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Embarrassing Stains? This Housekeeping Guide Gets That Life Is Messy

Jolie Kerr says when you have a fresh red wine stain, pouring table salt — no water — on it will suck it right up. "You can go pour some wine on your carpet tonight and try it out!" she says.
Jolie Kerr says when you have a fresh red wine stain, pouring table salt — no water — on it will suck it right up. "You can go pour some wine on your carpet tonight and try it out!" she says.

Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that if you have bloodstains on your clothes, you probably have bigger problems than your laundry. But Jolie Kerr is here to help with all the stains — her new book is titled My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag ... and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha.

Kerr is known for giving cleaning advice for unconventional and embarrassing housecleaning and laundry problems — without the judgment of the typical holier-than-thou housekeeping advice columnist.

"No one should be like me," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I don't want anyone to go out and start acting like me. I'm nuts. I just want to help people with the one or two things they want help with." Kerr also writes the column Ask A Clean Person, which originated on Jezebel and now appears on The Hairpin and Deadspin.

Interview Highlights

On what to do about your smelly, mildewy towels

Run those towels through the washing machine, hot water, no detergent and a cup of white vinegar. White vinegar is going to kill that mildew smell. The other thing that the white vinegar is going to do is it's going to help to remove the excess detergent and fabric softener from those towels. ...

What you're doing is you're using way too much laundry detergent when you're washing your towels. Everyone does this; I'm guilty of it, too. We think more detergent means more clean; that's not the case. What happens when you use too much detergent is that detergent doesn't fully get rinsed out. ...

Mildew loves two things: It needs a drink, and that's the water, the water that you've given it by drying yourself off with the towel, and it needs food. And the food that it loves the most is it loves soap, and it loves skin. So it's already got soap hanging around there in that towel, and then it's got skin because you've dried yourself off. ... And while it's been hanging up in your damp bathroom, it's just been having a grand ol' party, drinking and eating and being all mildewy, and that's why your towels smell.

On why you shouldn't use bleach for 'protein stains'

You don't want to use bleach on any kind of protein stain. My rule of thumb that I tell people is that generally speaking, if it comes out of you — so vomit, blood, saliva, anything that comes out of you, sweat is another example — those fall into the category of protein stains. Oftentimes what happens with bleach when it comes in contact with a protein stain is that it can render that stain more yellow rather than taking it out.

You don't want to just put your stain treatments into the wash cycle. You actually want to apply them right to the stain and then let them work a little bit before laundering the item. That's going to give you the best results.

On underarm stains on cotton shirts

Yes, it's the sweat that's causing that yellow stain, but the other thing is the deodorant we're wearing, the antiperspirant that we're wearing, is causing those yellow stains. That's in part because the aluminum that's in that antiperspirant and deodorant is reacting with the protein in our sweat and also the protein that's naturally in many of our clothes — the fibers, particularly in cotton shirts, have a protein element. ... So basically what you're getting is a perfect storm of chemical reactions going on with the deodorant, the shirt and the sweat. Again, always [use] an enzymatic cleaner, never bleach. Bleach is going to make things a whole lot worse. ...

[Pre-soak] those shirts in some warm water and whatever enzymatic cleaner you're using, give 'em a good long soak if they're really bad. [That] will go a long way in getting those stains out. The other thing you can use is an old toothbrush ... or a laundry brush, will help to really [get] those stains out, so rubbing the pits of those shirts will help to lift a lot of the staining.

On using a science class volcano to clear a slow drain

Commercial drain clearers can be very, very hard on your pipes. ... It is incredibly important to know what kind of drains you have — if you have metal drains or if you have PVC — because you can cause a huge amount of damage if you use the wrong kind of product for your drain type.

One way to avoid all of that is to use a very natural, totally safe and very, very fun method for clearing a slow drain. ... This is probably not going to work when you've gotten to the point of a fully backed-up drain; this is for the slow drain and also for drain maintenance in general. It's a combination of baking soda and white vinegar and that is going to produce the very fun volcano effect. ...

When a lot of us were in grammar school, our science classes would have us do the baking soda and vinegar volcano. ... A good sprinkle [of baking soda] ... maybe four or five good sprinkles and then just pour maybe a half cup to a cup of white vinegar. I eyeball it. Then just let that work and run down the drain for a little bit. ... About five, 10 minutes later go in and just run hot water down, push it all the way through the drain to help clear things out.

On cleaning up cat urine

You want to treat [urine] with an enzyme. That's going to neutralize both the odor and any staining. Nature's Miracle, I think, is probably the best product out there. It's the one I hear from cat owners works the best, the one they tend to go to. ... One important thing ... is not to use white vinegar. You want to be careful not to use anything that has white vinegar in it and also anything that's ammonia-based. Both of those things are going to smell to a cat like urine and like they've marked the spot where you've cleaned and then they're going to keep returning to that and they're going to keep peeing on it.

On the many uses for denture tablets

They're great as a jewelry cleaner. ... Denture cleaners are also awesome for vases when they have maybe had a bouquet of flowers in them a little too long and that kind of gross scum develops. ... You can just drop them in and the fizzing will do the scrubbing for you. They're fantastic on stained Tupperware.

On seltzer treatment for stains: truth or myth?

It works for sure! ... It can work for basically any stain and the reason that it works really is that because you're getting to it immediately with some water. It's not so much that seltzer is so totally magic. The difference that seltzer has that flat water doesn't have is that it has some sodium in it. Sodium is a pretty good stain-killer. ... Salt is the go-to when you have a red wine stain. When you have a red wine stain, pouring a whole bunch of table salt on it will suck it right up. It has to be a fresh stain. ... Just plain table salt [no water]. ... You can go pour some wine on your carpet tonight and try it out!

During our interview Kerr also explained how to clean stains on the sheets, rust in the shower and gunk in the refrigerator. To learn more, click the "Listen" link at the top of this page.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.