Home Hacks

How to Get Rid of Oil Stains (& Every Other Holiday Splotch)

Red wine? Check. Cranberry sauce? Check. Butter? Ch—you get the point.

November 20, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

As a kid, there was nothing I cherished more than the day we decorated the house for the holidays. My dad would carry boxes from the basement filled with candles, garlands, slightly odd-looking but well-loved ornaments that my sister and I made in preschool, and—my favorite—mugs that lit up with tiny lights on the outside when you poured hot chocolate into them. The ritual of readying the house was the first sign that the holidays were coming, and with them, festive family get-togethers and cozy evenings by the fire. It’s a tradition I try to recreate now, even in my tiny apartment, with a Charlie Brown tree and cedar-scented candles.

But between hosting houseguests, throwing cocktail parties, cooking Thanksgiving feasts, and welcoming in-laws and kids, the holidays can take their toll on a home. Come January, you can find yourself taking down the decorations and discovering stains of every sort: wine on your new throw, candle wax dripped on the good tablecloth, grease splatters on your apron, mascara smudged on the guest room pillows.

Luckily, there are remedies for almost every stain. The trick is knowing which to use—and acting fast. So, we’ve compiled a mini guide about how to tackle just about every smudge and spill you might encounter this holiday season. Keep this tab open on your phone (or, hey, print it out and hang it on the side of your fridge). When your mother-in-law knocks over her glass of red wine at your annual cookie party, consult this handy cheat sheet—then pour her another glass, and get back to the fun. No harm done.

(As always, stains on fragile fabrics and dry clean–only attire may be best left to the professionals, aka, your closest dry cleaner. Test stain removal methods in an inconspicuous area if you’re unsure.)

Un-Do Red Wine Stains

If you (or, ahem, a houseguest) spills their Malbec on a tablecloth, napkin, tee-shirt, upholstered couch, or even the carpet, first, don’t panic. But do act fast. Reach for a white cotton cloth you don’t mind getting stained. (You want to transfer the wine from the fabric to the cloth; using white helps you see how much is being absorbed into the cloth and switch to new places as needed. You can use white paper towels—lots of them—in a pinch.)

Real Simple suggests dabbing and pressing at the stain with the cloth to lift as much of the liquid out as possible. Don’t rub—that will only push the stain further into the fibers. If it’s a carpet, you can even stand on top of the cloth, Good Housekeeping adds. This is an important step: You want to minimize the amount of liquid left in the stained fabric.

Then, if the stain is on a carpet, couch, or something else that can’t be washed, sprinkle a generous amount of salt on the stain. Leave it be for several minutes to soak up the rest of the wine. Vacuum to remove the salt. You can follow that up by dabbing club soda on the stain, according to Apartment Therapy, and continuing to press at the stain until it’s gone.

If the stain is on something washable, like a cotton tablecloth or shirt, try this method (a Real Simple favorite): Stretch the stained area over the top of a bowl and secure with a rubber band. Pour salt onto the stain and let it sit. Then, pour boiling water over the stain from above (Real Simple suggests a height of eight inches) until the stain is gone.

And psst: If you’re out and about, a dose of saline solution can help keep the stain wet and start to work away at it until you get home. We also have it on good authority that if the offending red wine stain is on your jeans, an overnight spot-treatment with your regular detergent, coupled with a wash cycle in cool water, will work beautifully. Just make sure you don’t put a red wine-stained garment in the dryer until the stain is completely gone: The heat will make it set permanently.

Handle Champagne & White Wine Spills Like a Champ

Get a little too excited during New Years and spill Champagne all down your front? Don’t worry. Blot up as much of the liquid as you can with a cloth, says DoItYourself.com (remember: no rubbing!), then dab with or soak in cool water. If for some reason you don’t have a cloth, The Spruce says you can use a slice of white bread! This method works for white wine, too.

For washable items, pre-treat with a stain remover treatment like Shout before tossing it into the machine.

Purge Candle Wax Drips for Good

It wouldn’t be the holiday season without candles—the more, the better, especially down the center of a festive dinner table.

But that means you’re bound to get some drips of wax on your good tablecloth. Try these tips from Mulberry’s Cleaners: First, gently remove as much wax as you can with a spoon or a dull knife. If it’s a plain white tablecloth, slide a towel beneath the wax-stained part and lay another on top, then run a hair dryer over the area to heat it. (You could also do this with an iron.) The wax will melt, and you’ll be left with an oily mark where the wax was. Flip the tablecloth over and dab at the back of the stain with a cotton swab dipped in nail polish remover or rubbing alcohol—the best at breaking down greasy stains—to dissolve it. (These can discolor some fabrics, so be sure to test it in an out-of-the-way area first.)

For darker tablecloths, SF Gate recommends freezing the fabric, bending it to crack and brush off the hardened wax, then placing the waxy part between two brown bags and ironing on low, switching in fresh bags or pieces of paper, until the stain is gone.

Get Rid of Stains & Smears from Butter, Gravy, or Cooking Oils

If you’ve dropped something greasy—like butter or gravy—on you, the table, or the floor, carefully lift off as much of the spilled food as possible with a dull knife, spoon, or credit card. (The same holds true here: Never, ever rub.)

One go-to tactic for greasy stains is sprinkling something absorbent on itThe Spruce suggests cornstarch, talcum powder, or baking soda; Good Housekeeping says you can even use artificial sweetener or salt, which is good news if you’re not at home when the stain occurs. This method works well on carpet and sturdy upholstery, too. Just sprinkle on, let sit for a half hour at the minimum, The Spruce advises, and vacuum up.

