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This Is the Safest Way to Remove an Oil Stain

Stained clothing is no match for this foolproof trick.

When it comes to clothes, high-end can often mean high-maintenance. Even the smallest spot or stain can ruin a silk tie or your favorite cashmere sweater. However, if you're hoping to avoid a trip to the dry cleaner by using an at-home solution for removing oil stains, the safest product is actually cheap, easy to get your hands on, and surprisingly effective. The miracle product's name? Dawn dish soap.

Of course, the specific method you use depends on the type of fabric you're working with. But all fabrics share the same first step: blotting the oil stain while it's still fresh to remove as much liquid as possible. According to the Smithsonian Institute's guide to textiles, a stain "should never be rubbed because this can abrade or rip the fabric. Stain removal is sequential and repetitive, because removal involves taking off a percentage of a stain with each application." Be patient, and blot carefully to keep the stain isolated.

If you're working with a relatively sturdy fabric like cotton or linen, you can simply apply the dish soap to the affected area after blotting. "Using Dawn, lather gently between your fingers and allow it to set for a few minutes. Then rinse it out under cool water and air-dry," says Asheville, North Carolina-based textile specialist and designer Betsy Morrill. "Heat will set an oil stain and make it permanent, so you want to use cold water and avoid the dryer until you're positive that the stain is gone." After that, you can throw cotton items in the washing machine, as you normally would.

Cashmere, though having a much more finicky reputation, can actually be spot treated in a similar fashion, though you might want to be more conservative with how much soap you apply, and of course, skip the washing machine at the end.

Silk is the most delicate of the bunch, and needs a bit of special attention. Morrill recommends putting a clean terry cloth towel underneath the stain to help absorb the liquid while you blot. Apply a small amount of cornstarch to the stain and leave it to set for roughly two hours to draw the oil out. Brush it off gently using a soft brush or an unused part of your towel. If the stain is still visible after that, repeat this step. Then, using distilled water and a very small amount of Dawn, lather and rinse. "The main concern with silk," she says, "is that you don't want to leave a ring of residue around the stain in the process of cleaning it. So be sure to rinse thoroughly." Gently blot any excess water and lay it flat to air dry.

If you've already been taking these items in for dry cleaning, Morrill says you should probably continue dry cleaning them rather than trying to fix the problem at home. "The traces of chemical solvents can stay behind on the clothing and react with your homemade solutions, damaging the fabric," she adds. Otherwise, simply head out to the pharmacy and pick up some Dawn dish soap to save your favorite sweater. Of course, dish soap cleaning isn't the only economical way to build an ideal wardrobe—the 30 Best Ways to Save Money on Clothing will keep you well-dressed without emptying your wallet.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more