A Guide to WasteLess Stain Removal

Stains just happen. And when they do, it can sometimes be tempting to hit them with harsh chemicals to return the fabric back into its pre-stain state. However, harsh chemicals also get into the water and ultimately the environment, so it’s best to employ different stain removal strategies. Our Stain Removal Guide will equip you with some tools to treat some of the most common stains.

A stain consists of three main factors: the “contaminant” that causes the stain, the material that is receiving the stain, and how these two materials interact to form a stain.

For example, when you spill coffee onto your shirt, the coffee is the contaminant and your shirt is on the receiving end. The small molecules that make up your coffee-milk-sugar mix are absorbed by the fibres of your shirt and become trapped. The colour particles of the coffee reflect back the light of their own colour, thus making the stain visible.

Two additional factors contribute to the challenge of removing the stain:

  • Time:
    The longer the stain has had to interact with the material, the more difficult it becomes to remove. So, time is of the essence.

  • Temperature:
    • Dry heat can provoke a chemical reaction that may cause the stain to permanently set. So, it is not a good idea to throw a stained piece of clothing into the dryer before the stain has been completely removed. It’s better to air-dry it instead if needed.
    • Wet heat, on the other side, can help with diluting the stain, so it is an exception to this rule, but whether it should be used or not depends on the stain itself.

Now that we’ve covered our bases, let’s talk about the different types of stains. Knowing the category a stain falls under is an essential first step to determine the best method for tackling it.

WasteLess Stain Removal Guide

This WasteLess Stain Cleaning Guide features close to 30 pages filled with recipes and tips to help you become an environmental stain removal hero! 

$0.00     $15.00

Table of Contents

Enzymatic Stains

Examples: grass, blood, milk, sweat, urine, feces, vomit

Before we can dive into enzymatic stains, let us first take a step back and explore what enzymes are and what they do…

What are enzymes?

Contrary to what is often believed, enzymes are not living beings or bacteria. They aren’t even alive, for that matter. Enzymes are simply proteins. What kind of proteins they are, we’ll explore in more detail below.

What do enzymes do?

Simply put, enzymes speed up chemical reactions. Each enzyme has a particular task, so it helps to imagine them as keys that only open specific locks. Once they have found the right key hole, they can “dock” and go to work. Once docked to the correct target, their work then consists of interacting with the molecules, for example by breaking them down into smaller components. This breaking-down would normally take a very long time without these enzymes, which is why we say that enzymes speed up chemical reactions.

Let’s take this one step further. Everything that living beings eat, whether they are carnivorous or herbivorous, is broken down by enzymes with a little bit of help of stomach acid and other components that make up our digestive systems, into smaller, easier to absorb pieces as follows:

  • Proteins are broken down by proteases into amino acids.
  • Carbohydrates, (e.g. starch,sugar) are broken down by amylases into glucose.
  • Fats (lipids) are broken down by lipases into fatty acids.

So by extension we can now infer that all of the secretions living beings expel are also made up of these (and other) components. Whether that’d be the pee stain on your carpet left behind by your dog or a stain containing the milk given by a cow.

Enzymatic stains caused by these secretions usually consist of the above-mentioned insoluble proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. An enzyme-based cleaner may help to break these stains down into smaller, more readily soluble building blocks, similar in function to what goes on in our digestive tract.

Environmentally conscious options for enzymatic stain removers exist from companies that go the extra mile to ensure that their products do not contain harmful chemicals (by US standards), however, it is important to know that even these products aren’t perfect. Many still contain unsafe ingredients, such as Benzisothiazolinone, which according to the harmonized classification and labelling approved by the European Union, is considered “very toxic to aquatic life.” Also “natural” is not a synonym for environmentally friendly, so beware of greenwashing.

Oxidizable Stains

Examples: coffee, tea, red wine, ink

Oxidizable stains are usually caused by colour particles, called chromophores. These particles absorb light and reflect it at a specific angle that lies in the visible spectrum. In other words, they act like a dye and create a visible stain.

To eliminate these stains, the colour particles must be removed from the stained area or the chromophores broken down. A common voiced advice for the removal of these pesky stains is bleaching (with chlorine or hydrogen peroxide, or sodium percarbonate) because it breaks down the colour-causing particles of the chemical structure of the stain, thus fading the colour of the stain into invisibility. This only renders the stain invisible, it does not actually remove the stain.

Oxidizers do this by flooding the colour molecules of the stain with oxygen molecules (hence the name oxidizer). However, aggressive oxidizers don’t just attack stain-causing molecules but may also interfere with deeper-seated chromophores, such as dyes. This is why you need to be very careful if you’re treating a coloured piece of clothing or fabric to remove a pigmented stain. Hydrogen peroxide, in lower concentrations, and sodium percarbonate-based oxidizers may help treat a pigmented stain without leaving a lasting impact on the dyes in the material you’re treating (please read the section below on their environmental impact). If you are using them, test them on a non-visible spot of your fabric first to ensure colour-safety before tackling your stain.

While knocking out the chromophores of your stain seems like a logical approach, let’s take a step back and look at the environmental impact of these oxidizers.

Why is bleach bad for the environment?

