Stains can occur everywhere from your carpet to your bedsheets. To have a tidy home or office, you need to know how to deal with them, as relying on professional help is not always available.

1. What Are Stains?

Stains are created when one substance comes into contact with different surfaces and starts to interact with them on a chemical level. Some are easy to clean, but for others, you will need special detergents. There are four general stain groups.

1.1 What Are Oxidisable Stains?

They are one of the most resilient and hard to remove spots that have a quite interesting way of occurring. Oxidisable stains are the result of the oxidation process during which the molecules or atoms of the staining substance lose electrons. You can actually observe this activity. If you spill a glass of red wine, the colour pigments in its molecule will start to absorb light in the visible wavelength range (400-780 nm). However, the colour red is in a different range of 500 to 600 nm, so it is left behind. Thus at the end of the process, you will see a reddish stain. That is why most oxidisable stains have a similar pigmentation.

1.2 What Are Surfactant Stains?

Also known as greasy stains, they are extremely hard to remove since water doesn’t affect them. The reasoning behind it is hidden in the grease molecules. They are non-polar meaning they don’t have any charge (negative or positive). Water molecules, on the other hand, are polar and get attracted by other polar substances. This simple difference is the key to the resilience of grease stains.

1.3 What Are Particulate Stains?

Particule stains are caused by substances that are created by a multitude of different minerals and chemical components. It sounds complicated, but we are actually referring to things like dirt, mud, soil or clay. Since they are a mixture of various elements, their molecules have different mass and dimensions. Thus, the smallest particles can “drift” into other surfaces and create strong bonds, anchoring the stain firmly into your carpet or upholstery.

1.4 What Are Enzymatic Stains?

Enzymatic stains are a result of a chemical reaction between the proteins in the spot, the surface they are on and the external temperature conditions. This process is called coagulation and is defined as a change in the structure of the protein, making it transform from liquid to solid matter. During the solidification, strong bonds are being created, and the surface ends up stained.

2. Stain Recognition

There are 4 criteria that can help you in the identification of suspicious stains on your carpet or upholstery. Once you know what you are dealing with, you can easily remove it or at least call for professional help.

2.1 Type of the Edge

Some stains have strong, clearly defined edges. Usually, they are surfactant or enzymatic. They cling to the fibres, the moment the substance gets spilt, and keep their shape. However, there are a few exceptions. Grass, for example, leaves a vibrant smear on the carpet.
Particulate stains tend to merge with the fabric since the spot consists of different elements of multiple sizes and masses.
The shape of the edges of the oxidisable stains varies depending on the chemical profile of the substance.

types of edges of stains

2.2 Feel

Depending on the cause and the temperature and humidity levels in the room, stains can be soft or hard to the touch. Old, unattended spots are usually stiffer than fresh ones. This is the case with stains from paint, varnish, egg whites, mud. If the environment is hot and with low humidity, most substances dry off very quickly and get hard. Exceptions are the oily and greasy stains. When you have to deal with a stiff spot on your carpet or upholstery, you need to gently scrape it to help the cleaning process.

2.3 Odour

Most stains that have a scent to them are easily identifiable. If you smell the spot and there is no distinguishable odour, you need to rely on the other 3 criteria to determine what caused it. With enzymatic stains, it’s easy, as you can’t miss the pungent smell of urine and vomit or the sweet aroma of chocolate and cocoa. However, most of the other types of spots lose their scent over time, so you can’t tell whether this is a sharpie or an eyeliner smear.

2.4 Colour

Different substances create different types of coloured spots, making identification a bit easier. Below you can find a simple chart with the most widespread stains.

stain colours

When identifying a stain use more than one criteria. Engage all of your senses and if you are still unsure what the mysterious substance might be, avoid acting. Seek professional help, as if you use the wrong detergent you can end up with a permanent spot on your carpet or upholstery.

3. What Are Stain Cleaners?

Spot cleaners are solvents specifically created to remove one or a couple of stain types. There are 4 categories of chemical solutions corresponding to the 4 kinds of stains, we’ve already talked about.

