ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:
It's the day after Christmas. And if you're like me, you have a brand-new stain on your favorite Christmas sweater. To be honest, I can't make it through a meal, especially a holiday one, without getting something on myself - wine, salad dressing, something. And I'm not alone. The average American throws away 80 pounds of clothes a year because they're stained or faded. And that's bad for the environment and our bank accounts. Luckily, I have a secret weapon for my often-messy lifestyle.
JAN BRYDON: I don't think of myself as a stain guru. You might, but I don't.
NADWORNY: This is my mom, Jan Brydon. She's actually a dermatologist for her day job. But I use her as my stain encyclopedia.
BRYDON: I think that laziness is the bane of all stain removal.
NADWORNY: The most important thing I've learned from my mom about stains is you have to act fast. The longer stains sit on your clothes, the more embedded in the fabric they will get and the harder it'll be to remove them.
BRYDON: You just say, oh, I'll do that next week. I can't do it right now. I'm too busy. Or I'm too bored with this stain stuff.
NADWORNY: Some stains, if you act fast, actually, cold water will get it out, like blood. But others are a little bit more complicated.
SUNNY ESCOBAR: If you take me to a dinner party, I'll probably be your worst guest.
NADWORNY: Sunny Escobar is a senior scientist for Procter & Gamble. They are the company behind Tide and Downy and lots of other laundry products.
ESCOBAR: You could have me speaking hours about stains, laundry machines, water - the most sometimes useless information but sometimes the most helpful.
NADWORNY: She, unlike my mom, actually got paid to be a stain expert.
ESCOBAR: There's so many different kinds of stains. And by definition, there's so many different, like, chemistries that would remove different things.
NADWORNY: But if you break stains into categories, that can help you apply some simple rules.
ESCOBAR: And I talk about it as nutrition, right? Like, the way, you know, you digest bread is different than you would digest bacon grease - again, is the same way how a detergent would clean the different types of stains.
NADWORNY: This scientific thinking can be really helpful because it's just not reasonable to memorize all of the stain remedies out here. But here are some basic tips.
So first, oil stains. This is like the most common stuff. This is a lot of foods like soup or mayonnaise, spaghetti sauce, salad dressing. The fix for oil is dish soap. I always remember this because of the commercials for Dawn after the oil spill in the Gulf, how they used dish soap to clean the animals. That's basically what we're doing on our clothes.
OK, and then there's the category of pigment stains, so, like, ink from a pen or markers. For those, the go-to is rubbing alcohol. White vinegar can also help. For berry stains, like strawberries and for red wine, which is one of my most common stains, boiling water poured from a distance can help.
ESCOBAR: What is the main component behind tomato sauce? And...
NADWORNY: It's an oil stain. Yeah.
ESCOBAR: Yeah. And then you just know what to look for. It's really, to me - that's why I really, like, use the nutrition analogy. It's a little bit about what's really - you know, what is this made of? And what can we tackle it with?
NADWORNY: My mom uses this method of kind of diagnosing a stain given its components all the time.
BRYDON: So sometimes you don't have a recipe for exactly what the stain is.
NADWORNY: I saw this firsthand when I visited Erie, Pa., where my family lives. I had a stain that needed my mom's immediate attention.
BRYDON: Oh, sure, honey.
NADWORNY: I actually got guacamole on my shirt from a delicious lunch we just had.
BRYDON: OK. You want to try the dish detergent first.
NADWORNY: Since the guacamole has a lot of oil in it, we start with cold water and dish soap.
BRYDON: So let's do some cold-water rinse.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAUCET RUNNING)
NADWORNY: She runs the shirt under the cold water...
(SOUNDBITE OF FAUCET RUNNING)
BRYDON: And then we'll put a drop of dish detergent on.
NADWORNY: ...And squeezes a dime-sized amount of dish soap on it. She says you don't need a lot. Then she massages the soap into the stain with her finger. We rinse it again with cold water.
BRYDON: There's a little tiny bit left there, you think?
NADWORNY: Mmm hmm.
The stain is not quite out yet. And my mom thinks we need something to get rid of the pigment, that green stain that's left over.
BRYDON: Let's try a tiny bit of white vinegar.
NADWORNY: We dab it with a cotton ball loaded with white vinegar. And then we rinse it again in cold water, and voila. The remaining green color has completely disappeared.
BRYDON: Pretty amazing, huh?
NADWORNY: Tell me what's happening.
BRYDON: It's gone.
NADWORNY: The final thing you've got to remember about stains - and this is really, really important - do not - I repeat, do not put it in the dryer. The heat will set the stain. And then it is game over.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRYER BUZZER)
NADWORNY: If you find yourself with stains this holiday season, I went way more in-depth on all of this for an episode of NPR's Life Kit podcast. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.