Confronting Summertime Food Stains

July 06, 2023

When the summer season arrives, it brings with it a variety of outdoor activities and events that often involve food. Whether it’s a picnic in the park, a barbecue at the beach, or a backyard cookout, summertime is the perfect time to indulge in delicious meals and snacks. However, enjoying these food-filled gatherings can sometimes result in inevitable food stains on clothing and other surfaces. From ketchup and mustard smears to ice cream drips and BBQ sauce splatters, summertime food stains can be challenging to remove if not addressed promptly. However, with the right cleaning methods and a little bit of patience, these stains can be removed. 

To effectively remove stains, we need to understand the characteristics of different types of stains and a good knowledge of fabrics, as different materials may react differently to certain stain treatments. Using the wrong treatment can potentially damage the fabric or set the stain deeper, making it even more difficult to remove. 

Types of Food Stains 

Food stains can be categorized into three primary types based on their composition and origin: tannin stains, oil/grease stains, and protein-based stains. Interestingly, some of the delectable summer foods we enjoy can actually combine these different types of stains. For instance, a juicy watermelon slice may leave behind tannin stains due to its vibrant red flesh, while also leaving a sticky residue from its natural sugars. Similarly, barbecues and grilled foods often involve the use of oils and fats, which can result in oil/grease stains on clothing or patio furniture. Additionally, protein-based stains may occur from enjoying grilled meats or indulging in dairy-based desserts like ice cream.  

By identifying the specific stain type, appropriate cleaning methods and products can be employed to restore fabrics and surfaces to their pristine condition, ensuring that our favorite summer foods leave behind only cherished memories, not stubborn stains. 

Tannin Stains 

Tannin stains are commonly caused by the consumption of various beverages and foods. These stains can result from the consumption of beverages such as wine, beer, and fruit juices, as well as the consumption of foods like tomato sauce and chocolate. Their color can range from a deep red or brown to a dark purple, depending on the specific source of the tannins. Tannin stains can be particularly troublesome on fabrics, carpets, and upholstery, as they can penetrate deep into the fibers and become embedded. Therefore, prompt and effective stain removal methods are necessary to prevent permanent discoloration and keep surfaces looking clean and presentable. 

To treat tannin stains, start by using a clean cloth or paper towel to gently blot and remove any excess liquid from the affected area. Take care not to rub the stain, as this can spread it further. Next, prepare a solution of mild detergent and warm water. Ensure that the water is not too hot, as this can potentially set the stain. Mix the detergent and water together until it forms a soapy solution. Dip a clean cloth or sponge into the soapy solution and gently apply it to the stained area. Gently scrub the fabric in a circular motion, working the detergent into the stain. Take care not to be too forceful, as this can damage the fabric.   

Once the stain has been thoroughly treated, rinse the cloth or sponge with clean water to remove any excess detergent. Gently dab the fabric with the damp cloth or sponge to remove the soap residue. Finally, allow the fabric to air dry naturally. Avoid using any heat sources such as hair dryers or heaters, as these can cause shrinkage or damage to the material. If the stain persists after this treatment, it may be necessary to repeat the process or seek professional cleaning assistance. 

people drinking red wine

Oil or grease-based stains 

Oil or grease-based stains are commonly caused by substances such as cooking oils, salad dressings, and meat products. These stains can easily occur during food preparation or consumption and can leave unsightly marks on various surfaces. Cooking oils, which include vegetable, canola, and olive oils, are particularly prone to causing stains due to their greasy nature. Similarly, salad dressings that contain oil-based ingredients like mayonnaise or vinaigrette can also leave stubborn stains if spilled or splattered. Additionally, meats, especially fatty cuts, can release greasy substances that may lead to staining if not promptly addressed. Whether it’s on clothing, furniture, or kitchen countertops, oil or grease-based stains can be quite challenging to remove, often requiring specific cleaning methods and products. 

To treat a stain caused by excess grease, start by blotting the affected area gently with a clean cloth or paper towel. This will help absorb any excess grease and prevent it from spreading further. Next, dampen a clean cloth or sponge with water and gently dab the stained area. Be careful not to rub the stain, as this may push it deeper into the fabric. The water will help to dilute the grease and make it easier to remove.   

