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Reader Mailbag: Removing Sunscreen Stains

Beach scene sunscreen

One of my readers, Susan, sent in this great question:

I always have this struggle starting and lasting throughout the summer season. I have narrowed the culprit down to sunscreen. The most important thing to wear in the summer time does terrible things to my laundry! I’ve tried several different brands and they all turn my clothing this awful orangish color where it comes in contact with the clothes. I am figuring that it reacts to the minerals in our well water, which is heavier in magnesium-type deposits. Even cloroxing white clothes doesn’t always get it, often times turning the stain yellow instead of orange. And it has ruined several colored clothing. Any suggestions? I’m at my wit’s end with the damage!
Thanks.

 

I’ve done quite a bit of research on this sunscreen problem and spoken with several sunscreen companies.  It turns out that the problem is with a little chemical known as avobenzone. It is the ingredient in some sunscreens that eliminates the harmful effects of long-ray UVA.

While it is extremely effective in a sunscreen compound, it can wreak havoc on white clothes.  It can cause orange stains that are quite difficult to remove.  It seems that having well water, which tends to be ‘hard’ water only makes the problem worse.

So how to remedy this problem?

  1. Find a sunscreen that does not use avobenzone.
    There are a few products on the market that do not contain the chemical: Blue Lizard Suncream Sensitive and Kiss My Face Oat Protein Sunscreen.  Obviously by not using the chemical, the problem is completely eliminated.
  2. Do not use clorox or Oxi Clean to remove the stains.
    Believe me, it hurts me to advise you not to use Oxi Clean…but in this case it will only make the stains worse.  It will deepen the orange stain and possibly set them in permanently.  The chemical reaction between avobenzone and clorox/sodium perchlorate (ie: Oxi Clean) are not friendly, so it only makes the orange reaction appear worse.
  3. Try ONE of the following products.  Trying more than one at the time can be dangerous due to fumes.
    The Works Tub & Shower Cleaner:  As you can see from its online ad, it touts that it rids the shower of “stubborn rust stains and mineral deposits.”  It will do the same for your clothes.  Spray a small amount onto the stain and gently rub in with a toothbrush until the stain is saturated with the product.  Leave on about 5 minutes and literally watch the stain disappear.  Launder as usual with white clothes only.
    Bar Keepers Friend OR Bon-Ami in the powdered form:  These products also work on rust stains and hard-water stains.  Make a thin paste of the product and water and rub onto stain very gently with a toothbrush or your finger.  Leave on about 5 minutes and rinse under cool, running water.  If stain is still present, repeat the paste process.  If it is gone, launder as usual with white clothes only.
    Whink:  Also used to remove rust and hard-water stains, this product comes in a liquid form.  Lightly pour on orange stain and it should disappear in 2-5 minutes.  This should only be used on white clothes!  It will definitely take the color out of anything other than white.  Trust me…

Please take note: I am not sure whether The Works, Bar Keepers Friend or Bon-Ami will cause colored items to fade or develop bleach-type areas after application.  Use these products on an inside seam first.  If it doesn’t bleach it or lift the color, you are probably safe to use it on the rest of the fabric.  I am quite certain that Whink will bleach colored clothes, as it has happened to me!

Also: It is important that after treating your items that you wash them only in a load with white clothes.  Or you can even wash them alone if you are unsure if they will bleach other items.  Even if you rinse the item thoroughly under running water, some product will probably remain embedded in the fabric of the item.  You don’t want to ruin a whole load of clothes!

As with any stain removal advice given on Mama’s Laundry Talk: Mama is not responsible for any adverse reactions caused by one’s stain removal efforts.  You alone are responsible for any advice taken and the outcome on your clothes.

 

 

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.

 

Comments

  1. Thanks! All my old t’s I wear around the farm have sunscreen stains around the neck. At least I can experiment with some of these products.

  2. Never heard or Charlies but would love to try them. Thanks.

  3. Avobenzone is also in moistuizers that contain sunscreens. I’m not sure about foundations.

  4. Sunscreen stains are only caused by certain sunscreens that contain oils. It’s a grease/oil stain. It comes out on your clothes as a yellowish, sometimes orange color. My most successful remedy is to use a degreaser, such as GOO GONE. It’s to help remove sticky substances from stuff and works amazing on sunscreen stains. Just spray it on. It usually only takes one wash, however it might take a couple more washes to get the “citrus” oily scent out that is a result of the degrease spray. =) HInt: if you do spray this stuff on clothing, wash it separate from your other clothes or they will all smell “citrusy-oily”.