Chlorine-based bleach

Chlorine-based bleach react with chemicals in the water to form dioxins, furans, and PCDDs (persistent organic pollutants), that stay in water and can bioaccumulate. These are carcinogens that are dangerous particularly to aquatic life.  It may be tempting to think that “a little bit of bleach” from your laundry may not tip the scale, however, it is also necessary to consider the ethical issues concerning how these bleaching agents are made. On a massive scale, bleach manufacturing plants often divert their waste water into streams and rivers. Not buying bleach in the first place helps the fight against pollutants in the environment by not creating a demand for those products.

Hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is an alternative to chlorine-based bleach. It breaks down into oxygen and water and is therefore more environmentally conscious than chlorine-based bleach, however, its production process also isn’t without problems.

Sodium percarbonate

To complete the list, sodium percarbonate is a highly concentrated powder that breaks down into soda ash and hydrogen peroxide (which itself breaks down into oxygen and water). It is toxic to aquatic organisms.

How to tackle oxidizable stains

With this kind of stain it is important to act quickly. The best course of action is to rinse the stained material with cold water, if possible from the reverse side to avoid flushing more molecules into the pores of your garment. The cold water will prevent that more molecules will spread and set. If you cannot hold the stained material under water (e.g. if the stain is on a couch or carpet), alternate dapping the stain repeatedly with a damp and a dry, clean, white rug or sock to remove the liquid. Make sure not to rub, as this may spread or deepen the stain.

Surfactant Stains

Examples: oil, butter, peanut butter, collar stains, grease

As mentioned above, oil, grease, and fat can be broken down by lipases, however, surfactant cleaners are yet another alternative.

What are surfactants?

Surfactants (short for Surface Active Agent) are organic compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid, such as water. They contain both a water-soluble component (their “heads”) and an oil-soluble component (their “tails”). Surfactants can aid the cleaning process as emulsifiers and foaming/defoaming agents, for example, and there are four types of surfactants in use: anionic (negatively charged), cationic (positively charged), amphoteric (positively and negatively charged), and nonionic (no charge). Of these different types, non-ionic surfactants are growing in popularity due to their low toxicity.
When removing a stain with a surfactant, aggregates called “micelles” are formed around the stain. The oil-soluble components of the surfactant then dissolve in the oil components of the stain. The water-soluble components of the surfactant then stick outwards, exposing them to the water you use to “wash out” the stain.
Examples of surfactants are detergents, soaps, emulsifiers, and foaming agents. Cornstarch, for example, is a surfactant, because it attracts and absorbs the molecules of the stain.
The rule is “like dissolves like”: pick a solvent that is similar to your stain, and you can wash the stain out.

Important: Environmental impact of surfactants

A high percentage (around 95-99%) of surfactants used in households are typically removed in wastewater treatment plants. They are generally considered safe in low concentrations, however, those that are not removed from wastewater treatment plants flow at an ever growing rate into the environment, given our high and continuously increasing volume of surfactant use. Once there, surfactants can diminish water quality and affect the health and reproduction of aquatic animals.
Another area to consider is the manufacturing process. About 50% of surfactants are synthetic, manufactured from petroleum-based feedstocks, such as crude oil. The other half are derived from so-called oleochemical feedstocks, typically seed oils (palm oil and soybean oil).

Particle Stains

Examples: mud, soil, dirt, sand, silt, clay, rust, hard water deposits, minerals

Particulate stains are particularly difficult to remove, because they may contain minerals (e.g. iron oxides in red clay) or decomposed organic matter (e.g. in soil and mud). Stain removers for these kinds of stains usually include enzymes to break the organic matter, and surfactants to lift the stain off the fabric. Another ingredient stain removers usually include are so-called builders. Builders essentially work in one of two ways:

  • Sequestration: Here, the builder compounds hold metal ions in the solution.
  • Precipitation: Here, the builder compounds remove metal ions from a solution.

When it comes to stain removal, builders can, for example, deactivate certain metal ions or minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese, which then helps to soften the water. At the same time, soil stains are often bound to the fabric by calcium ions, so deactivating these ions helps make the stain components easier to wash out.

Vinegar, a mild acid, consists of positively charged hydrogen ions and negatively charged acetate ions and can be used to remove particular stains by causing a chemical reaction that helps break down certain stain components. For example, the acetic acid in vinegar reacts with rust to form a salt (iron acetate) and water.

That said, not all builders are created equal and some, such as phosphates, are known to have a greatly negative impact on the environment.

Download our WasteLess Stain Cleaning Guide for more information on how to pre-treat and remove any kind of stain (from coffee to red wine and even ink). Enjoy! 

Happy Stain Cleaning!

WasteLess Stain Removal Guide

This WasteLess Stain Cleaning Guide features close to 30 pages filled with recipes and tips to help you become an environmental stain removal hero! 

$0.00     $15.00

It’s our mission is to help Canadians
waste less
by learning to truly reduce consumption and breaking free from wasteful habits!

Get Involved

Let's Connect

Phone: +1 (604)-500-8376

WasteLess Society
c/o Connie Reichelsdorfer
PO Box 55028
Southgate Mall PO
Nanaimo, BC V9R 6L0

2021 – WasteLess Society. All rights reserved.

Created with in Nanaimo, BC.