ruined shirt and and leaking pen

The Science of Stain Removal

By Sitex Corp   /    Wednesday, January 13, 2016   /   ,

Our customers are no strangers to hard work, and their uniforms show it! Many times, garments with grease, oil, blood, or ink stains may end up in the toss pile, but with a little Chemistry 101, you may not even need much elbow grease to lift that stain right out.

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 chemical reactions that remove everything from grass to blood stains

The best stain remover is one that removes your stain without damaging the stained fabric or surface, and typically employs one or more of the following techniques:

Dissolving the stain

Stain removers contain solvents, a fluid that dissolves another chemical. Rule of thumb is that “like dissolves like,” meaning that 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. For an oil or butter stain, alcohol or hydrocarbon solvents, like gas, can be applied directly to the spot.

Emulsifying 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. Common surfactants are soap and sulfonates, and due to their dual nature they are able to remove both watery and oily stains.

Breaking up the stain

Stain removers often employ enzymes or other proteins to break apart stain molecules. These enzymes digest proteins and fats in stains in the same way they digest the food you eat, making them highly effective on such stains as blood or chocolate. Oxidizers can also be used to break apart the chemical bonds in a stain, allowing it to lift away or sometimes render it colorless. Examples of oxidizers include: peroxide, chlorine bleach, and borax.

Hiding the stain

Many stain removers will also contain whiteners. Unlike the previous chemicals we’ve mentioned, whiteners typically do not contribute to any cleaning power. Instead, 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.

So how do you select your stain fighting weapon of choice? Most products, even homemade solutions, attack stains using multiple technique. For example, dabbing diluted chlorine bleach onto a stain molecule helps break apart the stain while removing color from the offending spot. Simple soapy water dissolves both oil and water stains, while simultaneously coating the stain so it is easy to rinse away.

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. 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.

For help getting the toughest stains out of any fabric, SITEX is your expert garment professional. Contact us today to get started with our uniform rental programs, letting us pick up your grease-stained uniforms, and return them looking like new!

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