How to Remove Makeup Stains, According to a Professional Dry Cleaner

November 21, 2022
Ariel Wodarcyk
By: Ariel Wodarcyk | by L'Oréal
Image of smeared makeup on a white background

We’ve all been there — you’re putting on your makeup when all of a sudden, a drop of foundation lands on your favorite white T-shirt. Or maybe you’re swiping on mascara during your morning commute and you accidentally drop the wand on a pair of light-colored pants (of course, on the one day you dare to wear them). Getting makeup stains on your clothes is never fun, especially if you’re out in public and can’t immediately tackle the stain or throw the item in the wash. 

To find out what to do in the event of any type of beauty-related stain, from spilled nail polish to smeared lipstick, we consulted with Zachary Pozniak, the vice president of operations at Jeeves New York, a luxury dry cleaning service in New York City. Keep reading for Pozniak’s best tips for removing makeup stains on clothing.

First, Why Is Makeup So Hard to Remove?

Have you ever wondered why makeup comes off easily when you wash your face with a micellar water but seems to cling to every piece of clothing it lands on (seemingly even more so if you really, really like that piece of clothing)? The same features that make your makeup perform well on your face — high pigmentation and long lasting power — are what make makeup stains harder to get out of clothes. “By design, especially like mascara, foundations [and] blushes, they're really not meant to come off super easily,” says Pozniak.

You also can’t remove makeup stains with water alone because, as Pozniak points out, most makeup products are oil-based. When removing any type of stain, Pozniak says it’s key to look for a solvent, aka something that causes the stain to dissolve. Oil doesn’t dissolve in water, which is why if you’ve ever run to the sink to blot your makeup-stained sweater with water, it probably didn’t do much. 

What You’ll Need to Get Rid of Makeup Stains

Stain removers are key to getting out any kind of stain, including makeup stains, because they have powerful enzymes that help break apart the molecules of the stain. Pozniak’s favorites are Shout, Puracy and Oxiclean Max Force.

A good-quality detergent is also essential to lifting stains. Pozniak recommends the Tide Hygienic Clean Laundry Detergent and the Tide Ultra Oxi Liquid Laundry Detergent


Tide Hygienic Clean Laundry Detergent

How to Get Nail Polish Out of Clothes

Fair warning: Nail polish is one of the most difficult beauty products to get out of clothes at home, so the best course of action is to take the nail polish-stained item to the dry cleaners. But if you’re determined to try to remove the stain yourself, you can try using the following method with acetone nail polish remover.

Test the Material

Your first course of action should be to grab a cotton swab, dip it in acetone and test it on a hidden part of the garment, such as the inside of a pocket or an inner seam. By swabbing the acetone-dipped cotton swab on the inside, you’ll be able to check if the acetone warps or discolors the fabric before you apply more of it to the actual stain. 

Get Two Clean Towels

After you’ve checked to make sure the acetone doesn’t warp the fabric of your clothing, place the garment on top of a clean towel. Then, take another clean towel, dip it in acetone and blot the stain. “What you want to do is push that nail polish through and also take some off the top too, so you get both sides of [the stain],” says Pozniak. 

Use a Stain Remover

After blotting, treat the stain with a stain remover. Let the stain remover sit for 15 minutes or more. “The longer it gets on it, the better,” he says. “A lot of [stain removers] have enzymes that take a long time to break down stains, but any type of spray stain remover is going to be really beneficial for makeup stains.” You can even toss the garment in the hamper and let the stain remover sit until you’re ready to do your next full load of laundry.

Wash and Dry

If you can’t wait longer than 15 minutes for the stain remover to set, simply wash and dry your garment as you normally would. If you can still see the stain at this point, you can either repeat the process or head to your local dry cleaner.

 Image of pink, purple and red lipstick smeared on a white background

How to Get Lipstick Out of Clothes

The removal process for stains from lipstick, eyeliner, mascara and foundation are all very similar, and much easier than removing nail polish stains. “Any high-quality detergent paired with a really good stain remover [is] going to be really beneficial for makeup stains,” Pozniak says. 

Apply a Stain Remover

Unlike removing nail polish, you don’t need to use the two-towel method when removing other kinds of makeup stains. “When the stain happens, apply the stain remover to it directly and then put it in your hamper and forget about it,” Pozniak says. Fifteen minutes is the minimum amount of time you should let the stain remover sit, but longer is even better. 

Wash With Detergent

Once you’ve let the stain remover set, wash your garment with a good-quality detergent. Dry the garment as usual.

How to Get Mascara Out of Clothes

Pozniak says he’s tested “a bunch of different mascaras,” including waterproof formulas, and has found that all you need to remove most mascara stains is a good stain remover and laundry detergent.

Apply a Stain Remover

Fifteen minutes is the amount of time to let your stain remover sit, but the longer you can wait before washing the clothing item, the better. “You really want to let those sit and work their magic,” Pozniak says. 

Wash With Detergent

Once you’ve let the stain remover sit, wash your garment with detergent. Typically Pozniak recommends washing clothes on cold, but he notes that “there is a slight gain to using warm and hot water when it comes to stain removal.” If you wash the item on cold and can still see the mascara stain after, try again with more stain remover and a warmer temperature.


Image of a tan foundation and deep foundation side by side

How to Get Foundation Out of Clothes

Many foundations are oil-based, which means they won’t come out with water alone. Instead, you’ll want to arm yourself with stain remover and a good detergent.

Apply a Stain Remover

Blot a stain remover on the affected area, and let sit for as long as possible. A minimum of 15 minutes will do, but Pozniak says you can even let the garment rest in your hamper until you’re ready to throw in your next load of laundry. 

Wash With Detergent

Once you’ve let the stain remover sit, it’s time to wash the clothing as usual. Try the cold setting first, but if that doesn’t work, repeat with a warmer temperature.

How to Get Eyeliner Out of Clothes

That smudge-proof eyeliner may be essential to creating a wing that lasts all day, but it’s not something you want stuck to your favorite top. You can tackle the stain with a stain remover and laundry detergent.

Apply a Stain Remover

Start by blotting the stain with a stain remover. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes, though the longer you can wait, the better the chances of it breaking down that stubborn stain.

Wash With Detergent

Once the stain remover has settled, it’s time to throw the garment in the wash. Choose the cold setting first, then increase the temperature and repeat the process if the stain is still visible after you finish the load.

The Best Laundry Cycle to Remove Makeup Stains

Pozniak says that the longer the cycle, the better when it comes to removing makeup stains. He’s successfully removed stains using the normal cycle on his washing machine, but if your clothing is made from a delicate fabric, he recommends using either a perm press or a gentle cycle instead.

How to Remove Makeup Stains in Public

If you get a stain while touching up your makeup in public and don’t have a stain remover on hand, a high-proof vodka is your next best bet. “Say you're at a restaurant or a bar, you’d probably look like a superhero if you ask for just some straight up vodka, got a towel and blotted it,” says Pozniak.


Another option if you don’t have vodka or a stain remover on-hand is to blot the stain with rubbing alcohol. Once you get home, you can try a stain remover if the stain is still visible and wash the garment with detergent. 

When in Doubt, Head to the Dry Cleaner

If you stain a piece you really love, Pozniak says it’s best to skip the DIY removal methods and head straight to the dry cleaner. There’s always a risk of blotting vodka on what was once a tiny lipstick stain and accidentally ending up with one that’s even more severe. “Now you have a larger stain on a piece that you either spent a lot of money on or that means a lot to you.”


Photo: Chaunte Vaughn

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