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Stain removal made easy

October 29, 2008
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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Professional Carwashing & Detailing. If you would like to submit a tip or article idea for Professional Detailing e-News, please e-mail editor Kate Carr.

One of the most common problems we encounter with vehicles is the proper removal of soil and stains from automotive interiors. However, proper stain removal is a simple task with a little know-how and the proper cleaning supplies.

The first step in proper stain removal is to identify, if possible, exactly what caused the stain in the first place.

If possible, spills and stains should be treated immediately. The longer a spot remains, the more difficult it will be to remove.

First, start by removing solid built-up materials with a stiff dry brush or the edge of a dull knife. Then diagnose exactly what kind of stain you are dealing with.

Common stains
Protein stains: Baby food, milk, baby formula, mucous, blood, cheese sauce, mud, cream, pudding, egg, urine, feces, vomit, gelatin, white glue, school paste and ice cream.

Tannin stains: Alcoholic beverages, beer, berries (cranberries, raspberries, strawberries), coffee, cologne, felt-tip water color pen or washable ink, fruit juice (apple, grape, orange), soft drinks, tea and tomato juice.

Oil-based stains: Automotive oil, hair oil, bacon fat, hand lotion, butter/margarine, lard, automotive grease, mayonnaise, salad dressing, cooking fats and oils, suntan oil or lotion and face creams.

Dye stains: Cherry, blueberry, felt-tip pen (permanent ink may not come out), grass, India ink, Kool-aid, mercurochrome, mustard and tempera paint.

Now that we have identified what the stain is, we can take the necessary steps to remove it.

Oil: Most oil-based stains can be easily removed by treating the affected area with a safety solvent or solvent spotting agent that will dissolve the stain.

Simply treat the affected spot and allow it to penetrate. Scrub vigorously with a stiff brush and the stain will most likely dissipate.

Follow up by blotting with a clean, white towel and/or extraction with a hot water extractor.

Protein: I find with protein stains that we usually will attempt to extract as much of the stain as possible BEFORE treating the stain with our extractor using COLD water. If hot water is used first, the protein is “cooked,” causing coagulation between the fibers in the fabric, making the stains more difficult to remove.

After extraction, treat the stain with a protein spotting agent if possible (if not, use a mild all-purpose shampoo) and scrub vigorously. Extract using warm, not hot, water and repeat if necessary.

If the stain remains, allow the spotting agent to dwell for a longer period of time.

Tannin: Fresh tannin stains are usually removed by treating with a detergent cleaner and extracting with hot water. Use of soap (bar soap, soap flakes, or detergents containing natural soap) will make tannin stains permanent or at least more difficult to remove.

Dye: Dye stains are very difficult to remove, if they can be removed at all.

First, pre-treat the stain with a heavy-duty all purpose shampoo detergent, scrub vigorously, and then rinse thoroughly with your hot water extractor.

Stubborn stains
Stubborn stains, such as red dye, can sometimes be removed through use of specialty products, but there is no guarantee the stain can be removed (particularly on light colored carpets and fabrics).

In this case, I find it handy to have a working knowledge of the different options with respect to re-dyeing the area or entire carpet (which can be a very profitable up-sell).

My best advice is that if you encounter a stain that you don’t know how to handle – STOP. Do some research and try and find the proper solution rather than experimenting, which will most likely lead to problems.

Contact your local chemical supplier and ask about specialty stain removal products and training if possible.

Knowledge is your best friend and will make solving stubborn stains a breeze.

Scott Perkin is the owner of Scotty's Shine Shop in London, Ontario and has been involved in professional detailing for over 15 years. In 2004, Scott was named Detailing Person of the Year by

Professional Carwashing & Detailing® magazine. Scott can be reached at