and difficult stains, especially if we’re patient and put some time into it. Also, don’t be afraid to re-wash a garment and perhaps add some bleach to the final rinse, if you don’t get the perfect result the first time around.

With that said, I like oxygen bleaches, but I’m not a big fan of chlorine bleach, especially for wash-dry-fold loads. Chlorine bleaches have their specific place in the world, but generally it’s not in home or personal laundry.

If you’ve done everything you possibly can to remove a stain, using a non-chlorine bleach might be a good last resort. Again, as I’ve mentioned in past columns, the bleaching process will only remove the color from a stain – it will not remove the stain itself.

You may have removed most of the stain but there is still some residual color there, so hitting it with a color-safe oxygen bleach is a great way to finish off the garment and save you from having to put a lot more work into retreating the same item over and over again