Another method is dish soap, which eats away at greasy stains (I can personally attest). You can do the absorbent-powder method first, then follow up with a dish soap spot-treatment for a one-two punch.

Then, if the soiled item is machine washable, toss it into the hottest wash cycle the fabric can tolerate (check the care instructions). If it’s not—hi, dining room rug— follow these instructions from The Spruce: Mix a tablespoon of dish detergent and a tablespoon of household ammonia with with two cups of hot water, and dab the stain with the solution. Dab with a dry cloth or paper towel until the stain is gone, then rinse with a cloth dipped in plain water.

Chocolate Smudges, Be Gone!

Hopefully you will be enjoying chocolate in many forms this holiday season. That means, inevitably, at some point, you’ll get a chocolate stain. The tricky thing is that chocolate tends to leave a combination oily/tannin stain, says The Kitchn.

But have no fear: First, scrape up any gooey chocolate from the spill, or blot it with a towel. (If it’s really liquid-y, and the stain is on something small, Anton’s Cleaners suggests popping it in the fridge for a few minutes; solid chocolate is more easily lifted off.) Then, blot the stain with a homemade stain remover made of dish soap and water, advises Maria Kamperides of Clothes Clinic Columbus Cleaners in Boston. Next, if the stain is on clothing, flip the fabric over and run cold water on the underside of the stain to force the chocolate out, says Cleanipedia. Kamperides suggests finishing with a spin through the wash with mild detergent, following the care instructions.

If you get chocolate on a wool sweater, as I recently did, apply a gentle stain remover (the French swear by a little Marseille Olive Oil Stain Remover Soap rubbed on chocolate and stains of all sorts), let sit, then soak in lukewarm water and detergent for a few minutes and rinse.

Sweet Potato & Pumpkin On Your Tablecloth? We’ve Got You!

Sweet potato and pumpkin are some of the most delicious foods of the season, if you ask me. But have you ever tried to get out a sweet potato stain? That's when things can turn nasty.

To tackle either type properly, lift as much of the food as possible off of the fabric. If it’s your apron, say, that’s stained, flush the underside with cold water, and brush in an enzyme-based detergent like Persil, or pre-treatment like Shout says The Spruce. (Dish soap works, too.) For upholstery and carpet, sponge the stain with a mix of one tablespoon of dishwashing liquid and two cups of warm water. Dab with a dry cloth to remove the liquid (and the stain).

If the yams or squash you dropped had butter in it, you can also follow up with one of the treatments for greasy stains, above.

Banish Cranberry Sauce Stains

According to DoItYourself.com, the boiling water method works wonders on those dark red and purple stains from cranberry sauce. Stretch the soiled item over a bowl, secure with a rubber band, and pour hot water over it. Northern California-based Pacific Heights Cleaners also suggests blotting the stain with a solution of one-part distilled white vinegar, one-part laundry detergent, and 10-parts cool water. (Fun fact: The same ingredients work well for tannin-based coffee stains, too.)

Carpets can be blotted with a mix of one-part liquid dish detergent to two-parts cold water until the stain is gone, DoItYourself.com adds. And if there’s cranberry all over your upholstered dining chairs), add a tablespoon of white vinegar to two-thirds cup of ammonia and blot gently.

Make Makeup Marks Disappear

Your best bet for makeup smears on an overnight guest’s pillowcase or lipstick on the hem of your good party dress? Rubbing alcohol. Glamour recommends soaking a cloth in it, then rubbing and dabbing the cloth gently over the makeup stain to remove—it’ll break down the greasiness of both. Just be sure to test in an inconspicuous area first, as rubbing alcohol has been known to stain or fade some fabrics. (A spritz of hairspray with alcohol in it also works, Glamour notes: Spray, let dry, and wipe with a wet cloth.)

Or, tuck some baby wipes or makeup remover wipes in your purse when you head to a holiday dinner, stain expert Jolie Kerr suggests to Racked—they come in handy for removing just about any type of fresh makeup stain.

Tackle Tree Sap Stickiness Once and For All

Remember the part in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Clark Griswold gets sap from their thirty-foot tree on his hands and then, naturally, on everything he touches? If that happens to you, and the sticky stain is on a hard surface, like the floor or counter, hit it with some rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, nail polish remover, WD-40, or even cooking oils, like olive oil, vegetable oil, or coconut oil, says Jolie Kerr on her podcast “Ask a Clean Person.” (Any of the above, except WD-40, can be used on your skin, too.) Rubbing alcohol or WD-40 can also be used on sturdy fabrics—just test first and follow up with a dab of detergent or dish soap and water to remove the cleaning agent itself.

If you’ve tried an at-home treatment and the stain still won’t budge, don’t iron or machine-dry the garment, warns Kamperides of Boston’s Clothes Clinic Columbus Cleaners. Instead, she says, “air dry the item and bring it to a reputable dry cleaner.”

Got a clever stain tip we missed? Let us know in the comments!

This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors, and Food52 may earn an affiliate commission.

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Lindi November 11, 2022
Thank you for the article! We also have a blog post on how to remove stubborn oil stains your readers can check it out here
heather December 25, 2019
Much helpful information, and I thank you for it. Turmeric. What the heck do you do with turmeric on a nice cotton shirt?
Cheri S. December 8, 2019
Great tips, thanks! My two favorite stain-removal laundry products are Goop (rub it into grease stains) and OxyClean (for everything else). I've tried lots of spot removal products over the years and these two are as close to magic as I've found.
tia November 20, 2019
Just a quick warning on household ammonia: make absolutely sure anything you mix with it, or add to the surface before you rinse all of the ammonia away does not contain bleach. Bleach + ammonia releases chlorine gas (it's green, you'll notice) which is very poisonous!