Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.
There we were enjoying our Third Annual Flapjacks and Sixpacks tailgate before a Philadelphia Phillies pre-season game when it came time to head into the game. There was still some butter left, a lot actually, from spreading on our delicious pancakes. Lacking a cooler, I had the bright idea to place it in the front passenger seat. I took the windy chill in the air for granted and didn't realize how hot a car can get sitting on acres of asphalt. Upon returning to the car after the game I reached for the container....
The pressure built up from the melting butter released when I grabbed the container, bringing the entire contents of the plastic butter dish raining down on my cloth-upholstered car seat.
We quickly sopped up the melted butter with paper towels. Once I was home, I alternated applying and soaking the upholstery in Resolve carpet cleaner (it was all I had) and pressing with paper towels to sop up the cleaner. I continued this until the paper towels no longer became discolored.
That helped, but there's still an oily sheen and buttery odor on the seat. I've had baking soda on the seat for about an hour now and I'm about to vacuum it up. What other instructions do you have?
WOW. I just … WOW. I obviously hear a lot of strange and horrifying disaster stories in this line of work, but man, this one is up there with the semen-covered La-Z-Boy in terms of sheer shock value. (Oh, are you not familiar with the Jizzcliner? Please to step this way. Last Q.) I mean, I guess we're lucky the butter didn't end up in the AC vents or on the steering wheel or on the brake pads, right???
Usually when we deal with greasy spills on upholstery, the thing to do is to get cornstarch, talcum powder, or baking soda and make a mountain on the stain—those substances will suck up grease, which is sort of a fun thing to know about. Also the Resolve, that was a good thing to grab for! Anyway, that's why this guy is talking to me about vacuuming baking soda up off his car seats: When this thing happened to him, he tweeted at me asking how to get butter off a car seat. He did not, however, tell me that Mount Vesugheeus had erupted in his car. When it became clear that this wasn't your average "butter stain on the car seat" situation, I asked him to email me with more information as to what was going on in his vehicle.
I'm almost sorry I asked.
What we're dealing with here is highly unusual (I hope. Oh God, I really, really hope so.) which means that we need to bring in some big guns in the form of dry-cleaning solvents. Normally dry-cleaning solvents are my last resort, but the usual things for greasy stains are just not going to cut it given the extent of the buttering the car seat took. And actually! You should be excited. What you're about to get is a graduate-level seminar, Cleaning 404: Working With Terrifying Chemicals.
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First we need to get our hands on the stuff: Your best bet for buying dry-cleaning solvents is to order online; Home Depot doesn't carry anything, which is strange to me. Get it together, Home Depot! But Sears does carry some brands, so if there's a Sears near you, check that out. Also, local hardware stores are likely to have something. Right, but online is a sure thing.
A few brands to look for are Guardsman, Citrus Guardsman, K2R.
Since we're working with a harsh cleaning solution, the usual caveats apply: wear protective gloves; work in a well-ventilated area; test the product out on a small, unseen area of the fabric you're going to clean to be sure it's colorfast/doesn't disintegrate immediately upon contact with the solvent. Once you've determined that your seats aren't going to melt away, go ahead and put a small amount of your solvent on a clean rag—here, you'll want to use a white- or light-colored one so you don't run the risk of a dark-colored rag bleeding onto the upholstery and making things worse. Now blot at the stains.
I know you're going to be tempted to use a lot of solvent to speed things along, especially given the expanse of the buttering, but resist that urge. Dry-cleaning solvents actually work better when used sparingly. So resist, resist, resist! Once the stains are out, there's one last really important step: removing the solvent. If you don't completely remove the solvent it can leave a stain. Which obviously defeats the purpose. To get all the residual solvent out, go over the areas where you've used it with a clean, wet rag—again, white- or light-colored is the way to go. You'll need that rag to be somewhere between damp and sopping, by the way. You don't want to saturate the seats, but there does need to be enough water to remove the solvent.
