I have heard about all sorts of treatments for removing red wine stains from tablecloths and clothing. The things I hear about most often are club soda and salt, but I’ve tried both without success. There must be a way that really works.
Many people have asked my expert advice on this profound scientific question. (For this I spent twenty years in school?)
But okay, here goes.
The moment a klutzy guest upsets a glass of red wine onto the hostess’s tablecloth, there inevitably arises a chorus of cries from all assembled: “Get some club soda!” “Pour white wine on it!” “Get vinegar!” “Cover it with salt!” All well-meaning but useless. As far as salt is concerned, its only value is to soak up the excess liquid by capillary action, which sand would accomplish just as well. But there shouldn’t be any excess liquid anyway if you have blotted the stain immediately, an essential first step in treating any stain.
As for the three touted liquids, club soda, white wine, and vinegar, the irony is that they are all acidic and may actually intensify the stain. Here’s why.
The pigments in grape skins, belonging to a family of food coloring chemicals known as anthocyanins, behave as acid-base indicators. That is, they are red in acidic media and pale purple in alkaline media. Adding an acidic liquid to the already acidic wine stain does nothing except perhaps to dilute the stain, which plain water would do.
I have always been suspicious of the club soda remedy, which is touted more highly than any other. I just couldn’t see any chemical reason for it to work, so I decided to test it. (The trouble with this world is that people go around telling other people what works for this or that, without anyone ever doing a careful experiment to see if it’s true.)
First, I treated a fresh wine stain on white cotton with plain carbonated water, or seltzer, known to chemists as carbonic acid. Being acidic, it did nothing to diminish the red color of the wine stain.
Then I tried the legendary club soda, which is carbonated water with a small amount of added sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and in some cases also a small amount of sodium citrate. Both of these chemicals reduce the acidity, but I found that the club soda was still slightly acidic and didn’t change the red color. It did zilch. So much for the many members of the Club Soda Club.
Well, what does work? A few years ago, researchers at the University of California, Davis, professor of enology (wine chemistry) Andrew L. Waterhouse and his student Natalie Ramirez, tested a variety of formulations, both commercial and homemade. Several commercial “wine stain remover” products failed miserably. But depending on the type of fabric and the age of the stain, generally good results were obtained with a 50-5o mixture of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and a certain brand of liquid dishwashing detergent.
There is no need to mix up such a concoction and keep it around for emergencies; it doesn’t keep well anyway. But the hydrogen peroxide in the Davis tests gave me an important clue, because peroxides are bleaches, although much less potent than chlorine bleach, which might remove not only the stain but all the color in the fabric as well. Peroxides are what the detergent makers call “color-safe bleaches.” They oxidize the colored chemicals to colorless forms.
I decided to test several new products containing sodium percarbonate, a so-called addition product of sodium carbonate (washing soda) with hydrogen peroxide, which have come onto the market since the Davis experiments were done. I found that they work miraculously well on red wine stains.
I tested three of the percarbonate products that were available in my supermarket: Oxi Clean, Clorox Oxygen Action, and Shout Oxy Power. I sprinkled them (they’re all white powders) on wine-stained white cotton, sprayed them liberally with water to wet the powders and let them sit for about ten minutes.
As I watched, the highly alkaline sodium carbonate turned the stains blue, and then the hydrogen peroxide took over and bleached the blue color out almost completely. (Shout Oxy Power worked somewhat faster than the others.) I then threw the fabrics into the washing machine, percarbonate and all, and washed them with detergent. Not a trace of stain was left in any of them!
So check the ingredient labels on cleaning products in the supermarket. If you see “sodium percarbonate,” buy it and keep it handy. It’s good for many other stain-removal jobs.
Save the club soda for your scotch.
A craven disclaimer: Stain removal can be challenging and not always predictable, depending on the exact nature of the staining substance, the age of the stain, and the type and color of the f abric. My tests were done on fresh merlot stains on plain white cotton. Never use any stain-removal technique, including the one above, without first testing it on an inconspicuous part of the tablecloth or garment.
Here’s how to remove a fresh red wine stain.
Be prepared. Keep a cleaning product containing sodium percarbonate in the kitchen—for example, Oxi Clean, Clorox Oxygen Action, or Shout Oxy Power. These are all white powders.
Follow these steps:
1. Pour wine. Serve dinner. Enjoy food, wine, and merriment.
2. Watch in silent horror as guest spills red wine on tablecloth.
3. Without delay, blot excess wine with paper towels while telling the culprit not to worry and imagining him burning in Hell.
4. Sprinkle white percarbonate powder onto stained area.
5. Spray liberally with water (from a mister) to make a paste.
6. Allow paste to stand for 10 minutes while making small talk and imagining culprit burning in Hell.
7. At first opportunity, take tablecloth to washing machine, percarbonate paste and all.
8. Launder tablecloth as usual with normal amount of detergent.
9. Go to confession for your wicked thoughts.