  5. Suzanne says:

    I had a white polo shirt that my son had stained with chocolate, so I went to soak it in detergent/oxyclean before washing it. As soon as the shirt hit the water, these bright yellow/orange patches were everywhere. They were especially bad on the collar and sleeve holes. I was crushed. I found this post and tried something similar to the shower/tub cleaner mentioned above. It’s called ‘Lime Away’. It totally worked!! I’m thrilled; I thought I was tossing it. Thanks so much for blogging about this. PS: We have well water too.

  6. Thank you so much!! Using TheWorks just saved my gorgeous new sundress! Now to go shopping for a different sunscreen before I go on vacation….

  7. SolarAegis is another natural sunscreen that won’t stain!

  8. Heather says:

    “CLR” (Calcium, Lime, Rust) Remover took the stain right out of my daughter’s sunscreen stained shirt. Thank you so much for the tip!

  9. Eleanor Brandow says:

    What can I use to get those orange stains out of colored clothes?

    • mamalaundry says:

      Eleanor, I haven’t found a product yet that will not cause the color to fade. When and if I do, I’ll make sure to post it here!

      So sorry -
      Lauren

  10. Thanks everyone! Just tried “The Works” on a white sports bra that had bright orange sunscreen stains all over the straps. I sprayed the works on and the stain faded right away. I’m not sure if this item will ever be white again but atleast I will now be able to spray anything white as soon as I take it off to possibly avoid stains in the future. :)

  11. Christina says:

    I am struggling with the exact same issue that Susan describes. I agree that the well water in my home, with higher than normal degress of magnesium, may be the culprit. I am also currently taking a prescription dosage (product un-named) of omega fish oil and can find nothing on the web about that. Your suggestions are worth a try – since I’ve tried Dawn, various Tide products, Oxy-Clean. I’ll let you know how Bar Keeper’s Friend works on the whites.

  12. Hmm, strange! I use Whink on tons of colored things and it’s only ever faded one item of clothing. I love it; it has become my go-to stain remover.

    Thanks for the great tip about sunscreens!

    • Andrea, I went to use Whink on my sunscreen stains and found out there is more than one kind – there is regular Whink stain remover, and then there is Whink rust remover. Maybe that is the difference between Mamalaundry’s experience and yours?

  13. OMG I am so glad to have found this information. The orange staining is driving me nuts! I am going to try a couple of the suggestions above to remove the stains AND I am going to be looking for a sunscreen without Avobenzone. I too have well water, so that must be exasperating the issue. We have ruined so many clothes over the last two summers, it’s out of control.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Joann, so sorry about your ruined clothes but I’m glad you found the culprit! Hoping you can save your other clothes. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. What about stains from white titanium dioxide based sunscreens (like California Baby’s sunscreen)? I have a stain on my red dress from a white blob that landed on it. : (

  15. Ann-Marie says:

    I had a shirt with sunscreen spots and before reading, I immediately put it in Oxyclean. Then had BRIGHT yellow stains show up. I used Limeaway and they immediately disappeared! Thank you so much for saving my shirt.

    • mamalaundry says:

      So fabulous, Ann-Marie! Happy day for you and the spot-free shirts. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know!

  16. Thanks so much for your post and solution! I’ve been getting orange shirts for years and finally figured out it was related to sunscreen, but didn’t know why it happened. I live on well water too. I got Iron Out spray (rust stain removal) today at Food Lion and it worked like a charm. thanks so much!

  17. colleen says:

    I’ve been doing some research and someone at another site recommended Ivory Bar Soap and warm water, but it seemed like a lot of hard work and hand washing. Most of the clothes I’ve ruined belong to my 2 and 5 year olds. I’m worried about the amount of chemicals I might be exposing them to by washing their clothes in all these cleaners. Also I’ve never heard of most of these products and am wondering if anyone has found any of them in Canada? Do they work as well or are their chemical formulas different? I tried CLR on some clothes last year and it did absolutely no good…
    Any Canadian mom’s out there with advice, I’d love to hear it!

    • mamalaundry says:

      Colleen, about the chemicals – I would do at least 1 extra rinse cycle to make sure all of the chemicals are out of the fabric. In fact, I would personally do two cycles just to be on the safe side. Like you, I don’t want chemicals against my children’s skin.

