A mother's guide to gunk

How do you get rid of the gunk, Gak and slime your beloved offspring have unceremoniously ground into their jeans and slung against the wall? Sometimes all it takes is a simple household item to cleanse away the sludge of childhood.

Published September 30, 1998 8:28AM (EDT)

When I was old enough to voice my discontent over the dreaded pixie cut
-- a hairstyle my mom thought was cute but I thought made me look like
a boy -- I grew my hair long as an act of rebellion. The problem with long
hair on a hyperactive 5-year-old, of course, is knots -- the kind that
no amount of gentle maternal comb-tugging can smooth away. Only a healthy
dose of Johnson & Johnson's No More Tangles and a good yank could
dissolve my rat's nests. But even this remedy failed when I engaged in the
charming habit of chewing my hair and my gum at the same time. You
can imagine the outcome.

There's no training course for parents on how to dislodge a matted wad
of gooey pink gum from a child's hair without using torture or a pair of
scissors to cut out the offending glop. After trying to pick my hair out of
the clot strand by strand, my mom finally headed for the refrigerator.
First she tried mayonnaise -- something slick to counteract the stickiness.
When that didn't work, she went for the peanut butter. Miraculously, that
did the trick.

These days, gum in hair seems quaint compared to all the highly
questionable substances that can get stuck in and on various body parts and
household items. Take Silly Putty. All I remember about that pliable goo is
that it came in an egg-shaped container and was the color of a dull pink
eraser. You could press it onto newspaper comics and the cartoon would
imprint on the putty's surface, and when you got bored with that trick, you
could roll it into a ball and drive your mother crazy by bouncing it off
the walls. Soon after that, it was confiscated and locked away.

The good news about Silly Putty is that it's nontoxic. The bad news is
that Silly Putty -- now in Original, Glow-in-the-Dark, Glitter, Changeable and
Bright colors -- has the potential to stain clothing and other fabrics,
like the priceless antique velvet gracing your new sofa. Luckily, printed
on the Silly Putty package is a toll-free number to call with questions
such as, "Can you remove Silly Putty from dog fur?" or "My daughter just
shoved Silly Putty up her nose. Should I be concerned?" (The package warns
not to use the tacky substance as ear plugs, but it doesn't say anything
about nose plugs.) But be forewarned: The Silly Putty 800 number, run by
its corporate parent, Binney & Smith of Eaton, Pa., is only staffed from
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time. So if you're sitting down to dinner
in Idaho and your fanny lands on the gob of Silly Putty your son left on your
chair, you're out of luck. If the putty happens to chemically bond with the
seat of your pants during office hours, however, the cheerful
representative will recommend you spray WD-40 on your butt, let it sit
there for a while and then scrape it off. The resulting stain should be
treated with rubbing alcohol and any other residue can be apprehended with
a damp sponge and dish-washing liquid. Binney & Smith, the smart business
people that they are, do not guarantee perfect results.

A modern, gooier take on Silly Putty is Mattel's Gak, which has the
consistency of dry rubber cement and has no redeeming purpose except to
make fart-like noises when you squish it. Developed in conjunction with the
children's cable television network Nickelodeon, this delightful substance
comes in a variety of colors and odors. Beach Gak, for instance, stinks of
salt water and dead fish. Precautions should be taken before engaging Gak.
It's nontoxic, as children's toys must be to meet safety
standards, but, as the wrapper warns, GAK IS NOT A FOOD PRODUCT. Tell
that to your older-than-3-but-younger-than-rational child. The
package goes on to caution (also in bold) against playing with Gak on
carpeting and warns that it may stick to or stain fabrics, varnished and
unvarnished surfaces. Take my advice: Try to relegate Gak handling to the
great outdoors, where your child can explore the relative uselessness of
this toy on the grass rather than on your new all-wool carpet.

But let's just say it's raining outside, and in a weak moment you let the
buggers sculpt their Gak indoors. And let's say that the angels --
inadvertently of course -- grind a dollop of Gak into the aforementioned
wool carpet. What do you do, besides cry? The package recommends removing
excess Gak by applying carpet spot-remover and then washing the area with
detergent and hot water. What if it gets on clothing? Don't bee-line
it to the dry cleaners, because even a good dry cleaning will not remove
Gak. When I called the Mattel Consumer Affairs hot line to find out how the
hell you can remove the stuff, a representative told me her own
personal remedy for removing Gak from clothes was cold water and stain
remover. Genius. When I asked her for a recommendation for a good "stain
remover," she rifled through what sounded like the Handbook of Gak
Removal until she found an old e-mail from a consumer like me. Using a
solution of half vinegar and half water, that enterprising woman found she
could get the Gak out of most any article of clothing. Of course, this
nifty liquid potion might fade your clothes, but hey, at least your blazer
will be Gak-free.

While I never thought I'd be singing the praises of that evil birthday
party staple Silly String, my research shows that it is the least
ruinous of the gunk. Made by Wham-o -- mass producer of the Hula Hoop --
Silly String comes in several colors, including my personal favorite,
cotton-candy pink. When you shake the can and spray, a thin string of foamy stuff and a thick whiff of chemicals shoot out. If you touch the string before it dries, it feels wet and cool and it leaves a slimy trail when you pick it up. The only material Silly String
claims to stain is vinyl, so make sure your prized white go-go boots are
safely out of the way when your little one takes aim. Wet or dry, Silly
String lifted off of several surfaces I tested -- marble, tile, carpeting,
varnished wood -- without leaving a mark. Although it's not supposed to be
flammable, Wham-o recommends that you don't spray Silly String near an open
flame or even a warm light bulb. Inhaling the vapors (if you like rubber
cement, you'll love Silly String!) can be fatal, so encourage your kids to
abstain from spraying it in each other's faces.

And if it does get in someone's hair, I'd try washing it out with peanut
butter. If that doesn't work, maybe a little WD-40 will do the trick.

By Lisa Moskowitz

Lisa Moskowitz writes and lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Adweek, PC World Online, MyLifePath.com and American Kite magazine.

MORE FROM Lisa Moskowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------