It has happened to each and every one of us – you come across an ugly stain at your home and you start wondering how best to remove it without damaging the fabric or surface it is on. Stain removal is an indelible part of home cleaning – let’s face it, you can’t prevent stains and spills from happening. What you can do is address the stains as quickly as possible with a proper stain remover.
Stain removers can be a few different types – surfactants, solvents and enzymes – and work in a few different ways. Here are the four basic mechanisms that stain removal products use. Note that one product may employ more than one of these techniques to remove a stain.
1. Dissolving Stains
The agents present in stain removal products which dissolve stains are called solvents. Any fluid which can dissolve other chemicals is called a solvent. For instance, water can dissolve substances such as sugar and salt, but is not good at dissolving butter or oil. Hence, different stains call for different solvents. Many solvents are alcohol based, as alcohol can dissolve both oil-based and water-based stains quite well. Solvents of the hydrocarbon type, like gasoline, can be applied on certain stains in order to dissolve them too.
The rule of thumb here is: like dissolves like. That means that the solvent you use should be similar in chemical characteristics as the stain you use it on. Water-based stains are best treated with water-based solvents, such as soapy water or club soda, whereas oil-based stains can be dissolved with rubbing alcohol. Use this rule in your house cleaning in you’ll prevent further setting of the stain caused by applying the wrong product.
2. Emulsifying Stains
Another technique used to remove stains is emulsification. Surfactants or emulsifiers are included in the contents of many stain removers and dishwashing detergents. The way emulsifiers work is by coating the stain and lifting it off the surface. Surfactants, on the other hand, increase materials’ wettability which makes it much easier for the home cleaning product to contact and lift off the stain.
The best example of a surfactant is soap; sulfonates are also commonly used surfactants. These chemicals can remove both oily and watery stains and work on a molecular level. Their molecules consist of parts that attach themselves to both water and grease, encompass the stain and easily lift it off.
3. Digesting Stains
Enzymes and other proteins are often used in domestic cleaning products and especially stain removers and they work by breaking the stain molecules apart. The enzymes contained in some stain removers digest the fats and proteins in stains much like the enzymes in your body digest food. Enzyme-based products are very effective on chocolate and blood stains, for instance. They break the chemical bonds that exist within stain molecules thus helping break the stain apart. Oxidisers are used for breaking apart coloured molecules, which makes them a good product for lifting off coloured stains. Oxidisers commonly used in domestic cleaning include chlorine bleach, peroxide and borax.
4. Hiding Stains
The final method used to treat stains is by hiding them. Whiteners are commonly used for that purpose and can be found in many stain removal products. These chemicals may not have any cleaning power; however they can render stains invisible or less conspicuous. Bleaches, for instance, oxidise coloured molecules which makes them appear lighter in colour and less visible. Some whiteners work by reflecting black light, thus covering stains or making them less noticeable.
As you can see, stain removers use different techniques to lift off the stains or hide them. More often than not, products employ more than one of these techniques in order to increase the effectiveness of the treatment. Some products work in stages to address the different parts of the stains with a different technique. Now that you know how stain removers work, use this knowledge in your house cleaning practices and you will achieve much better results in getting rid of stains.