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How to Choose Cleaners and Solvents that Work

By Gill Chilton

A major trick to good cleaning is to match the solvent to the stain and to the stained surface. A cleaning solvent doesn’t have to be a chemical or be picked up in the supermarket’s cleaning aisle. Solvents range from plain tap water to dry-cleaning solution.

A good cleaning plan is to use trial and error to find three basic multi-stain treatments that you like: one for washable fabrics; one for dry-clean-only fabrics; and one for carpet and upholstery. Then get in the following generic products.

Solvent and Source Uses Cautions
Acetone. Get over the counter at the pharmacist (drugstore).
Sold as non-oily nail polish remover for a premium on the beauty
Removes paint-based products, including nail varnish and
ballpoint pen and correction fluid.
Do not use on acetate materials, as it will dissolve them.
Bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). Get at the supermarket. A mild alkali that can neutralise acid stains and stop them
from causing colour damage to fabric. The absorbing qualities of
bicarb also make it useful for grease stains: Sprinkle the powder
to mop up and lift grease and oils from fabric and wood
Dry-clean stain remover. Look for it in the cleaning
Gets stains out of non-washable fabrics. Can also be used with
some success on washable materials. Best at grease-based
Flammable. If used heavily on fabric, do not then tumble
Glycerine. Sold as a cake-icing or soap-making ingredient at
the supermarkets and craft stores. Can also be bought over the
counter at the chemist (drugstore) where it is sold for use as a
cough relief treatment and to soothe dry, sore skin.
Use to pre-treat tough, dried-in stains so that a second
solvent can get to work on shifting them.
Hydrogen peroxide. Sold as a mouthwash and disinfectant at the
chemist (drugstore).
A non-smelling mild bleaching agent useful for getting dairy
and protein food and drink stains out of carpets and clothes. Not a
first line of attack, but worth trying if original solvent or a
machine wash fails.
Rinse away all trace of previous solvent before applying
hydrogen peroxide to avoid chemical reactions. Can remove the
colour from fabric
Methylated spirits (rubbing alcohol). Sold at the DIY
(hardware) store and chemist (drugstore).
Good for removing colour stains, especially fruit-based. Apply
neat, using a cloth or cotton bud (cotton swab) for extra
Harmful if inhaled; skin and eye irritant. Work in ventilated
Lubricant. You can pick up a light oil, such as WD-40, in DIY
(hardware) and car-parts stores.
It gets under dirt to lift grease and oil off hard surfaces.
Removes residue from sticky labels and wax crayons from walls.
Flammable. Work in a ventilated area.
White spirit (turpentine). Find at a DIY or paint store. Traditionally used to clean paintbrushes, but also useful to
thin down (and eventually shift) grease stains.
Harmful if swallowed; skin and eye irritant. Work in ventilated

Read the cautions before opening any solvent. Methylated spirits (rubbing alcohol) and white spirit (turpentine) can cause irreversible lung damage if inhaled in quantity. Many stain removers, including acetone and those that mimic dry cleaning, are highly flammable, and that quality can persist.

Test for colourfastness on a hidden area before using any solvent. Blot off some with a cotton bud (cotton swab) – no colour should come off on the bud. Then wait until the solvent has dried to check that the final colour of the fabric or carpet remains unchanged.