Treating stains is an art. Magazine and website articles offer recipes for exactly how to treat each type of stain (I've written some myself) and whole books have been written on the subject of laundry. Meanwhile, a photo of Martha Stewart's laundry room reveals ten (!) supplementary stain-removing solutions — and that is not counting her main detergent. But all those careful instructions and specialty products are all for naught if you do not employ what I believe is the most important thing: patience.
Most people give up on stains too quickly! Patience and persistence are the true secrets to laundry success. In our fast-paced lives, it's easy to think that to treat a stain is you just spritz some stain treater on the spot and then toss the garment in the wash. But the enzymes and other active ingredients in stain treatments and detergents need time to do their work. In fact, if you read the labels, most will tell you they need at least 15 minutes to sit on the stain before laundering to be effective. However, that recommended time on the label is a fraction of the time it may actually take to properly tackle a tough stain.
Writing in her book "Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House," Cheryl Mednelson advises, "Some stains will respond gradually, so you will have to apply your remedy half a dozen times before you are completely successful. You may need all your patience." Six rounds of stain treating may sound extreme, but if it saves a favorite garment or table linen, I'd say it's worth the effort.
I should mention that you should not try to treat dry-clean-only garments at home. Rush those over to your dry cleaner ASAP. For anything you regularly launder yourself, instead of just spraying the product on and hoping for the best, try my patience-forward method. First soak the garment in cool water for half an hour, then work the stain treatment (or liquid laundry detergent) into the stain and let it sit for another 30 to 60 minutes. Next, gently scrub at the stain with an old, soft-bristle toothbrush and rinse. Examine the stain: If it hasn't budged much, repeat. If it's mostly gone, go ahead and move onto laundering, again in cool water. Do not let the stained fabric dry out between washings!
Regarding stain treatment products, I am somewhat agnostic about what you use. Shout, Zout, Resolve — you name it, I've tried it. Stick with whatever you like. These days, I'm a laundry product minimalist, relying on just my regular detergent and an oxygen brightener.
If I'm working with a durable natural fiber like cotton, linen, or hemp, I'll sometimes prepare a bath of detergent and oxygen bleach, like OxiClean or Meliora's Oxygen Brightener, and soak the garment overnight or even up to 24 hours. To do this, I fully dissolve a generous scoop of the oxygen bleach in hot water in a wash tub, add the liquid detergent, and fill the tub the rest of the way with cool water.
In my experience, soaking, treating, gently scrubbing, laundering, and sometimes doing that all over again can get almost anything out. Re-laundering might seem futile, but in my experience, a second or even third consecutive washing can be what finally gets that turmeric off your favorite napkin.
Time is also of importance when you are trying to get whites white. A long luxurious soak in a bath of hot water and oxygen brightener followed by a thorough wash is way more effective than a single laundry cycle. If you're feeling ambitious, TikTok-famous laundry stripping is, at its core, a slow stain-removal process.
Whatever method you chose, always finish by laundering the garment to remove residues of both the stain and the detergent. And always, always, air-dry on a rack! Once something has gone in the dryer, the heat will set the stain. Finally, if you find that even patience cannot get your stain to budge, consider Mendelson's sage advice, "In dealing with stains, the most important skill you can acquire is the ability not to be bothered by small imperfections you cannot fix."
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