Problem stains lose time and alienate customers

24 January 2024

Roger Cawood and Richard Neale look at problem stains and come up with some solutions

Cleaners, (dry or wet) and finishers, will be familiar with stains that show up during ironing or pressing and also those which, although they were pre-spotted, still remain after cleaning. Stains such as albumin and sugars that have been subjected to the heat of drying may have become heat set, making their removal time consuming and difficult.

However, if stains remain unnoticed and are only seen during the steam finishing stage, heat set stains may now be difficult and at worst, impossible to remove safely on sensitive fabrics such as silk or taffeta. Had these stain types been detected at an earlier stage, it is fair to say that a very high proportion could have been easily removed. Problem stains include:

a) Blood and all types of discharges from the body, such as animal slobber - these all contain albumin.

b) Food stains containing albumin eg. gravy, egg, milk, cream or custard.

c) Mildew.

d) Emulsion paint.

e) Dye stains.

Cleaners should be aware that

  • Except for mark-offs in cleaning, stains are the customers’ responsibility, and the customer has no justifiable claim against the cleaner if they cannot be removed. This includes stains such as champagne, which might well have been invisible before cleaning.
  • The larger the stain or stained area, the more likely a specific total immersion process will be needed.
  • Textile dyes are not tested for fastness against spotting chemicals, so if a product damages the colour, responsibility usually lies with the cleaner.
  • Bear in mind that some stains (particularly strong acids or alkalis) can damage textiles and/or dyes.
  • Some textile dyes are pH sensitive and may change colour slightly when treated with acid or alkaline spotters. Colour changes are often reversed by the application of an acid or alkali e.g. apply a tannin remover if a blood spotter has caused a problem.

Stains containing albumin

These groups include blood (and all other body fluids), egg, gravy and all dairy products. If the stains are visible and diagnosed correctly, they among the easiest stain types to remove! Conversely, they can also be one of the most difficult and time consuming if they are only noticed during steam finishing. For example, an untreated blood stain might exhibit a complete colour change from brownish to black/grey in finishing, which can then give the cleaner the nightmare task of slowly breaking the stain down (with no guarantee of success). However, if noted prior to cleaning, fresh blood and other albumin stains can normally be easily flushed out with the high-pressure water spay or if necessary, worked with a little blood spotter.

Some cleaners use a banknote checker to detect invisible stains. If the same lamp is used in a darkened area of the unit, then it will reveal some types of invisible stain. For example, albumin and protein stains will fluoresce towards a rich coral pink; bloodstains which still contain haemoglobin will fluoresce towards black. The sugars in a champagne splash will show as bright white droplet marks.

Advice for heat-set staining

Start by assessing the extent of the staining. The larger the stained area, the more time-consuming it will be to rely on localised removal. If a water-based process is acceptable, a warm soak (max 40°C) using a domestic enzyme powder product will stand a good chance of success, because heat set albumin needs to be converted back to a soluble form using an enzyme. If any stain colour remains, try localised application of 9% hydrogen peroxide bleach as follows:

  • For small stains, work the stain using a blood spotter, then allow this to stand for around ½ hour. Work the stain again with spotter before flushing out with water; repeat if necessary. If any colour remains, then bleach locally with 9% peroxide and in the case of blood, if necessary, follow this with rust remover (because blood contains iron and this will not come out with cleaning or with any other spotter).

Top tip: never use the spatula on delicate textiles and particularly not on silk. If mechanical action is needed, tamp with a soft brush.

How to tackle mildew/mould

Generally found on items that have been stored under damp conditions, mildew and mould frequently appear on curtain linings (the fabric having absorbed condensation from the window). It is important that mildew/mould contamination is brought to the attention of the customer at reception, because in many cases it cannot be removed from coloured textiles. It requires a strong oxidising agent to kill the spores and decolour the staining, and this could well bleach the textile colours as well! This is one area where it can pay to under-promise and hope to over-deliver!

