If you want to be kind to the planet (and your health), conventional stain-removal products just don’t make the grade. Short of dressing your entire family in black so stains don’t show, how can you avoid stains without resorting to using nasty chemicals?
Never fear. Most stains are easily removed from clothing, tablecloths, carpets and other items using natural methods. Here is a rundown of the best eco-friendly stain removal tips:
• Treat stains right away. The longer you wait, the more stains will set.
• Don’t rub it in. Rubbing drives excess staining material deeper into the fabric. Instead, scrape or brush as much material as you can from the surface before treating the stain.
• Think chemistry. Stains can be grouped according to type: oily stains, protein stains, waxes, dirt and fruit, to name a few. Figuring out what non-toxic substances might dissolve the material can help you determine how to treat the stain.
• Pretest. If you can, test any stain removal product on an inconspicuous area of your item first. If it harms the fabric, try something else.
• Avoid high heat. Putting a stain through the dryer or immersing it in boiling water is likely to set it permanently into the fabric.
Here are a few substances to have on hand for eco-friendly stain removal:
Baking soda. This really helps neutralize odors and clean up yucky biological stains like vomit, feces and urine from carpeting. Use it to soak up liquids, then vacuum or sweep up. Or, make a paste with baking soda and water, rub it into the stain, let it sit awhile, then rinse out. You may need to alternate with vinegar.
Borax powder. Great for rust. Make a paste with water, rub it into the stain, let sit, then launder.
Citrus solvent. Made from citrus peel oil, this stuff offers the cleaning power of much harsher chemicals, but is more environmentally friendly. Use it to remove greasy, oily stains.
Enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that cause biochemical change. Many are great at breaking down substances such as proteins or carbohydrates. This makes them an excellent choice for treating stains from food (including chocolate) or body fluids. You can get laundry detergents with enzymes added (just rub some into the stain and let it sit a while before laundering), or try spraying the stain with an enzymatic cleaner solution.
Oxygen bleach. This is not the same as the super-toxic chlorine bleach you are probably familiar with, but it can work similar magic on stains. Oxygen bleach is made from natural soda crystals and hydrogen peroxide. It usually comes in dry form as crystals or powder. You can also buy pre-mixed eco-friendly cleaning supplies containing oxygen bleach. When mixed with water, oxygen bleach releases — you guessed it — oxygen, which literally bubbles stain particles out of the fabric. Its other byproduct? Nontoxic soda ash, which is safe for the water supply. Use oxygen bleach to treat stains from inks, dyes, fruit and beverages. Don’t use it on delicate fabrics like silk or wool, though, except as a last resort.
Rubbing alcohol. This will dissolve many inks and similar substances.
Vinegar. Plain white vinegar is best. It is often effective in treating plant-based dye-like stains such as those from fruit juice, coffee and tea, or beer. It’s great for removing mold and mildew stains, too.
Next time you spill something on your favorite shirt, don’t panic! No need to douse your clothes with chemical stain remover, either. Just reach for the appropriate natural cleaner and “green” that stain right out!
Corey Tournet is the owner of The Laundry Alternative, a company that specializes in extremely energy efficient, compact, lightweight and inexpensive washing machines and dryers.