Identify the problem ingredient or ingredients in a food or drink spill and you’re on your way to getting the problem cleaned up. In beetroot, it’s a straightforward, if vibrant, colour dye. A vegetable curry can combine oil from the sauce with the colour transfer from a great many different spices. So small wonder that in surveys of UK dry cleaners, curry rates as the stain seen the most often.

Essentially, applying a solvent to a stain is like putting a car into reverse. Your aim is to find the solvent that rubs out the mark.

Often, finding that solvent involves nothing more than using your common sense. Poster-paint, that you have to mix with water before applying it to paper washes away with yet more water. If you need to clean brushes used to paint doors and windows with white spirit, you need to use white spirit to remove any paint splashes on the carpet or on your clothes.

Personal experience turns all of us into smart stain-shifters. Whenever you get a good result in stain treatment, you’ll remember what you did, and when a similar accident happens, you’ll be ready to act.

It is worth spending a little time looking at how many different stains actually need similar treatment. This approach is also invaluable if you’re not sure exactly what’s been spilt.

Stain Base Examples Characteristics Treatment
Water Ink from washable felt-tip pens, emulsion (latex) paint, potatoes May look bright and alarming; may have distinct texture and appear solid. Flush with running water; where possible treat the stain from behind. So turn clothes inside out, before holding under the tap. Use cold water, unless you know specifically to do otherwise.
Grease and oil Butter, mayonnaise, curry, gravy, engine oil Leaves a shine rather than a colour problem. Initially, things may not look too bad: but the grease residue becomes a magnet for passing dirt. Untreated grease stains, especially on carpets and pale clothes, can look worse over time. Lift up the excess using a high-absorbency powder or substance such as salt, bicarbonate of soda, or cat-litter granules. Then dissolve the stain using biological laundry detergent. Rubbing neat liquid directly into the stain or pre-soaking may improve effectiveness.
Protein Egg, blood, perspiration These are deceptive because they look just like any other food and drink stain. However, using hot water on a protein stain sets it in the fabric. Always soak in cold water before washing with detergent. Ideally soaking removes the entire stain, but machine-washing generally removes any residue.
Fruit and acid Blackcurrant juice, lemon, bleach A strong colour stain. Hold stained fabric inside-out under the cold tap. Sponge with solution of bicarbonate of soda to neutralise the acid. Machine-wash. Use methylated spirits (rubbing alcohol) to remove any remaining colour residue, especially on carpet and non-washables.
Chemical Ink from ballpoint pens, hair dye, nail polish Does not dissolve in water and is likely to bond with hard surfaces. Ink and hair dye may stain wood, enamel, and plastics and other surfaces from which protein- and fruit-based stains can be wiped away. Find the correct solvent, which may be a trial-and-error proposition. Whilst some ink can be removed with acetone, the ink from other pens dissolves only in white spirit (turpentine) or hairspray. Before each attempt, it is essential to remove traces of the previous chemical.