Superficial mildew and mould stains can often be improved as follows:

  • Flush through using the steam gun and blood spotter or bar soap.
  • For faint remaining stains, bleaching with 9% hydrogen peroxide is worth a try (but test colour first).

Heavy mildew and mould staining on white fabric should be tackled as follows:

  • Bleach using domestic bleach (sodium hypochlorite). Follow specific product details for dilution rates.
  • Warning! hypochlorite damages animal hair fibres and silk, and it de-colours most dyes.

(The above procedure can also be used for dye stains and colour mark offs.)

Emulsion and oil-based paints

Emulsion paints consist of pigmented polymer spheres emulsified in water and while wet, can be flushed out using water. However, once the water phase has evaporated and the paint is dry, they need to be addressed on the dry side using paint removers.

Once dry, all types of paint can be difficult to remove, particularly on delicate fabrics (where in some cases the amount of mechanical action needed to break up paint can mean that stains cannot be safely removed). There is an enormous range of paint types on the market, with many responding much better to a specific paint remover product than others.

Dye stains

Dye stains and colour mark-offs can be a real problem when the dye is specific to similar fibre types. However, if this is not the case, superficial stains of this type can often be easily flushed out using the steam gun and bar soap or blood spotter. When stains do not respond, bleach with 9% hydrogen peroxide – more than one attempt may be required.

Dye mark-off

After a cool-wash, black dye from some cotton shorts marked off onto this polycotton pullover, see images above, right. This was always going to be a difficult stain to remove, because this was a cotton dye being transferred to a fabric containing cotton. Even when bleached locally with sodium hypochlorite (a very high-risk procedure due to the adjacent coloured panels) some faint stains remained from the cotton dye. Responsibility for this fault should be taken by the cleaner here, with neither the maker nor the owner sharing the blame.

How to use hydrogen peroxide

This bleach works best at around 80°C. It is normally safe on coloured fabrics, but always do a colour test. The procedure is as follows:

  1. Place 1 drop of 5% ammonia on the stain.
  2. Add 2 or more drops of 9% of peroxide (available from pharmacies).
  3. Gently heat with the steam gun, or heat using bottom steam from the press or ironing table.
  4. Add more peroxide if necessary.


The final inspection procedure is your last chance to avoid an annoyed customer. Failure to remove stains is a major cause of customer dissatisfaction in the cleaning sector and those who develop a high level of expertise in this critical subject deserve to be rewarded by increased turnover and customer approval.

Case study

This egg stain on a robust polycotton fabric shirt was heat set with a hand iron. It took 6 min. to remove on the spotting table using a blood spotter and the spatula. Had the shirt been pre-spotted before being drycleaned (or wetcleaned/coolwashed using an enzyme product) most stains of this type would have been removed in the machine, saving much time and effort on the spotting table. This same heat-set stain would have presented much more of a problem on a silk blouse, because mechanical action would have to be limited to gentle tamping with a soft brush.

MOULDY OUTCOME: Heavy mildew and water-based stains ruined this cotton curtain lining. In cases as severe as this, the best policy would be to advise the customer that relining is the best solution, because in addition to the extensive staining, the fabric may be weakened from exposure to sunlight
CARE NEEDED: This oil-based paint stain was on a designer 50/50 wool/silk jacket. Due to the silk component, great care would need to be taken during any attempt at stain removal, to avoid the risk of physical damage. Only gentle tamping with a soft brush would be acceptable here. Let the paint remover do the wor!
MULTI COLOURED: These pictures show different parts of the same multicoloured pullover. The top one shows an untreated area of mark-off of black dye. The other shows faint marking still visible elsewhere after treatment
MULTI COLOURED: These pictures show different parts of the same multicoloured pullover. The top one shows an untreated area of mark-off of black dye. The other shows faint marking still visible elsewhere after treatment
EGG PEGGED: This splash of egg yolk onto a polycotton shirt needs expert treatment with a blood or protein remover

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