Remove Any Stain With This Unexpected French Trick

May 30, 2018

Welcome to Spring Clean Your Life, your one-stop shop for gotta-try-those tips & bookmark-me inspiration to spruce up your kitchen and home this season—and well beyond.

It might be hard to muster up the excitement to do laundry week in and week out (unless, of course, you’re one of those envy-inducing, wash-loving master folders―we see you), but maybe what you need is a little shake-up in your routine.

We’ve all heard of stocking a proper pantry, including a spice cabinet, to set yourself up for cooking success in the kitchen. But what about applying that principle, somewhat, to your laundry routine? Danielle Postel-Vinay introduces us to the French art of making a home in Home Sweet Maison, where she includes a section about the methodical way French people (like her discerning mother-in-law) manage la laverie.

One particularly interesting note was the way in which the French pre-treat their stains. Instead of grabbing the nearest all-purpose stain treatment spray as I usually do, the French rely on a host of stain-specific détachants, or spot removers.

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“I once opened a cabinet in her laundry area and saw a dozen small bottles standing together on a shelf, each with a different colored label, arranged together like spices in a rack,” writes Postel-Vinay of her mother-in-law’s setup. “Examining the bottles, I saw pictures of chocolate, blood, oil, rust, ketchup, and ink. These, I realized, were customized stain removers, or détachants. I was amazed.”

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“E-Z Treatment for Oily Stains: On the oily spots, apply a very generous amount of baking soda (such as 'Arm & Hammer' brand) mixed with, or on top of, cornstarch (such as 'Clabber Girl' brand), rubbing the soda/cornstarch mixture into the stain until you can see that it has gone through the fabric. Allow your garment to set for several hours, preferably overnight or all day--more if necessary. When the oil has been totally absorbed by the baking soda/cornstarch mix, wash the garment with detergent in your usual way. Just be sure to use plenty of the powdery mixture, and leave the garment alone for as long as you can before washing. I've used this method for so long that I can't even remember when or how I learned about it. But it works like a charm! ”
— marsiamarsia

“When I asked my mother-in-law about her stock of products, she acted as if it were the most obvious thing in the world to treat different stains with different chemicals. And, of course, looking at it from a scientific point of view―which is precisely how the French view laundry―this makes perfect sense. Grass stains are not the same problem as ballpoint pen ink, and olive oil is utterly different on a silk blouse than coffee. How could one expect to remove all these different stains with the same chemical?”

The détachants (like the ones above shown) are inexpensive and commonplace; you can find them filling an entire wall or shelf at any French supermarket for about a Euro or two per bottle. If you won't be making it to a Carrefour or Monoprix anytime soon, you can create your own “spice rack” of spot removers here stateside; Postel-Vinay recommends brands like Carbona, which offers up stain-specific potions for everything from chocolate, grass, oils, gum, rust, and more.

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How do you pre-treat your stains? Let us know below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joyce Anicker
    Joyce Anicker
  • Daniellen
  • Clatterbuck
  • Guadalupe Lindo
    Guadalupe Lindo
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    Mimi Beaven
Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.


