We've all been there: Maybe you were applying mascara when a sudden case of the dropsies led the wand to fly directly onto your crisp white shirts. Or you threw a tube into a weekender only to discover that the cap wasn't screwed on properly—and now much of its contents are on your favorite jeans.
When mascara comes in contact with fabric, a stain inevitably results, but luckily that doesn't mean it's stuck that way forever. How you treat mascara stains has less to do with the formula of the mascara, since all mascaras are highly pigmented and contain emollients, and more to do with whether you can wash and dry the fabric or need to spot treat instead. Ahead, laundry expert Mary Marlowe Leverette and laundry product specialist Madeline Miller share tips for how to remove mascara from clothes, no matter the fabric.
Treat Most Mascara Stains Equally
Miller notes that the formula type of your mascara won't really affect the stain removal process, per se. The one exception to this rule is fiber-based formulas. "For fiber mascaras, it may be advisable to let the stain dry out a bit so you can more easily scrape away messy fiber residue before adding in your stain treatment," she says.
To scrape a mascara stain, Marlowe Leverette says to "use a dull edge, like the edge of a credit card or a table knife, to lift away any solids that are sitting on the surface of the fabric."
Use a Stain Solution or Bar to Lift Combination Stains
Miller says that mascara stains are classified as combination stains. "Combination stains may require different treatment because they contain a mix of emollients and pigments, like mascara and cream blushes or shadows," she says.
Stain bars and solutions are like highly concentrated versions of detergent, specially formulated to lift away color-rich stains. The benefit of using stain bars or solutions as opposed to regular detergent is the concentrated formula, designed to "really help to coax out discoloration before laundering," Miller explains. Another benefit, she says, is that stain bars and solutions can work on old and new stains alike, "so it’s okay to leave a makeup stain on fabric for a while if you can’t get to it immediately." Choose a product that's safe on all washable fabrics.
Miller suggests a dual-step spot treatment approach to lift away the pigmented oils present in the mascara stain. First, she recommends treatment with The Laundress's Wash & Stain Bar ($7), designed to attack the dye-rich, pigmented stain: "Work up a lather under warm water. Next, add a few drops of The Laundress’s specially-formulated Stain Solution ($19) into the mix." The stain solution works well to dissolve the oils in a combination stain. "Let stand for a few minutes, then either proceed with washing or blot away the residue with a damp cloth for a spot treatment," Miller tells us.
Marlowe Leverette likes Tide On the Go ($3) for small stains and enzyme-based stain removers like Shout's Wipe and Go Instant Stain Remover ($33) or Carbona Stain Devil ($17) for larger ones. She says a "dab of heavy-duty laundry detergent, like Persil ($22)," can effectively treat mascara stains as well.
Use a Stain Brush Before Laundering
Stain brushes are a fantastic way to help massage a stain bar or solution into fabric, putting the highly concentrated formula to work effectively without harming the weave of the fabric. Miller recommends choosing a stain brush with soft bristles designed to be used on all washable fabrics, including silk. Marlowe Leverette says to use stain brushes for a "light scrub" prior to laundering.
Use a Dull Knife to Scrape Away Product
If you get mascara on fabric that you can't launder, like upholstery or carpet, you can still spot-treat. "Spot-treating can also be a great method for use on the go when traveling," Miller says. "First, lightly scrape any excess dried product away with a dull knife or cardstock." After the dried mascara has lifted, "we recommend applying the appropriate stain remover per stain type," she adds. As noted above, work the stain out with a stain brush. "Once the stain has begun to lift from the fabric, rinse your brush or apply a bit of water to the fabric and start to lift out the lather and stain from the fabric with the brush or a dampened cloth," Miller tells us. She advises people to "water-test upholstery in an inconspicuous area before applying any stain remover to the fabric."
Marlowe Leverette notes that rubbing a mascara stain can make it worse and risks damaging the integrity of the fabric: "The mascara will smear, and rubbing works the stain deeper into the fabric." Instead of rubbing, Miller says to work the formula in "gently, using circular motions with a dampened stain brush or your fingers."
Use Color-Safe Bleach Alternatives
For tough mascara stains on durable fabrics like cotton or linen, Miller suggests boosting your stain treatment with a color-safe bleach alternative, but "skip this step for all silk, woolens, delicates, dry clean fabrics, and dark colors." Once you apply the color-safe bleach alternative to the fabric, work it in with a stain brush or your fingers to make sure it saturates the fabric. "Then, presoak the item by submerging it in a tub or sink filled with hot water for 15-20 minutes," she tells us. You can follow with a stain solution before laundering as usual.
Avoid Club Soda and Salt
While Miller notes club soda and salt can have stain-removing qualities, it's best to avoid this DIY treatment. "Neither is designed or tested for use on fabric, particularly fine fabrics like silk or lace," she says. "Be very cautious if dabbing a spill or small stain with water or club soda, as sometimes this can enlarge the stained area unintentionally. Depending on the dye process of your garment, salt can also lift dye or discolor fabric."
She notes that "stain removal isn’t always an exact science, so it’s best to stick to tried-and-true solutions that are specially formulated and dermatologist-tested to take the best care of your fabrics and your skin."
Launder the Item as Usual
It's important to note that spot treating or pre-treating a mascara stain is the first line of attack, and you should follow it by washing and drying the item as usual. "Ideally for most garments, we would recommend washing or soaking the item to help thoroughly rinse the stain from the fabric after your stain treatment," Miller says.
Do note that it's vital to make sure stains are completely dissolved after washing; "otherwise, repeat the stain removal process until they are before you proceed to drying, as dryer heat can set stains further into fabric," Miller tells us.
Use the Warmest Water Possible
"Laundering temperature is almost always dictated by fabric type," Miller says. "It’s typically advisable to use the warmest water a fabric can tolerate for removing any given stain for best results."
"When laundering cotton, linen, and durable synthetic fabrics, we recommend warm to hot water for white and light colors, and permanent press or cool water for rich colors and darks," she continues. "Delicates like wool, silk, lace, and 'dry clean' tagged synthetics should always be laundered in cool water and air-dried."
Use Caution When Treating Dry Clean Only Fabrics
According to Miller, using water or any kind of cleaning solution can harm fabric that's "dry clean only." She advises you "perform a water test on any 'dry clean' tagged items before washing." When taking the item to the dry cleaner, alert the cleaner of the stain.
If you need to conceal the stain before you can get to the dry cleaner, consider a fabric-safe DIY trick. "White or colored chalk can cover a mascara stain without harming the fabric until you can treat the stain," Marlowe Leverette advises.