There is no single technique or product that takes care of every spot and spill, but with the right information and supplies, many stains can be removed.
If a garment isn't washable, the safest thing is to take it to a dry cleaner, although there are some treatments you can try at home (see Stain First Aid Chart). If you stain a washable garment, the golden rule is: Act quickly. For a liquid, gently blot up any excess with a white cloth, working from the outside in, so you don't spread the stain; do not press hard or rub. Sprinkle an oily stain with cornstarch. If it's a dollop of something, like ketchup, scoop off any excess. Dab the area with cool water, which will lighten most spots and remove others altogether.
Textile and stain experts recommend certain stain removal supplies for each problem. Start small, using cotton swabs and eyedroppers. Often, you'll start with one treatment, then follow up with another, since many stains have more than one component: With lipstick or tomato sauce, for example, you have to treat the oil in the stain, then remove the color. After using a remedy, always wash the garment as you normally would, but look at the area you treated before you dry it; repeat the treatment if necessary, or try another.
Always test stain-removal techniques in a hidden area of the garment, like an inside seam. There are no guarantees -- sometimes stain-removal techniques do more harm than good -- so if you have a particularly vexing stain or a valuable, delicate piece of clothing, take it to a professional. And unfortunately, some things just won't come out. With permanent ink, for example, the operative word is "permanent."
Stain First Aid Chart
(Shout, Spray 'n Wash)
All-purpose stain removers, particularly good on greasy stains.
Also called dry-cleaning fluid, these remove oily, greasy stains. Safe on nonwashables. Use only on dry fabric in a well-ventilated area. Air clothes after using.
(Biz, Era Plus, Wisk)
Also called enzyme cleaners, these detergents contain enzymes that "eat" protein stains, like grass, blood, and egg yolk. Apply directly to damp fabric, or dilute in water, and then soak clothes. Use cold water when treating blood stains. Wool and silk are proteins, so digestants should never be used on these fibers.
(cornstarch, talcum powder)
Sprinkle on fresh grease stains, wait 10 to 15 minutes, then scrape off. Then you can treat the stain.
A mild, clear-liquid dishwashing detergent is an effective all-purpose cleaner. Apply it straight, wait five minutes, then flush or dab with water.
Remove the color left behind by stains with mild bleaches, such as lemon juice, white vinegar (mixed 1:1 with water), 2 percent or 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, or ammonia (2 parts water to 1 part ammonia; do not use on wool or silk). Use a cotton swab to dab the bleach, or place paper towels under the fabric, and use an eyedropper to flush the area with the proper bleach. Chlorine bleach, diluted with water, is a last resort.
Effective at breaking down some stains and evaporates without leaving a residue.
For greasy stains, like tar. Air clothes after using.
Available at drugstores, it is particularly good for ballpoint ink.