Joyce A. June 16, 2021
TRIPLE THREAT TO STAINS: 1 part dawn 1 part soda 1 part peroxide leave on stain for as long as it takes on old stains it could be overnight. I also use the boiling water from a heights for berry stains
Daniellen December 26, 2019
I once saw a nifty trick for red wine stain. Pour cheap white wine on it and watch the red disappear. Dab and wash.
Clatterbuck July 19, 2019
Soak a blood stain in whole milk. I don't know why it work, but it does.
Guadalupe L. July 19, 2019
First and foremost, never let a stain dry! A few drops of your drinking water will do the trick and prevent the stain from impregnating the textile fibers. Finally, if nothing else works, use WD-40. Yes, you read it well, WD-40!
Mimi B. July 19, 2019
One of my most vivid memories of my French grandmother (now 99) was her at most family meals at my grandparents restaurant back in the mid-late 70s spilling stuff on her, normally silk, blouse. She had quite big boobs and they ‘caught’ everything that dropped 😉... and then her using water from her glass to dab it profusely before sending it to the dry cleaners. Trips to the dry cleaners were frequent! Funny what your brain chooses to remember 😉
Doris July 18, 2019
I bought the saline solution at drugstore —- tried it on a tomato spill on shirt—- not any use at all wouldn’t touch the discolouration! So back to the good ole Mexican soap which always works.
Guadalupe L. July 19, 2019
Saline solution makes the stain even more difficult to remove. Use plain tap or drinking water!
Dawn W. June 9, 2019
As some of the others have commented, I use Dawn directly on all stains, especially oil, even after it has gone through the dryer. I rub it on the stain and leave it to dry. Also, straight ammonia will remove dried blood stains no matter how old. I just use a dropper to add to the stain until it breaks it up.
Frederique M. July 20, 2019
where can one buy ammonia?
shallots June 23, 2020
Ammonia is readily available in grocery stores alongside other cleaning supplies (like boraxo, baking soda, castile soap)
jan K. March 1, 2019
Have used the Carbona stain removers for years-they're magic! Buy each as the need arises, before long you'll have the entire collection. The bottles are yellow and look very similar to the French Dr. Beckmann's shown in the article.
marsiamarsia June 16, 2018
E-Z Treatment for Oily Stains: On the oily spots, apply a very generous amount of baking soda (such as 'Arm & Hammer' brand) mixed with, or on top of, cornstarch (such as 'Clabber Girl' brand), rubbing the soda/cornstarch mixture into the stain until you can see that it has gone through the fabric. Allow your garment to set for several hours, preferably overnight or all day--more if necessary. When the oil has been totally absorbed by the baking soda/cornstarch mix, wash the garment with detergent in your usual way. Just be sure to use plenty of the powdery mixture, and leave the garment alone for as long as you can before washing. I've used this method for so long that I can't even remember when or how I learned about it. But it works like a charm!
Nancy J. June 13, 2018
I love “52””!
trish June 4, 2018
I don't really pay attention to the brand except I don't think this is the time to get a generic.
Lisa P. June 4, 2018
I discovered these products while living in Italy and packed some to bring home (haven’t found the box yet though). I did, however, see some at my neighborhood Safeway!
On a separate note, I successfully removed old berry stains from my husband’s very expensive white dress shirt by soaking it in a mixture of vinegar and milk. Found the trick on the Internet. It worked amazingly well!
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Wow, I've never heard of vinegar and milk! What proportion did you use? Going on that note, I wonder if going straight to buttermilk would work?? Thanks for the comment, Lisa!
poppy June 3, 2018
This is fantastic. I am going to France in July and will be bringing these back to Australia. Oil stains from food are my biggest problem on my husband's shirts. I don't know what he does.
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Ha, oil stains are the worst! Hope you have a wonderful trip. Definitely bring that extra bag (for the stain removers and maybe some fine chocolate ;)). Thanks poppy!
C. N. June 5, 2018
Liquid dish soap is formulated to remove food based oils. Just lightly moisten the stain with water, then massage in some dish soap, and either run very warm water thru the fabric or throw directly into the washer. Shampoo is formulated for body oils, so you can do the same procedure for hat rims or other items and wash immediately.
Hana A. June 12, 2018
Great tips, thanks C. Nealon!
Paula G. June 12, 2018
I found an Amway product years ago that works very well on oil based stains. The product consistancy and packaging has changed a few times over the years, but, it still works very well. Even if I've missed the stain, and the article goes through the wash and the dreaded dryer, it can still get many of the oily stains out. As a retired massage therapist, I've tried many products over the years to get oil out of my clothing, not to mention, I'm one of the sloppiest of eaters! The product is Legacy of Clean Prewash Liquid! Between this and Oxy clean for protein based stains, I can get most things out! Good luck! Paula G.
Hana A. June 12, 2018
Thanks for sharing, Paula G! Love Oxy Clean so very much, ha! ;)
Linda H. October 21, 2018
I swear by Dawn liquid soap for oil stains. I put Dawn directly on the stain and let stand. Occasionally it needs a repeat treatment. I air dry the item to ensure the stain doesn’t set.

For berry stains I use a product called Ban-It Stain Remover that I find in a hardware store. It looks like bar soap. I follow directions but often will let the item soak in cold water until the stain appears to disappear, usually overnight. Again I air dry to ensure the item doesn’t need a second treatment. I have used this on wine stains as well.
eliza October 21, 2018
dish soap works like magic on oil/grease stains. i squirt a generous amount on the spot(s!), rub it in, let it sit for a few hours before washing. works surprisingly well, even on tees. i use unscented ecos, but suspect any dish soap will do. (please choose non toxic cleansers without fragrance {which is made of a combination of secret chemicals protected by confidential business information [CBI], the impacts of which are unknown once the chemicals are unleashed on the ailing natural world we need to protect from further harm}
Toni H. June 27, 2019
Please, people, do be kind and use unscented products (laundry and personal) for the sake of those of us (estimated millions, and growing) who actually get sick when we are exposed to the fragrance chemicals as you pass by.