3.1 What Are Bleachers?

Bleachers are oxidizing agents used to remove oxidisable spots. They are chemicals that change the structure of the stain molecule, making it colourless. The most widespread cleaner of this type is bleach. It breaks the bonds in the stain creating smaller molecules that can’t absorb light. There are two types of bleach – chlorine-based and oxygen-based. The first is stronger, and if used without rubber gloves, can burn your skin. It is applied primarily for deep-stained fabrics and materials. Oxygen bleach is usually in a powder state, and it needs to be mixed with water to be activated. It is primarily used in laundry detergents as it needs temperatures above 40˚C to start a chemical reaction.

3.2 What Are Surfactants?

Surfactants are chemicals used in cleaning detergents as primary or secondary ingredients. They have a unique molecular structure that allows them to “attack” and destabilise grease stain, making them easy to remove. Surfactants or surface-active agents have a molecule that slightly resembles a tadpole. Imagine a tadpole – the head carries a polar charge whereas the tail is neutral. The tail attaches itself to the dirt while the head, being attracted to the polar water molecules, pulls everything out of the fibre.

3.3 What Are Builders?

Builders, like surfactants, can be used separately or as an ingredient in a cleaning solvent. They are chemicals with the power to destroy calcium, magnesium, and other elements responsible for the pH factor of water. Once the bonds between the molecules are gone, the soil and mud can be removed easily from the surface or fabric. Builders have three unique qualities – softening, buffering, and emulsifying. Softening is connected with the reduction of water hardness. Buffering represents the power to maintain a certain level of alkalinity needed to remove stains. And finally, thanks to their emulsifying quality, the stains are prevented from embedding again in the fabric once the bonds are destroyed.

3.4 What Are Enzyme Cleaners?

Enzymes are proteins that work as natural catalysts meaning they accelerate chemical reactions in a compound. Cleaning solutions are a combination of enzymes, each interacting with a different part of the stain. There are four main categories:

  • Proteases remove spots caused by proteins – grass, blood, sweat, and chocolate.
  • Lipases influence spots from oil, fat, or grease.
  • Amylases eliminate starch stains – potatoes, oatmeal, pasta, and gravy.
  • Cellulases prevent white and bright fabrics from fading and losing their colours.

If you want to know more about the chemical quality of the different types of stains and their respective cleaners, check out this interesting dissertation on the topic.

stain science - what cleans what

4. Why Is Professional Stain Removal Effective?

There are 4 key factors responsible for the success of professional stain cleaning:

  • Experience – One of the main reasons you call for help when you can’t remove a stubborn stain is that you probably don’t know how to do it. The extensive knowledge that professionals have aids them in identifying the source of the spot and choosing the right detergents to eliminate it.
  • Cleaning solvents – There is a big difference between the detergents you buy from your local store and the ones cleaning companies use. The latter is stronger, more concentrated and gives better results.
  • Equipment – Your vacuum or steam cleaner can’t match the professional machines. They are more powerful, with lots of additional attachments and functions, not to mention how expensive they are.
  • Cleaning technique – Different types of stains are treated differently. If you don’t possess the experience to identify the cause of the spot, the right solvents to dissolve it and the proper equipment to remove it, you will just end up with a half-cleaned smudge. For example, you can’t use the same method for your nylon carpet and your wool rug.

how steam cleaners work


Disclaimer: Keep in mind that some stains can’t be removed, especially if they are old ones. The longer a spot stays untreated the harder the bonds between the molecules become. That is why if you suspect you can’t handle the situation you need to call a professional cleaning company.

5. How to Remove the Top 20 Stains That Can Occur?

Our London experts have created a list of the topmost frequent stains that can occur on your carpets or upholstery. Here are some basic cleaning methods that can save your items from permanent damage. Remember to always check the manufacturer’s instructions before you use different kinds of solvents or DIY solutions. If you want to learn more about how to clean your carpets depending on their type, we have a detailed guide that gives extensive information on the subject.

5.1 How to Deal With Old Stains?

The bad news is you’re fighting with an unknown enemy here. But you can learn as you go.

  • Check if a mixture of hot water and dish detergent will lift the stain and don’t forget to blot dry the spot afterwards.
  • Assuming it doesn’t, you need to use the solution of white vinegar and warm water we’ve mentioned above.
  • To finish off, let the area dry completely (you can speed it by using a hairdryer) and vacuum the entire carpet to return its fluffy appearance.

