Coffee stains are a fact of life if you weren’t born with the balance of a gymnast. Since I drink coffee almost every day and have no sense of balance to speak of, the number of times I’ve spilled coffee on myself, or something in my immediate environment, numbers in the thousands, if not more.
And since these coffee stains usually happen to me in the wild—on the train, in the middle of a restaurant meal, or en route to run errands—I usually don’t have the option of tossing something in the washing machine until the end of my day. Not to mention, if stain removal were just a matter of doing a load of laundry, none of us would need hacks on how to remove them.
According to Jolie Kerr, cleaning expert and advice columnist: “When a drink stain happens, whether it's red wine, dark beer, coffee, colorful cocktails, or fruit juice, you always want to deal with the stain as it happens.” And that right there is the first line of defense: prompt action.
How to remove coffee stains
There are several ideas out there on what you should do immediately after you spill your coffee, but generally, here's what you should do.
Blot your stain with cold water and a damp towel. If the spill just happened, this might be enough to tide you over until you can launder your clothes.
Otherwise, sprinkle baking soda, salt, baby powder, or liquid dish soap over the area and let it seep in.
Gently rub it away with cold water or vinegar, and a towel or cloth, and then launder as soon as you can.
I have, through trial and error, arrived at what works best for me. For coffee stains, I find that the best thing to do—it's also Kerr-recommended—is to first flush the stain with cold running water, as heat will set the stain into the fabric. I wash out as much of the stain as possible, and then lather up with liquid dish detergent. I rinse with white vinegar and water, and usually, at this point, the stain is gone. Per the University of Illinois, which has a whole section of its website dedicated to stain removal (I don’t know why, but we could probably use all of it), you can also soak your stained items for 15 minutes in a mixture of dish detergent, white vinegar, and water, but I find applying my cleaning “ingredients” one by one to be more effective.
If you’ve got a more serious coffee spill on your hands, your work isn’t done. Use a sponge to apply rubbing alcohol to the stain, working outward from the center. Then, soak the stain in at least a quart of water with a tablespoon of an enzyme cleaner, and then wash as you normally would.
This post was updated June 2022 because it's iced coffee season and you know what that means...more spills.
Got an even better way to wash out a coffee stain? We're all ears.
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