Far from sweet flowers, you smell to me like an ancient and rancid dumpster filled with acrid, smouldering cigarette filters and stale Kool-Aid. The chemicals burn my throat, and my lungs, and gravel my voice, and give me a headache, and a fog, and sometimes chest pain and difficulty breathing. It takes very, very little to affect most of us. I carry an Epi-Pen and an inhaler because of these products.

I have to shower when I get home, and wash my clothes, and then steam them for a half-hour with water and alcohol, then wash them again... and maybe repeat. And even this routine is not reliable for synthetic fibers. Worse, my social life is trashed, because I can't afford to get these stinks on my furniture, as I can't figure a way to get any of it clean.

I meet people every day that I venture into town who report adverse sensitivities of these sorts. Believe me - if so many people are getting sick, then this stuff is not good for you either... or your kids or your pets, Or the rest of the planet. And it seems that the longer you are exposed, the more chance that you will also start reacting. And cross reacting. You really don't want this.

So please - do us all a favour, and just quit. All of us sensitives will thank you. Your life will thank you.
Cheryl June 3, 2018
I have a closet full of vintage tablecloths which are always stained when you get them. I make homemade "oxy cleaner". Mix one part WASHING SODA (not baking soda) with 2x the water and dissolve it well (VERY IMPORTANT!!!!) then add hydrogen peroxide equal to the amount of washing soda. (It's important to dissolve the washing soda first because if you mix the washing soda with the peroxide you will just get washing soda that have turned as hard as rocks!) Then, just soak your item. I have left beautiful old table cloths soaking for days (because this family can't get through a meal without a spill on a clean tablecloth) and they come out stain free with colors still vibrant. It's far cheaper to make it than buy it. If the table cloth is huge I add a bit more water to submerge it completely in my bucket and bit more peroxide. I have not had it fail. The one thing that didn't work was trying to use it in a spray bottle. The spray hole clogged.
trish June 3, 2018
What is washing soda?
Cheryl June 3, 2018
It's a laundry booster made by Arm & Hammer. You'll find it in the laundry section of the grocery store in a big yellow box. I usually see it on the top shelf. It runs about $3/box. I t has been around forever!
trish June 3, 2018
Gralan June 3, 2018
Thank you Cheryl very much for your comment and recipe.
Cheryl June 3, 2018
You are quite welcome!
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Great tip, thanks so much Cheryl! Also, for encouraging me to find more beautiful vintage tablecloths now. ;)
PrefersPie June 3, 2018
Boiling Water from a Great Height works 99% of the time -- dab a few drops dishwashing soap on the the spot, lay flat in your tub, and from as high as possible (stand on the edge of your tub) aim a kettle-ful of boiling water onto the spot. Has gotten pizza grease out of a white tshirt, sharpie off sheets.
trish June 3, 2018
So simple!
Hana A. June 4, 2018
This is a recurring tip that I need to try myself, thanks for chiming in PrefersPie!
Diana M. June 13, 2018
Yes, yes, yes, this actually works, even (at least sometimes) on old fruit stains. I was taught, actually, to use a rubber band or string to stretch the cloth taut over a pot, then the boiling water from a height. I was highly skeptical the first time I tried this - seems counterintuitive to me - but the garment in question was not wearable and nothing else had worked.
Lulu June 21, 2019
Love the caps in the title of your wonderful idea! Ha! Excellent...
Mary June 3, 2018
cold water and hydrogen peroxide get out blood.
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Noting this for the future, thanks Mary!
erika June 3, 2018
What's the trick here? Fly to France and stock up on détachants?
trish June 3, 2018
This is the best idea ever!
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Ha! Yes that is certainly one way ;) Building a laundry "tool kit" with stain specific removers we can find stateside is another. Thanks for reading, Erika and Trish!
Anne June 3, 2018
Many stains come out after an overnight cold-water soak.
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Sometimes a simple pre-treatment is best, thanks for the reminder Anne!
babswool June 3, 2018
Red wine or any berry stain - pour boiling water from about 6 inches above the stain - outside to inside (so you push the stain out of the clothing and not into it). Learned this from my Mom and have used it successfully many times!
Hana A. June 4, 2018
So interesting that you're using hot instead of cold water! Will have to try this out the next time the red wine's a flowin' ;) Thanks, babswool!
trish June 3, 2018
I learned this trick with babies in the house. Mix Tide and dry bleach with enough water to make a "frosting". "Frost" the stain and let it sit until the mixture is totally dry. Crack off what you can of the mixture then wash as usual. If this didn't work, I just gave up.
Hana A. June 4, 2018
Love this tip, Trish! What brand of dry bleach do you like to use?