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Learn How Common Stain Removers Clean

Franklin Kappa/Getty Images

by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.
Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and
consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels.
Updated December 21, 2018

Most stain removers rely on a combination of chemical strategies to remove or mask stains. There
isn't a single method for stain removal, but rather, a host of reactions that get your whites white or
remove grass or blood stains.

Stain removers commonly are solvents, surfactants, and enzymes. A stain remover typically employs
one or more of the following four techniques:

Dissolve the Stain

Stain removers contain solvents. A solvent is any fluid that dissolves another chemical. For example,
water is a good solvent for dissolving salt and sugar. However, it's not a good solvent for dissolving oil
or butter. Stain removers often contain alcohol which acts as a solvent for both water-based and oil-
based stains. Hydrocarbon solvents, such as gasoline, may be used to dissolve some stains.
The rule here is that "like dissolves like". Basically this means you want to use a solvent that is
chemically similar to your stain.

So, if you have a water-based stain, use a water-based solvent, like club soda or soapy water. If you
have an oily stain, try rubbing alcohol or gas onto the spot.

Emulsify the Stain

Dishwashing detergents and stain removers contain emulsifiers or surfactants. Emulsifiers coat the
stain and help to lift it off of the surface. Surfactants increase the wettability of materials, making it
easier for the stain remover to contact and remove the stain.
Examples of surfactants are soap and sulfonates. These chemicals have a dual nature, helping them
remove both watery and oily stains. Each molecule has a polar head that mixes with water, as well as
a hydrocarbon tail that dissolves grease.

The tail attaches to the oily part of a stain while the hydrophilic or water-loving head attaches to water.
Several surfactant molecules work together, encompassing the stain so it can be rinsed away.

Digest the Stain

Stain removers often employ enzymes or other proteins to break apart stain molecules. Enzymes
digest proteins and fats in stains in much the same way as they digest the food you eat. Enzyme-
based stain removers are highly effective on such stains as blood or chocolate.

Stains may be broken apart by breaking the chemical bonds in the stain molecules. Oxidizers can
break apart a long colored molecule, making it easier to lift away or sometimes rendering it colorless.
Examples of oxidizers include peroxide, chlorine bleach, and borax.

Hide the Stain

Many stain removers contain whiteners. These chemicals may not contribute any cleaning power, yet
they may render the stain invisible or draw the eye away from it. Bleaches oxidize the colored
molecule so it doesn't appear so dark. Other types of whiteners reflect back light, covering a stain or
making it less noticeable.

Most products, even homemade solutions, attack stains using multiple techniques. For example,
dabbing diluted chlorine bleach onto a stain helps break apart the stain molecule while removing the
color from the offending spot. Simple soapy water dissolves both oily and aqueous stains and coats
the stain so it is easy to rinse away.

The Best Stain Remover

The best stain remover is one that removes your stain without damaging the stained fabric or surface.
Always test a stain remover on a small or inconspicuous spot to make sure the chemical won't
produce any undesirable effects. Also, it's worth noting it's possible to make a stain worse. For
example, heating a blood stain, as with hot water, may set the stain. Applying bleach to a rust stain
actually intensifies the color, making the stain more visible than if you had left it alone. Therefore, if
you know the composition of the stain it's worth your while to make sure your treatment is suitable for
that stain.

Learn Something New Every Day

Discover surprising insights and little-known facts about politics, literature, science, and the marvels of
the natural world.

If you don't know the identity of a stain, start with the least damaging treatment and work your way up
to more serious chemicals if you need more cleaning power.

Surface Tension Definition

Surface tension is a physical property equal to the amount of force per unit area necessary to expand
the surface of a liquid. It is the tendency of a fluid surface to occupy the smallest possible surface
area. Surface tension is a principal factor in capillary action. The addition of substances called
surfactants can reduce the surface tension of a liquid. For example, adding detergent to water
decreases its surface tension. While pepper sprinkled on water floats, pepper sprinkled on water with
detergent will sink.

How Surface Tension Works

At the interface between a liquid and the atmosphere (usually air), the liquid molecules are more
attracted to each other than they are to the air molecules. In other words, the force of cohesion is
greater than the force of adhesion. Because they two forces are not in balance, the surface may be
considered to be under tension, like if it was enclosed by an elastic membrane (hence the term
"surface tension". The net effect of cohesion versus adhesion is that there is an inward force at the
surface layer.

This is because the top layer of a molecule is not surrounded by liquid on all sides.
Water has an especially high surface tension because water molecules are attracted to each other by
their polarity and able to engage in hydrogen bonding.