How to Remove Stubborn Stains From Baby Clothes

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert, advice columnist, and New York Times bestselling author of My Boyfriend Is Boiling In My Purse … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha About . Her flagship column, Ask a Pure Man, debuted in 2011. Here at Offspring we’ve launched a new iteration dedicated to parenting and all the mess it brings.

As a parent to a toddler, my question is, is the shirt really lost after you’ve washed and dried the stain on that shirt?

For example, let’s say my son eats strawberries / ketchup / raspberries (this combination is more common than you think) and smears it all over his pretty white shirt, which I apparently had a bump when I was shopping, thinking that white shirts for toddlers were a good idea. And then my well-meaning husband just throws his shirt in the wash without resorting to OxiClean like HEATHEN. I usually find this shirt finished when I take it out of the dryer and see a nice tarnished stain. Can these shirts be re-washed and somehow bleached / preserved?

The traditional wisdom of clean people says that after the stained clothes have passed through the dryer, the stain will fix. Of course, I am not an ordinary Pure Person! I have also had personal experience with painted objects passing through the dryer, so I have lived through this and can attest to the effectiveness of the stain removal method I call extended soak.

Long soaking

Let’s talk about this technique because it’s actually more important than stain removers. This is important too! But it’s the extended familiarity with the product that really helps here.

So here’s what you’re going to do: Dissolve a large spoonful of powdered stain remover (more on this in the bottom column) in hot water enough to completely submerge the stained clothing. Hot water is ideal because it dissolves powder more effectively than cold water and because hot water has the added ability to fight stains. The water will now obviously cool off while the soaking is taking place, and that’s okay. You don’t need to renew the soak solution to keep it hot, but it’s best to start with hot water as long as the cloth being soaked can handle it. That is, do not use hot water for woollens!

Where will this soaking take place? Well, sinks are a good option, but keep in mind that the sink will fail within a few hours. So, while the kitchen sink may be the right size for soaking a few ketchup-stained shirts, not using the kitchen sink during those few hours may not be the best solution. Washbasin, bathtub, large bucket, children’s pool … these are all options. The idea is that you need a vessel large enough to hold water and contaminated clothing that can be left alone from hour to night. If you have a standard washing machine that allows this, you can also do the soak in the machine by filling it up and then stopping the cycle for a few hours.

By the way, from hour to night ! The longer you leave your clothes to soak, the better. This doesn’t mean you have to leave them on for a few days, but soaking will be much more effective if you leave the clothes on for a few hours. From my own experience, I’ve found that dissolving a batch of dyed items in a solution before bed and then washing them the next morning works well.

After soaking, drain the soaking solution and press down on the garment to squeeze out the water (avoid spinning as this may strain the fibers). Then just wash as usual. Just remember that the clothes are already soaked in whatever product you soaked them in, so you don’t need to add extra water to the washing machine.

Stain removers

But what foods should you use for this long soak? Well, you have options! Some are harsher than others, so you should consider how durable the garment in question is and choose a softer formula for more delicate items.

OxiClean, Clorox Oxi Magic and Biz

OxiClean, Clorox Oxi Magic and Biz are oxygen bleach formulas (which are different from chlorine bleach and can be used safely with paints) that also contain enzymes. It is a GREAT choice for extended soaks.


Borax is a mineral compound that is used in many households, including as an insect repellent. It also works well as a stain remover and for this reason 20 Mule Team Borax is a popular laundry detergent. Fun fact: my mom used it on my baby clothes. She also sent me a very annoying e-mail when I first started writing “Ask a Cleaner” asking me to explain why I didn’t mention borax when she finally used it to protect my baby clothes from stains. I thought, “Mmm, mom? I didn’t know you were using Borax for my baby clothes because I was a baby . LOL, mummies, thank God for them.


This is what I call The Big Guns: Cascade dishwasher detergent. Aha! It should be powdery and you should definitely know that it can have a whitening effect, so it is best used for white and light-colored clothing. But it is very, very, very good, and essentially it was the product I used to remove the black stains from the white towels that got dirty in the dryer thanks to those punctured hedgehog dryer balls.

Engleside Restoration

Engleside Restoration is a great product for vintage, antique or delicate items such as baptism dresses or handmade blankets that require a very gentle stain remover. Most of your kid’s clothes won’t require such a highly specialized product, but it’s good to know, especially when we’re heading out for the holidays, with their trendy party dresses and adorable little velvet shorts.

Concerns about skin sensitivity

A final tip for those concerned about product build-up on clothes that come into contact with baby’s sensitive skin: if your washing machine offers an extra rinse cycle, use it. An extra rinse will help completely rid your garment of the detergent and laundry accelerators used to remove tough stains. If you do not have an additional rinse cycle, simply run a second wash cycle without any product to rinse off any remaining product.


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