Ask Dr. Pete: On "Permastank" and Tips for Chronic Spillers

Illustration of Dr. Pete He

Dr. Pete is back!

A product inventor, innovator, and sustainability expert, he’s the brains behind our Bio Laundry Detergent and was a founding member of The Sustainability Consortium. Back in August, he filled us in on his background and the crossover between chemistry and sustainability. This month he’s here to help, answering everyday questions for chronic spillers and how to get rid of “permastank,” plus why it happens in the first place.


Read on for more. 


My boyfriend spills on himself almost every day and I’ve noticed that wine stains are difficult to remove but balsamic vinegar seems to come out easily. Why is that?

Red wine spilled over glass.
It’s true — the key ingredient in vinegar is acetic acid, which is easily water soluble, even at low temperatures. So rinsing with water or adding a small amount of liquid laundry detergent or dish soap should remove vinegar stains without a problem. Be sure not to use baking soda or bleach to remove vinegar — mixing the two could generate heat or create toxic chemicals.
When it comes to wine and other beverage stains, the color you see comes from organic compounds called chromophores. When exposed to the air, the chromophores in those stains react with oxygen, making the bond with their fabric substrates even stronger as time goes on. So, be sure to try to get to those stains when they're fresh, or as soon as possible. To remove red wine and beverage stains, laundry detergents that contain pectinases, the enzymes that break down pectin (a polysaccharide found in plant-based organics) should help. Additionally, oxygen peroxide chemically breaks down the chromophores in wine stains. For older wine or beverage stains, you can try applying a hydrogen peroxide based bleach, or "oxygen bleach," as a pre-treater or directly into the wash.

I notice with my workout gear that there’s this persistent smell in the fabric. It’s not necessarily BO, and it didn’t smell like that when it was new. When I wash it, the smell seems to go away... but it’s like the second I start to sweat in it, it’s almost like the odor “reactivates.” What is that and how do I get rid of it?

Most activewear is made of synthetic fabric materials that contain many tiny capillary tubes to make the fabric “breathable.” During a workout, sweat passes through these capillary tubes and vaporizes. During this process, some of the organic compounds found in sweat are attracted to the synthetic fiber surfaces and can get trapped in the capillary tubes. When the fabrics come in contact with air, the sebum stains attract bacteria that release malodors into the air. When your active wear is wet, these malodor molecules get trapped in the water, and when the fabric dries, they are once again released into the air.  The only way to completely get rid of "permastank" is to eliminate the source: the sebum stain residue caught in your activewear. This is where an enzyme-driven detergent is advantageous because they have an active stain removal process, meaning they seek out specific stains and can get to difficult to reach areas. Unlike traditional detergents, which rely mostly on agitation and probability (ie. a chance meeting of the cleaning agent and the stain), enzymes can completely remove the organic stains that malodor bacteria live on. 
Man in workout clothes jogging on the street.
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