If the stain is persistent, consider booking professional help. Avoid experimenting with heavy chemicals like bleach or ammonia. The situation will probably get worse.

5.2 How to Remove Gum?

If you have kids, this is not news to you, all types of gum love to stick to your most expensive rugs and never leave. You can’t cut the sticky sweets with scissors because you will damage the fabric. Here is a fast trick that actually works and will cost you around 2 ice cubes, depending on how big the gum is.

  • Put the ice cubes on the gum for about a minute.
  • Get a sharp knife or a razor blade.
  • Using the blade, separate the gum from the carpet with a couple of shortcutting movements.

5.3 How to Clean Wine Spills?

Wine stains are amongst the most frequent occurring oxidisable spots in the home. The best way to clean them is while they are still fresh. However, sometimes it’s impossible to tend to your carpet, for example in the middle of a dinner party. So here is what you need to do when you can finally deal with the spot:

  • Get a bowl and mix two cups with warm water, one tablespoon of vinegar and dishwashing liquid.
  • Using a cotton cloth start applying the mixture to the stain while gently rubbing.
  • Do it until the stain is all gone.

Bear in mind the older the spot is, the harder it is to eliminate. In some cases, you might be forced to use bleach, so make sure you are familiar with the type of your carpet and its cleaning requirements.

5.4 How to Remove Wax?

Candles are romantic and especially if they are scented they bring a special touch. Unfortunately, they also drip a lot – always in the wrong moment and place. Wax is a terrible thing to clean. It crumbles easily and sticks to the fibres like a fly to honey. But we have a solution:

  • Use an iron. Wax has a low melting temperature, so use the weakest heat setting.
  • Place a clean, white cotton cloth on the spill and iron it for around 30 seconds.
  • Using a spoon or a butter knife scrape the leftover wax from the carpet.
  • Place a piece of kitchen paper or a paper towel and iron it again. The wax that is sticking to the fibres of the carpet will melt and transfer to the paper.

5.5 How to Get Rid of Mud Stains?

Mud is the usual suspect when it comes to particulate stains, especially if you live in a rainy city like the British capital. London is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe and where there are people there is dirt. Mix that with heavy rains almost throughout the entire year, and you end up with a lot of mud spots and carpets needing professional cleaning. You don’t have to spend half of your salary on detergents. Thankfully products containing building agents are easy to find in the average household. Everybody uses soap and dishwashing liquid. Here is what you need to do:

  • Leave the stains to dry. Contrary to everything that we have talked about till now, mud drips are harder to clean when wet.
  • Use your vacuum machine with its upholstery attachment and slowly vacuum the spot. That way all the bigger pieces will be cleaned, and you will be left with only the spots on the carpet.
  • Using dishwashing liquid and warm water blot the stain with a white cloth. Use a different one, each time, the current gets dirty.
  • After you remove the stain, use paper towels to absorb the excess water from your carpet.

5.6 How to Remove Pet Stains?

They are one of the worst types of enzymatic stains because of their smell. The simple solution of water and liquid soap can’t fully eliminate the pungent stench of cat urine. For this task, you need to use an enzyme cleaner.

  • Spray some on the stain and cover it. You can use the lid from an old pot, for example.
  • Leave it. Read the instructions on the bottle as the time for the activation of the enzymes is different in the different products.
  • Remove the lid and use a soft towel or sponge to clean the stain.

5.7 How to Get Rid of Coffee Stains?

Another popular oxidisable stain is caused by coffee spills. Thankfully they are relevantly easy to clean if you act fast. You can even avoid the use of bleach and remove them with detergents containing surfactants. Our London cleaners recommend to:

  • Blot the spot with a paper towel first, and only then clean the remaining stain.
  • Use the mixture of water and vinegar but add a tiny amount of non-bleach detergent to it.
  • Repeat until the spot vanishes.

5.8 How to Remove Blood Spots?

Although the title might suggest it, it’s not a horror film scenario. Bloodstains are also amongst the most common ones, and even though they may look permanent, that’s not the case. Opposite to common beliefs, the best way to deal with them is not with bleach, but with surfactants or an enzyme cleaning detergent.