OK! Go forth and clean, and then if the car still smells like butter and not like dry-cleaning solvents, grab an odor-eliminating goo thing like the Bad Air Sponge and stick it under the seat. Or you could get an activated charcoal thing, like one of these guys from Innofresh. (Does anyone remember the discount code for these babies? Right "JolieCleanperson"—that'll get you 10 percent off.) Also, try to drive with the windows open for a while, the nature of air flow being what it is.
I consider myself to be a reasonably clean grown-up, and as a reasonably clean grown-up I decided to treat myself to a set of white bath and hand towels about six months ago. Despite my best efforts (and the fact that I only ever dry myself off when I've just showered and am, one would hope, clean) all of these once-white towels are now a depressing shade of off-white. The same thing has also happened to my bed sheets. So far I've just been washing them with detergent and a tossed-in scoop of OxiClean — is there something I could be doing differently to make my white towels and sheets actually be white?
There are some things you can do differently, yes! Before we get into them though, let's talk for a moment about what might be causing your sheets and towels to turn gray. Maybe going forward we'll be able to head off some of these problems at the pass.
(1) The towels have build-up on them that isn't coming clean in the wash—that build-up could be anything from dead skin because you molt like a snake oh yes you do, to oils and residue from body washes, to excess laundry detergent, to fabric softener. With regard to that last one: don't use fabric softener on towels, ever. It leaves behind a coating that renders the towels less absorbent. Now you know that! Also, liquid fabric softener is the devil's own laundering tool so please burn it alongside some records during your next great casting out of evil.
(2) You have hard water.
(3) The washing machine you're using needs to be cleaned. If you've been using too much detergent or liquid fabric softener, there's likely a lot of build-up in the machine. As a result, sheets and towels may not lose all the soap residue during the rinse cycle, which can cause them to become dingy over time.
Before we get into what to do about those problems, let's first bring your towels back up to a baseline color we're all happy with. Then we can start you off fresh with a new laundering procedure designed to address whichever one(s) of those problems you may be having.
Generally, when it comes to laundry, I'm not the biggest advocate of bleach—we've talked before about protein stains and their reaction in the face of bleach, and your sheets especially are covered in proteinesque things like sweat. And other personal substances. But used infrequently in triage-type laundry situations, bleach is just fine. For this purpose, run your sheets and towels on the hottest water setting you can, with your regular amount of detergent. Actually, hold up here: don't use your "regular amount" because you are probably using way too much detergent. So adjust that down. Along with the reduced amount of detergent, add a half-cup of bleach to the wash. Once they've been washed and dried they should look much, much whiter.
Another thing you can do is to use Cascade—you know, the powdered stuff you put in your dishwasher. Cascade works REALLY well as a pre-soak, so fill up your (clean!) kitchen sink with hot hot hot water, dissolve a cup of the stuff, and then add your sheets and towels, sort of smooshing to submerge them. Let them soak for 30 or so minutes and then launder as usual, but quite not as usual because you're going to stop using so much detergent, right? Right.
OK! Now that we've gotten your towels and such back to white white white, let's hit those three possible causes we talked about at the start of this discussion.
(1) If the problem is that build-up is occurring, your best bet is to switch your laundry booster of choice from OxiClean to Borax. Borax will cut through all manner of build-up in a way that Oxi won't.
(2) If the problem is that you've got hard water, Borax will also help with that, as will adding a half-cup of white vinegar to the wash. You can also look for hard-water softeners like Calgon, Rain Drops, or Charlie's Soap Booster and Hard Water Treatment.
(3) If the problem is that you need to clean your washing machine, here are good instructions. One day one of you will specifically ask me how to clean a washing machine and I'll give you my own version of things, but for now I'm sharing the Apartment Therapy piece with you because there is a totally ridiculous commenter dustup following the post that I think you all might enjoy.
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A quick personal note before I leave you all for the weekend: Roseann Sdoia, who is the best friend of a friend of mine, was seriously injured in Monday's attack in Boston. Roseann's loved ones have set up a fundraising page to assist her recovery. If you are so inclined, even the smallest donation to Roseann will be so very much appreciated; if you are unable to donate money, please consider sharing her fundraising site on whatever social media platforms you might use. xoJK
Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, Spring 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks. You can find her "Ask A Clean Person" archives at The Hairpin.