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Never Let Them See Their Sweat

Norm Oehlke |

Ever hear this comment from a customer? "That underarm stain wasn't there when I dropped it off — you must have put that stain on my clothes." Lots of people don't think they perspire and are reluctant to admit that they're the source of their own underarm stain.
Rather than arguing with the customer about the source of the stain, remove it before they see it. Customers believe that stain removal is part of drycleaning, and they're right — there should be no excuses. Returning a garment with a stain usually results in the loss of a customer, and if the next drycleaner removes a stain that you left, he's the hero and you're the goat.
Good stain removal begins at the front counter. Inspect each garment, if possible, in the presence of the customer. Be sure to check underarms, including the linings of sportscoats and jackets. Even with careful inspection, however, you may not see a perspiration stain. These stains are often invisible when fresh, and "develop" with age and heat, or in the heat of the drycleaning process. If you notice any stains at the counter, make sure that the garment goes directly to the spotter with a stain tag attached.
Perspiration stains are easier to remove before drycleaning. If you need proof, spot only one underarm area before cleaning; note the results after the load and how difficult removal is on the unspotted underarm. It may take a few seconds to prespot an underarm, but consider how much longer it takes to remove the spot after cleaning. The fact that prespotting helps avoid rings is enough to make the effort worthwhile.
What is perspiration? It's 99% water; the rest is comprised of various salts, urea and fatty substances. That 1% is the more difficult to remove, and because it's mainly water, drycleaning alone won't remove perspiration stains completely — one must add moisture for good stain removal.
Stain Removal. When fresh, spotters usually remove perspiration with the addition of a little wetting agent such as neutral synthetic detergent (NSD) and a thorough flushing with the steam gun. Older, set stains may require a protein remover or ammonia agent and tamping before flushing; the procedure may need to be repeated.
Once a stain has been in the fabric for several weeks or more, it starts to set. Atmospheric exposure alone will causes considerable oxidization of perspiration's ingredients and make stains difficult to remove. Yellowing indicates that the stain has aged and oxidized, and it will require more time and chemicals for complete removal.
In cases of severe aging and oxidization, only bleach will provide complete removal. An oxidizing bleach is a good choice; use only 3% hydrogen peroxide on silk and wool items. It is slow-acting and often requires several minutes for effective removal. You can try small amounts of chlorine bleach on other fibers.
Flush perspiration stains well with steam to remove all other chemicals before applying bleach. If you're using hydrogen peroxide, hang the garment aside for 10 to 15 minutes to allow it to work. If this doesn't remove the stain completely, add more bleach and fog the area lightly with the steam gun; heat accelerates bleach's action. Prolonged contact with peroxide almost always removes perspiration stains — even old perspiration stains.
Fresh perspiration is acidic in nature, but turns alkaline when aged. These stains are often left on fabrics for some time before a drycleaner gets the opportunity to remove them. As a result, acid and alkaline color changes can occur on the fabrics.
Acid color changes such as a blue acetate dye turning red can develop from prolonged contact with perspiration. You may be able to correct such color changes if the stain is fresh by flushing the area well with steam, adding a protein remover or ammonia, and flushing with steam again. Prolonged contact with acidic perspiration usually results in a permanent color change.
You can often find alkaline color changes in the linings of suit jackets. They develop when the customer puts a sweat-stained garment in the closet without having it cleaned first; consumers often discover these stains when taking garments out of winter or summer storage. To treat an alkaline color change, flush the area well with the steam gun, add 28° acetic acid or any tannin remover, and flush again.
Certain dyes are very sensitive and undergo rapid color changes to acid and alkaline agents. A digester can be effective on perspiration stains and help avoid color changes on acid- or alkaline-sensitive dyes.
Sometimes, perspiration stains feature a heavy salt ring at their outer edges. Salts are hydroscopic, meaning they pick up moisture from the atmosphere. This keeps them moist and produces the white ring. Unless you can remove all salts, the stain will reappear; it will require lots of water to dissolve and flush out. A few drops of NSD may help.
Drycleaning alone will do little to remove the salts — repeated treatments with a wet-side agent (steam) is the best procedure for removal. Acids, alkalis, bleaches and dry-side agents won't help remove a salt stain either, and you must remove it to keep it from reappearing. This may occur after the customer takes the garment home and stores it in a closet for weeks or months.
When the customer puts that garment on again, don't give them any reason to blame you for their own perspiration. Remove all perspiration stains the first time, whether they're obvious or not.

About the author

Norm Oehlke

Retired Columnist

Norm Oehlke was the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Tips column from 1996 through 2007, as well as the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Guide. Now retired, he spent a lifetime in the industry — first in a plant, and from 1955 through 1995 at IFI and its predecessor, NID. He resides with his wife, Adeline, in Highland, Md.

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