You Can Remove Tannin Stains

Martin L. Young Jr. |

She went through her incoming bundle with a purpose. Then she found it: a beige silk blouse with a harsh red stain on the right cuff and sleeve.
The stain was dry and starting to darken on the edges. She said it was two days old, but it was probably closer to 10. She said it was a 1998 California burgundy. Red wine on silk — a challenge for any cleaner.
This is a classic tannin stain. Tannin stains come from plants; coffee, tea, mustard and wine are good examples. It takes an acidic spotter to break down a tannin stain.
Before premixed spotting agents were available, an experienced spotter would mix distilled water, glycerin and acetic acid to make a tannin remover. Today, there are likely more chemical tools at your disposal for tannins than any other group of wet-side stains.
Tannin stains are some of the most difficult to remove, but with patience and knowledge, you can eliminate them with little risk to the garment. Go slowly; if there’s any doubt about the composition of a wet-side stain, start with a tannin formula. Putting protein formula on a tannin stain makes it hard to remove, and may set it for good.
Begin by flushing the area with steam. Apply neutral synthetic detergent (NSD) and apply light mechanical action. Flush the area with steam a second time. This procedure will remove a portion of the stain with little risk to the garment, and make further stain removal easier and safer.
At this point, consider the fiber, construction and dye stability of the garment. Test chemicals on an unexposed area before proceeding with each further step in the stain-removal process. Recklessness will cost you your reputation and eventually result in a claim.
A mild tannin solution should be the next step. Apply a drop or two, followed by light tamping over the solid portion of the board. Move the area to the nose of the board and flush it with steam. Pull it back to the solid surface and inspect the results. If the stain is still visible, proceed to a stronger chemical.
Lower pH is what makes a tannin remover more aggressive on stains, but it also makes it more aggressive on the surrounding dyes. Each step away from neutral (pH 7.0) in either direction is a move to a stronger chemical.
Test the fabric. If a color change results, flush the area with steam and apply a protein formula. In most cases, the three steps outlined above will remove a tannin stain. Try a more aggressive approach when the previous procedures only remove part of the stain. For hard-to-remove stains, the risk increases only slightly. This is where those spotting seminars and hours of networking will pay dividends. The important thing is to test the chemical on an unexposed area before any aggressive stain removal procedure.
Keep an aggressive tannin formula nearby, but store it in a location that requires a conscious (but simple) movement to access it. All of the aggressive chemicals — particularly bleaches — should be stored off the board, in a location that requires you to think before you reach. This will prevent you from grabbing the wrong agent when you’re fighting a stubborn stain.
A more aggressive chemical — a “bigger hammer” — should be used only after following the standard wet-side tannin protocol. Put a drop or two of a more aggressive tannin remover on the stained area and apply mild mechanical action. Tread lightly; let the chemical do the work. Flush the area with steam and check the results.
To continue, place a drop or two of 14% acetic acid on the stained area and apply mild mechanical action. Again, flush with steam and evaluate the results. If a portion of the stain remains, you must decide if you can improve stain removal with even more aggressive procedures — that is, if the fabric and dyes will withstand a lower PH and additional mechanical action.
There are two additional chemical tools available for attacking tannin stains: general formula and rust remover. You can use these two chemicals in the same way you would the previous two, and in this order. By this point, the garment has withstood repeated mild mechanical action, so your primary concern should be how the dyes react to the lower pH.
General formula is useful and effective, but many cleaners stop short of using it. It can be bought premixed and is a great tool. In rust removers, I prefer oxolic acid to the much more aggressive hydrofluoric acid.
Opinion differs on the last chemical tool available; some spotters have a fear of bleach, and others use it after a single attempt with another chemical. Bleaches can perform excellently on the last traces of mustard, blood, ink and other stains.
The only bleach that should be used on protein fibers (those originating from an animal) is hydrogen peroxide; the 3% product from the drug store will be fine. Apply it with a cotton swab, set it aside for a few minutes, and flush the area with steam.
A highly activated and refined sodium perborate is also a good tool to have available for nonprotein fabrics; keep it in a saltshaker near the board. Flush the area with steam, shake a small amount of sodium perborate onto the fabric and apply a drop or two of NSD to moisten the powder.
Now, “melt” the powder with the steam gun by using just enough pressure on the steam pedal to have a wisp or curl of steam roll off the nose of the gun. Then, neutralize the area with a few drops of acetic acid and flush the area with steam.
Learn to use your tools. Just because you own a hammer and saw, as the saying goes, doesn’t make you a carpenter.

About the author

Martin L. Young Jr.

Industry Consultant and Trainer

Martin L. Young Jr. has been an industry consultant and trainer for 20 years, and a member of various stakeholder groups on environmental issues. He is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Launderers & Cleaners (NCALC). He grew up in his parents’ plant in Concord, N.C., Young Cleaners, which he operates to this day. Contact him by phone at 704-786-3011, or via e-mail at


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