After dabbing with water, apply a commercial pre-treatment product specifically designed for removing grease stains. Follow the instructions provided on the product label, as different pre-treatments may have specific application techniques and recommended waiting times. Allow the pre-treatment to sit on the stain for the recommended duration, which is usually a few minutes. This will allow the product to penetrate and break down the grease, making it easier to remove during laundering.   

Finally, launder the garment as per the care instructions, using the recommended water temperature and detergent. Ensure to check the care label on the garment for any specific instructions or limitations. Wash the stained item separately or with similar fabrics to avoid transferring any remaining grease or stain to other clothes.   

Once the laundering process is complete, check the stained area to see if the grease stain has been fully removed. If it persists, repeat the treatment process outlined above or consider seeking professional cleaning assistance. 

woman eating hotdog

Protein-based stains 

Protein-based stains are those that are caused by substances that contain proteins. Examples of such stains include milk, cheese, and eggs. These stains occur when these protein-rich substances come into contact with surfaces such as fabric or furniture. Protein stains can be particularly stubborn and challenging to remove, as proteins have a tendency to bind strongly to the materials they come in contact with. Therefore, it is important to address these stains promptly and with appropriate stain-removal techniques to prevent them from setting in and becoming more difficult to remove. 

To treat the affected area, start by gently dabbing the excess fluid using a dry sponge. Be careful not to rub or scrub the stain, as this may cause it to spread or become embedded further into the fabric. After removing the excess fluid, rinse the stained area with cold water. This helps to dilute and remove any remaining residue.  

Next, choose a detergent that specifically contains enzymes. Enzymes are effective in breaking down and removing organic stains, such as food or bodily fluids. Follow the instructions on the detergent packaging for the appropriate amount to use.  

Apply the detergent directly to the stained area and gently work it into the fabric using a soft brush or your fingertips. Allow the detergent to sit on the stain for a few minutes to allow the enzymes to work effectively.  

After the designated time, rinse the treated area thoroughly with cold water to remove the detergent and any loosened particles. Check the stain to see if it has been completely removed. If not, repeat the process or consider using a stain remover specifically designed for the type of stain you are dealing with.  

Finally, once the stain has been successfully removed, launder the garment as per the care instructions provided. This ensures that any remaining traces of the stain, detergent, or treatment solution are completely eliminated, leaving your fabric fresh and clean. 

child eating icecream

Treatment of Stains from Our Favorite Foods 

How do those stain types apply to your favorite foods? 

Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, & Steaks 

The sizzling fats and juices from burgers, hot dogs, and steaks tend to splatter and leave stubborn marks on tablecloths, clothing, or any surface unlucky enough to come into contact with them. These are classic grease stains and must be treated promptly as described above. 

French Fries 

To remove a grease stain caused by French fries, treat it promptly and effectively using the method described above for grease stains.  

pizza and soft drinks


Pizza stains are often caused by a combination of tannin, grease, and protein, which can make them particularly stubborn to remove. To effectively tackle pizza stains, it is recommended to start by treating the affected area with a mild detergent. This gentle cleaning agent is capable of breaking down the various components of the stain without causing damage to the material. By using a mild detergent, you can dissolve the grease, remove the protein residue, and break down the tannin pigments, thereby effectively eliminating the pizza stain. 

Ice Cream & Popsicles 

In addition to its protein content, certain flavors of ice cream, such as chocolate and coffee, also contain tannin.  

Alcoholic Beverages 

Beer and wine stains should be treated as tannin stains.  

Get Help from a Trusted Dry Cleaner 

Are you tired of dealing with stubborn food stains on your clothes? Look no further than Utopia Cleaners to take care of all your laundry needs! We are a professional laundry and dry cleaning service that specializes in removing even the toughest stains from your garments.  Say goodbye to food stains and hello to pristine garments. Contact us today to schedule your free drop off or visit one of our convenient locations. 


Image credits: Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash ; Photo by Frederick Medina on Unsplash

This post was updated on July 6, 2023.