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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:23 EDT

Grandma’s Stain Busters Still Work in Modern Times

April 5, 2008

Back in the dark ages -1977 – I trooped off to college with a “homemaking” chart from my grandmother offering cheap, quick and easy ways to tackle life’s scum, smears, glop and spills.

Quick and easy, that is, if you happen to know what oxalic acid is or keep a jug of Javelle water on hand. Well, turns out Javelle water is a bleach and oxalic acid is a rust remover, both valid remedies for stains today.

My grandmother died long ago, but I still have her now-yellowed tips using everyday fare from the fridge, pantry, medicine chest and utility closet as the first line of defense against stains. Though carpets, fabrics, countertops and floorings are more sophisticated, home-based stain rescues remain rooted in the old world – with some new twists – and are immensely popular across generations.

And not all involve doing strange things with food.

“They’re tried and true,” said Kathleen Seefeldt, 73, a grandmother from Woodbridge, Va. “Water. Ammonia. They’re cheap and they work.”

Tried and true

Do-it-yourself stain busters may be cheaper than store bought, but they aren’t necessarily a quick fix. They often require meticulous attention to multiple-step instructions, lots of elbow grease and intimate knowledge of the type of fiber or the kind of countertop you’re dealing with. Otherwise, it could be goodbye to that favorite silk blouse.

A world of home remedies is floating around the Internet, with whole books dedicated to a myriad uses for both vinegar and baking soda, prompting several experts who test formulas to urge caution amid your panic when the red wine hits the carpet.

“People would love one magic wand and that obviously doesn’t exist,” said Carolyn Forte, home appliance and cleaning products director for the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. “Know your fabrics, know what kind of stain it is. There’s a little bit of science and a lot of luck behind it.”

Getting a stain up fast will swing the luck part in your favor. Cornstarch, cornmeal and talcum powder are absorbents and will work on greasy stains, for example. For stains on upholstery and carpets, reach for a bleach-free, lanolin-free liquid hand dishwashing detergent – a surprisingly versatile stain fighter.

“One surprise for me was liquid dish soap,” said Jaimee Zanzinger, editor of Real Simple magazine’s new household guide, Real Simple Cleaning. “Just your basic hand liquid with no coloring agents. Degreasers can be dangerous on certain surfaces, but the plain kind is safe on everything and dirt cheap. You can clean your windows, your marble countertops.

Using products that you already have lying around the house to do your dirty work is kind of a no-brainer.”

Simple ingredients

Other versatile remedies include salt for blotting and scouring, lemon for its acidic value, nail polish remover on spilled correction fluid and hydrogen peroxide for stubborn chocolate stains. Zanzinger suggests Alka-Seltzer to make toilet bowls shine, powdered lemonade to clean and deodorize an empty dishwasher, ketchup to scrub copper and toothpaste on chrome.

For some of spring’s toughest challenges, try eradicating grass stains with a solution of water, white vinegar and liquid dish soap, or apply a paste of vinegar and baking soda on ring-around-the- collar before throwing it into the wash. Baking soda also works well to rid washable surfaces of crayon. You can even mix a combination of vinegar and baking soda in a plastic bag, tie it to a shower head and trade scum and hard water buildup for a just-new shine.

“When I have a stain, I call my mother, except I go for the eco- friendly vinegar and baking soda over the ammonias and chlorines,” said Paula Seefeldt of New York City, Kathleen’s 42-year-old daughter and the mother of two. “She definitely likes ammonia.”

Ammonia may not be Earth-gentle enough for some, but the regular household version will make dried blood, perspiration and felt-tip pen disappear. (Don’t use it on silk or wool, though.)

And never mix chlorine bleach and ammonia! Toxic fumes can ensue.

“I fret when I get a letter saying I remember when you wrote about using ammonia and chlorine, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no. It’s one or the other,’

” said Heloise, the syndicated columnist and high priestess of household hints.

While my grandmother likely fell back on home remedies for lack of reliable commercial products, we now have shelves and shelves of choices. Cold water on a fresh blood stain works beautifully, but protein-fighting enzyme pre-washes and detergents work well, too, and may be easier.

Take it easy

Forte suggests proceeding “slowly, cautiously and smartly” when it comes to home remedies for stains. Read care and product labels, and always test a remedy on a small spot first. What works on a soft drink stain on a T-shirt may not be the right approach for the same spill on your carpet, so assumptions can dangerous.

Loosening up tough stains like mustard and curry on carpets and upholstery is as easy as reaching for glycerine, which is available in pharmacies, but petroleum jelly works best to soften hardened grease, tar and oil, for example.

Heloise said many hints passed down from our grandmothers and mothers are no longer valid but may still be circulating, or just stuck in the back of our minds and dredged up at crunch time.

Way back when, we might have been advised to use hairspray on ball point pen on clothing you launder, she said. Now, with ink, fabrics and hairspray formulations so dramatically different, her best advice is to use rubbing alcohol instead, though some people swear by hairspray to rid walls and hardwood of permanent marker when a little Picasso gets inspired.

Some families have a near-religious attachment to club soda as a miraculous stain fighter, but Forte said there’s no scientific basis for its popularity other than it’s usually on hand so a stain is treated quickly. Tap water is less expensive and works just as well, she said.

Food condiments are wildly popular in the world of stains, including a teaspoon of pepper in the wash cycle to keep bright colors looking their best and a slice of white bread (cut off the crusts) to scrub greasy little fingerprints off wallpaper.

No matter how quick and prepared you are, some of today’s stains may be too tough for the traditional family fix and commercial cleaners alike.

“Long-lasting lipsticks are a nightmare,” Forte said. “They last on your lips and they last on your clothes.”

One thing hasn’t changed.

“This is so important,” Heloise said. “Never, ever, ever put a stain in the dryer. After you treat it let it air dry to make sure it’s gone. If a stain goes in a hot dryer it’s over.”

simple steps

Taking on fabric stains can be tricky. Using the wrong remedy may set the stain permanently. Some rules to clean by:

Read up Check labels before proceeding.

Stock up Keep treatments and tools on hand.

Color Find a hidden spot and check for colorfastness.

Be quick Timely treatment boosts success.

Soak Loosen it up before treating.

Pretreat The best-case scenario is to completely remove a stain before laundering.

Out of town Take along a stain stick. Can usually be left on for up to a week.

No dryer Completely remove stain before drying to avoid setting a stain for life.

Patience Treatment may need redoing to remove a stain.

Source: Good Housekeeping Stain Rescue! The A-Z Guide to Removing Smudges, Spots & Other Spills