  • Start by blotting the stain with a clean towel and cold water.
  • Once you remove the majority of it, mix 2 tbsp of dish detergent with half a cup of cold water.
  • Dab the spot with the mixture and use another clean cloth to blot the stain away.
  • Repeat until there’s no trace of the blood.

This method only works on fresh stains. If the spot is older, use an enzyme cleaner. Closely follow the instructions on the bottle.

5.9 How to Clean Crayons from Walls and Fabric?

Children love to express themselves by drawing all kinds of pictures. Unfortunately, a big portion of this art is on the wall or the upholstery of your couch. No worries, you can easily clean everything using a detergent containing a mixture of surfactants and builders.
To remove crayons from walls and floors, you can use an old toothbrush and a small amount of toothpaste or baking soda. If the surface isn’t water-resistant, or you are afraid of scratching it, use WD-40. Spray it onto the masterpiece and wipe it with a clean cloth.
To wash crayon stains from upholstery or carpet use liquid soap and water. Dab, don’t rub, or you risk making the spot larger.

5.10 How Clean Tomato Sauce or Ketchup Stains?

Tomatoes are delicious and healthy food, however, if they end up in one form or another on your carpet or upholstery, the nightmare begins. They have a level of acidity that allows them to bond very fast and strong with the fabric. However, builders will destroy these links and lower the pH factor, “disarming” the stain and eliminating it easily. So, here is what you need to do:

  • Carefully scrape the excess sauce.
  • Place 1 tbsp of salt or baking soda on the stain and leave it. The tiny crystals will absorb the leftover moisture and won’t allow the stain to embed deeper.
  • Wash the spot with cold water and liquid soap.

5.11 How to Deal with Mould and Mildew Stains?

First of all, bear in mind that there are some quite dangerous fungi that can cause you a lot of health problems. Check our detailed mould and mildew guide for more information and after you are certain you are not dealing with a toxic type, apply the following steps:

  • Spray the stain with bleach or a bleach-based cleaner.
  • Leave it for 30 minutes.
  • Wipe the spot with cold water and a towel.
  • Use a soft soap to blot the stain.
  • Rinse with cold water.

Disclaimer: Always use rubber gloves and a mask when working with bleach or bleach-based products. Make sure to open the windows and ensure a constant fresh airflow. Follow strictly all instructions on the bottle and don’t mix the chemical with other substances.

5.12 How to Remove Chocolate Stains?

An old-time classic, the chocolate stain on the couch cushion, is still one of the most popular types of spots in every home. If the smudge is fresh:

  • Remove the excess chocolate.
  • Gently blot the spot using alcohol-based wet wipes.
  • Wash the stain with warm water and dishwashing liquid.

If the spot is older, we have a problem. The longer chocolate interacts with the fabric, the deeper the stain embeds itself and damages your carpet or upholstery. So you have one other option – enzyme detergent. Since by nature you are dealing with an enzymatic stain this cleaner is your best chance of eliminating the old spots.

5.13 How to Clean Grease From Carpets and Rugs?

Now, grease spots can be very complicated to remove. However, this doesn’t mean it is impossible:

  • Sprinkle a pinch or two of baking soda and rub it into the carpet fibres.
  • Mix ½ cup of white vinegar with ½ tsp of dish detergent.
  • Soak a towel with this solution and dab the stain well.

Here is where the magic happens: the baking soda and the vinegar will cause a chemical reaction that will pull the dirt from the material. In the end, blot the area with a paper towel until it’s dry.
If the stain is still there, try using an enzyme carpet cleaner. This detergent will break the protein molecules and the bonds they have created with the fibres.

5.14 How to Clean Ink Stains?

Let’s state it upfront – not all ink spots are cleanable. Sometimes you just need to accept your sofa has an ink smudge and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it. However, if you are lucky, you might be able to remove it using small amounts of rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover. Put in on a cotton ball or a Q-tip and gently dab the stain. Do not rub, because you can easily spread the ink and make the spot bigger.

5.15 How to Get Rid of Berry Stains?

Fruits like strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries are very pigmented and can cause permanent damage to your fabrics. You must act quickly since your chances of removing the spot are higher when it’s still fresh.

