Our expert tips will get your favorite items looking as good as new.

By Blythe Copeland
May 20, 2020
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woman painting nails red nail polish
Credit: Glow Images Inc./Getty Images

Most at-home manicure mishaps—nails cut too short, rough cuticles, and smudging—are temporary, but spilling polish on your favorite piece of clothing can leave a permanent mark. Sidestep stains with these professional tips from clothing care expert Patric Richardson of The Laundry Evangelist, who details his foolproof techniques for removing nail polish stains from clothes.

Prepare your approach.

Before you start treating a stain, you should always test your cleaning technique and product on an inside seam to make sure it won't harm the fabric. "Delicate fabrics can usually withstand stain removers, but have trouble with scrubbing, so go gently," Richardson says. Most polish removals don't require any special equipment, but you should gather a few essentials to make the process go more smoothly. "The best tools are probably things you already have—laundry soap, cotton swabs, and nail polish remover. I also love horsehair brushes with soap—they get into the fibers without abrading the fabric."

Be gentle.

If you're dealing with a wet spill, start by removing any excess polish that hasn't soaked in. "Do not scrub the wet polish—you will push it deeper into the fabric, making it harder to remove," says Richardson. "Use something dull, like a business card or even a folded piece of paper, to gently lift as much as possible off of the fabric—you will see that a majority of the polish will come off."

To treat the remaining spot, soak a cotton swab with a stain fighter or an oily soap—Richardson likes Amodex ($20.18, walmart.com) for this job—and work it onto the stain from the outside edge toward the center. Replace the swab with a clean one as it picks up the color from the polish, or else you'll risk making the stain worse. "The color will bleed into the stain solution, so if you use too much the stain can spread, which is just more to remove," says Richardson. "After the stain solution has been worked into the stain, rinse thoroughly. The best way to do this is to run a small stream of tepid water straight through the stain from the faucet, trying to avoid spreading of the stain."

Use polish remover with care.

If stubborn marks remain after treating the stain with soap and water, it's time for something tougher. Put an old towel on the underside of the stain and use a cotton swab to dab on nail polish remover; the towel will absorb the polish color and stop the stain from spreading when the remover touches it. "Dab at the stain with the nail polish remover until it is gone, and then treat the stain with soap and water," says Richardson. "Change the piece of towel and the swab as they get too filled with color. "If you're using this technique, it's especially critical to test your polish remover in a hidden spot on your fabric before putting it on the stain. "In rare cases, fabrics contain acetate and acetone will dissolve that fiber," says Richardson. "Acetate is rare in modern fabrics but still shows up occasionally, and was very popular at one time, meaning that some vintage fabrics will have it for sure."

Tackle dry polish.

If you didn't notice your nail polish spill until it had already dried, it's not too late to salvage your fabric. "You often can remove dried nail polish with nail polish remover and then take out the residue with soap and water," says Richardson. "You might have to repeat the remover step a few times—and definitely test the fabric first." Whatever you do, don't rush to toss your item in the dryer.  "Don't use the dryer until you are sure the stain is out—it will be much harder to remove," Richardson adds.

Stay calm.

The best action you can take when you spot a polish stain on your clothes, says Richardson, is to stay calm. "Don't panic, take your time," he says. "When you panic you get too aggressive and this can cause you to make a mess by spreading the stain or rubbing the fabric too aggressively. Take a deep breath, and then start working. This is one stain that is easier when you are in control and use small precise movements."

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