Getting Stains out of Thrift Store Finds

Many an article on thrifting advice will advise you to skip the stained, torn, snagged, or otherwise damaged thrift find. In some ways, this makes sense – you shouldn’t let thrift prices (“But it’s so cheap!”) lure you into buying something that is poor quality or damaged beyond repair.

But stains, tears, and snags are often fixable. Can you sew by hand? Great, you can fix that hole in the armpit or along the side seam. Got a crochet hook (or a bobby pin or a tapestry needle)? Great, you can fix the snag in that sweater. Have a box of powdered oxygen bleach? Buh-bye, stains.

Which is what I’m going to show you today.

I present to you this lovely Y-neck tunic by Atmosphere:


It’s made out of the kind of high quality polyester that’s a decent dupe for silk; it drapes well; and it’s a good polished but not uncomfortable blouse for Sunday mornings (aka work).

It came with some sort of coffee-like stain on the hem, front and back:

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(It’s a little hard to see; one day I’ll learn to take close ups of stains before I fix them.) I figured someone had spilled on it, washed it, and then donated it when the stain didn’t come out of that first wash.

The Goodwill cashier very thoughtfully pointed out the stain to me and asked if I was sure I wanted to buy it; when I said yes, she replied, “Well, we do have a 7 day return policy if it doesn’t come out.”

O ye of little faith!

Actually, I didn’t know if it would come out, but I figured $6 + the possibility of a return were good odds.

I dumped a little powdered oxygen bleach (I have this brand – not an affiliate link) in a bucket I keep for soaking stained stuff (great for baby/toddler stains!) and added some lukewarm water to dissolve it. Then I stuck the offending hems into the water, draped the rest of the shirt over the side of the bucket, stuck it on top of the washing machine where my kid couldn’t tip it over, and let it sit overnight.

The next morning I checked to see if the stains had disappeared – they had! – and then stuck the shirt in a regular load of wash, taking it out to hang dry as soon as the cycle stopped.

Et voilà:


No more coffee stains!

Lest you think this was a fluke, there were also the white shorts that I thrifted knowing they had period stains on them (yes, yes, you may throw up in your mouth a little if that skeeves you out). I applied a paste made of the above-mentioned oxygen bleach + water and let sit overnight, then scrubbed out with an old toothbrush and water. I did that a few times as the stain got fainter; I also let it soak just like I did this blouse and I think that worked better than the paste. Just soak/wash/air dry/repeat until the stain has faded away completely. Hanging to dry in the sun also helps.

Here they are, clean as new:


I can’t say this will work on any/all stained thrift finds; I’m sure some items get donated because their previous owner has already tried EVERYTHING, to no avail. But if $6 of your money is worth the possibility of ending up with an unstained, new-to-you piece you love, give it a try. Especially if there’s a return policy. :)
What minor mishaps have you successfully fixed – and what kinds of defects are you willing to thrift?

9 thoughts on “Getting Stains out of Thrift Store Finds

  1. Snags in sweaters, fixed. Tears along the seam line, fixed. Most stains, fixed. Holes on denim, fixed with fun patches.

    However, frayed fabric, no. Missing large button, no (replacing all large buttons is sort of expensive). Holes on delicate fabric, nope.

    And finally, faded armpit stains on dark fabric is kind of mixed, yes on re-dying natural fabric if the armpit is REALLY clean with no residue left, no on re-dying fabric with synthetic fibers in it.

    My favorite part of this post is the reassurance that older clothes still have life in them. We don’t have to condemn them to landfills. Thanks for posting!

    1. Amen!! I’m glad that message came through loud and clear. I think culturally we’ve lost both the know-how and the attitude to fix broken things, and fast fashion makes it affordable to just chuck stuff in less-than-perfect condition. I’m glad we’re together in a mission to salvage things that deserve another chance!

  2. Leah, I thrifted a light beige suede jacket and was so excited to find it I didn’t examine it carefully. When I got home, I noticed stains on the underside of the sleeve that looked like rust! In turn, I used a combination of a liquid stain remover and a solid stick stain remover — several times with water and a gentle rubbing with an old toothbrush. Gradually, the stains faded and WENT AWAY!

    Another favorite technique I use for stain removal (due to a frequently messy hubby!) is regular, ordinary dish detergent which takes out almost ANY food/grease type stain LIKE MAGIC! Simply apply a little detergent to stain, rub into fabric and throw the garment into the washer. Sometimes a second treatment is needed but once is usually enough!

    1. High fives for that suede stain removal! I would have been too scared to mess with it but thanks to you I’ve got another tool in my stain-removal arsenal. And dish soap! That stuff is magical. So glad to know that trick, too. Thanks for sharing, Carol!

  3. Thanks for the tips on removing stains (from you and your readers).
    I agree that easy fixes shouldn’t keep you from purchasing thrift finds.
    I’ve bought items with snags, identifiable stains, popped seams (as long as they weren’t also frayed), and way too much bling (sequins or metal pieces) with the intention of fixing them and been mostly successful. I’ve even bought ones with missing buttons or that needed minor alterations as long as the price was good enough for the quality and usefulness of the item.
    Non-mild hand soap (for mud), hair spray (for ink), the above mentioned dishwashing liquid, and various store bought stain removal products (some of which they don’t make any more) have saved many of my families clothes including a few thrift finds.

    1. Glad they were helpful, Lucinda! Come to think of it, I’ve de-blinged/de-buttoned a few things myself. Paying $3-5 for something gives me permission to play around with it; even if I don’t like the result, as long as I’m careful and didn’t wreck the garment I can just re-donate it.
      Rubbing alcohol works for ink stains, too! Good to know about the stronger hand soap for mud. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Couple more tricks for the arsenal:
    Goop brand handcleaner comes in a little tub, usually found in cleaning supplies in hardware stores or automotive section in general merchandise stores. Excellent for degreasing, be it cooking oil or mechanical goo– even if it’s been through a wash cycle. It’s that stain where the fabric has a uniformly darker, “soaked” appearance. Rub the Goop in over the stain and a good margin, let it sit, wash.
    K2R spray for ink, Sharpy, tar. Hard to find and need to use carefully, but it’s a last resort sort of cleaner.
    Biz powder is another miracle worker on yellowed whites and mystery stains that show up on stored items, especially kids’. Dissolve in warm water, soak overnight.
    Re blood– never use hot water, it sets the stain. Cool water soak with a few drops of dish detergent does wonders. Depending on what container you soak it in, you can actually see the iron in it precipitate out. Then there re are iron and rust removers–I think oxalic acid? pretty serious stuff, smells awful!
    Finally, re buttons– they’re not expensive coming from another thrifted item, especially if you find them on 99 cent items or via bag sales! Try to take from a similar garment to match up with size and number– eg blouse, cardigan, coat. What you do with the guilt over stripping a garment of its buttons is up to you! I try to only cannibalize items that are horribly dated/ugly/damaged–then use the fabric for rags. Also works to build up your button stash–items so far gone I can’t donate I take off the buttons before putting in the rag bin, and I may have purchased a garment or two– or more– solely for its buttons!

    1. Great raft of tips, Ursula! Thanks for sharing. I love the idea of thrifting buttons you love from another item and that you mentioned the guilt of taking them off – it’s totally something I would wrestle with, even though I’m fine cannibalizing jewelry for parts I want. :)

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