  • Mix 1 tbsp of laundry detergent and 1 tbsp of white vinegar.
  • Blot the stain using the mixture and cold water.
  • Leave it for about 20 minutes.
  • Wash the stain with cold water and repeat the procedure if needed.

5.16 How to Clean Post-Construction Stains?

To be fair, post-construction stains are a nightmare to remove. The fastest way to deal with them is to book after builders cleaning service. However, if you are determined to try eliminating them yourself, our London experts have some suggestions:

  • Paint – use paint remover, however, if it is on your wooden floors or upholstery, it is almost impossible to clean it without damaging the surface.
  • Plaster – the good news is that it doesn’t leave permanent staining. Depending on the type you can clean it with water or specialised detergent. Remove it while it is still fresh, as once it dries off, it will be way harder.
  • Varnish – Use varnish removal, and if this doesn’t work, your only hope is in professional cleaning detergents.

When cleaning post-construction stains forget about bleach and enzyme cleaners. Your single hope lies in strong builders and surfactants, as these solutions are the only ones that can destroy the bond between the stain molecules.

5.17 How to Cleaning Makeup Stains?

There are different kinds of makeup, oil or water-based, powders or liquids. Depending on what caused them, stains can be oxidisable, surfactant or particulate. You can’t use the same cleaning techniques with all of them. Here are a couple of easy to follow steps that will help you win the battle with these stains.

5.17.1 Fast Cleaning Tips

Before we start, we advise you to check these tips:

  • Wet wipes are your best friend. Altho you won’t be able to completely remove the stain, the wipes are a good “first-aid” choice.
  • Rubbing alcohol. It is good to have a bottle laying around. It can be used to remove almost all kinds of stains if you don’t have time to go to the store and buy a specialised cleaner.
  • Nail polish removal. As long it has no colour, and it is acetone-based, you can use it to clean makeup smudges from carpets and upholstery. Use small quantities on a cotton ball and carefully clean the stain.

5.17.2 How to Clean Lipstick Stains?

Remember, all lipsticks are oil-based, which means you need to use something that removes oil stains. A lot of dishwashing soaps can do this job. After scraping the excess product, blot the stain with a wet towel. Use a mixture of soap and water to rub the stain. Clean it with water and dry it with paper towels.

5.17.3 How to Remove Stains from Mascara and Eyeliner?

The majority of these products are water-resistant, but this is actually good news. Use makeup remover to get rid of the stains. Put it on a cotton ball and gently blot the stain. Try not to wipe it. This will just make a bigger mess than before. After that, use a mix of cold water and soap to clean the leftover spot. Remember, never rub the stain.

5.17.4 How to Clean Spots from Self-tanners and Liquid Foundations?

You need to act fast and remove the stains quickly. It doesn’t matter if they are on your dress, sheets or upholstery, don’t let them dry. Here is what you need to do:

  • Carefully remove any excess product, but be careful. Your goal is to clean it, not make it bigger.
  • With a wet cloth, blot the spot to remove as much as you can.
  • Put a couple of drops of hydrogen peroxide on the stain and rub it in.
  • Using a brush or a hard sponge, rub the spot.
  • Wipe it with a paper towel and continue until the stain is gone.

5.17.5 How to Remove Stains from Makeup Powders?

Powders are usually easy to clean, mainly because you can dust most of them away, and the stain with which you are left is not that big. If you have dropped your powder or eyeshadows on the carpet you can use a builder to clean the incident.

  • Vacuum the scene of the crime.
  • Make a mixture of a few drops of liquid soap and cold water.
  • Put it on a soft sponge, rub the stain until it is all gone.
  • Dry the place with paper towels.

If you have stains on your clothes, sheets or upholstery use the same mixture for the cleaning procedure. Wash the fabric and let it dry.

Stain cleaning can be a hard task, however, if you have the necessary knowledge, you can easily eliminate the nasty spots. And if that doesn’t do the trick, you can always rely on your local cleaners to do the job for you.


Stephanie Cooper

Stephanie is a content marketing specialist for Top Cleaners for the past several years. She has extensive experience working with cleaning companies and knows her audience. Stephanie creates engaging and useful content helping the customers of Top Cleaners with their struggles and providing them with the most accurate insight.