      If you’re interested in trying one of the products, you could always search on Amazon and have it shipped to you.

    • I’m going to try Mean Green. You can get it at Canadian Tire. I know it works well on lots of stuff but I haven’t tried it on laundry yet. I’m gonna pick up some tomorrow before leaving work…I hope it works! If not the next thing I’m going to try is pumice hand cleaner. Just a couple ideas for you that I know are available in Canada.

  18. Just used Lestoil, which i got at Ace, and it worked great!! Even worked on an old shirt that had been washed and dried many times. Just rinsed right out without soaking!

  19. My husband wears sunscreen every day to work (around his neck and face) and he wears white dress shirts. I thought I ruined a whole batch of his work shirts by throwing a detergent pack with oxy clean into the washer. They all had bright orange collars:-( Well… I am happy to report that the Barkeeper’s Friend works! Amazing… Just a little of the powder with a little water and a toothbrush and they’re all as good as new and it worked almost instantly. So happy you wrote this post! Thanks

  20. I am so delighted to have this website & info. My husband is a self-employed landscaper & for a few years now I’ve been struggling with these pesky stains. It wasn’t until last year that we finally realized exactly what they were however. He loves wearing white t-shirts while working of course because of the sun/heat. Anyway,I will definitelybe trying the remedies listed above as well as searching for a new sunscreen for him without avobenzone. Thank you for this info!!!

  21. Anyone notice any difference in cotton clothes vs. synthetic? CLR worked GREAT on my son’s synthetic swimwear. However, I have a cotton cover-up and cotton socks that CLR got the stains out of, and when I washed them after soaking, the stains came back. I’m trying again now with Lime-Away and will use a hotter water temperature. Maybe Goo-Gone will be my third attempt if necessary?

    • Update – Lime-Away, scrubbing with scrub brush in the bathtub, and washing in hot water with plenty of Rain Drops water softener helped. The stains aren’t totally gone, but they are much less visible. I’m thinking it wasn’t the choice of chemical as much as the scrubbing and hot water that made the difference. However, for really bad stains I would still consider switching cleaning products with each attempt if necessary.

      • mamalaundry says:

        Scrubbing and hot water never hurt, that’s for sure! But yes, a change of chemical will do the trick. You might just need to find the right one for your water type. Since it’s a chemical reaction to start with (the sunscreen and iron), you’ll need a chemical reaction to combat it.

        Thanks for the update! ;)

    • mamalaundry says:

      Sue, I’d be very careful using Goo Gone. Sometimes it can leave a grease stain.

  22. I’ve had this problem too and remembered something I read about grapefruit juice being able to strip paint. I bought some concentrate, brushed it on, let it sit for a while and washed. Even old orange sunblock stains came out.

  23. Christine says:

    I came back from the Keys, unpacked my beach bag, and found that my white – rather pricey – hat had been stained by an opened tube of sunscreen. After trying literally everything, I found this website, tried using The Works, and viola; the stain is gone! I love my hat and the thought of having to toss it was painful. Thank you for saving the day!

  24. Thank You!!!!! I’m a lifeguard and our shirts are white! The sunscreen stains are ridiculous!

  25. I’ve used The works on my sunscreen stained clothes. The first time it worked great, the next time it melted the item.

  26. I just used the works on a light yellow polo shirt with orange sunblock stains. The shirt turned blue from The works. Any suggestions to get the blue out?

    • mamalaundry says:

      Shari, I’ve never heard of that happening. My guess is it’s some type of chemical reaction with the dye. You can certainly try washing again with no detergent and putting in the sun to dry to see what happens.

  27. My husband had sunscreen stains around the neck and arm holes on one of his white tee shirts. I first used oxyclean in my wash. The tee shirt came out even more orange. I found your site and tried the bar keepers friend (I already use it to clean my sinks). I made a mixture of bar keepers friend and water in a small bowl. I put only the neck and arms in the bowl first. It almost instantly removed the stain. I would have never thought to use such a cleaner on clothes. I hand washed the rest of the shirt in the solution too and it did not harm the printing on the shirt. It made the shirt brighter since I had washed it earlier with well water. Love it! Thanks, I thought the shirt would have to go in the rag sack!

    • mamalaundry says:

      Yay, Nancy! I’m so glad it worked so well for you! We just got back from the beach, so I’m off to do the same with my husband’s white tshirts!

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