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Solving the 'Case of the Sunrise Stain Stumper'

Several times a year, someone asks me about a poor-quality wash or stains. My personal philosophy about stains has always been that they represent a failure to properly handle or clean the fabric.
I’ve found that stains are frequently caused by improper wash formulas. I was convinced that I hadn’t met a stain I couldn’t beat ... until I arrived in Milwaukee.
I encountered a light yellow stain at Aurora Health Care that resisted all attempts to remove it. We attempted to identify what the substance might look like before it was washed but could never find the source of the stain.
We worked with our chemical vendor in attempting to identify it. We tried to develop a reclaim formula but the stain stumped the company experts. We had our chemical vendor and our linen vendor send samples of the stained linen to independent labs for analysis but still couldn’t identify it or find a way to remove it.
We determined that the stain showed up more frequently in early-morning loads than at other times of the day, but the source of the stain and the means by which to remove it remained a mystery.
When I accepted a job at HealthGroup of Alabama, the stain “followed” me. The fact that what appeared to be the same stain could be present in two different laundries 600 miles apart led me to look at other environmental factors.
This time we narrowed our search to various chemicals used in the hospital and discovered quite by accident that the source of the stain was a hand soap used at the largest facility we served.
The active ingredient was chlorhexidine gluconate, the most effective hand sanitizer on the market today. The clear soap is colorless when present as a liquid or a dried substance on the linen. But it reacts with chlorine to form a light yellow to dark brown stain, depending on the amounts of soap and chlorine that are present.
Both in Alabama and in Milwaukee, there was enough chlorine in the municipal water systems to cause the chlorhexidine gluconate to form a stain.
In an effort to reduce the amount of staining, I worked with my chemical vendor to devise a formula that limited the chances of setting the stain before the soap could be rinsed from the fabric.
Our first step was switching from chlorine bleach to hydrogen peroxide bleach. This reduced the stain by 50% but there was still enough chlorine in the incoming water to cause problems.
Our next step was adding either an antichlor or hydrogen peroxide to the first pocket of the tunnel washers. Either chemical neutralizes the chlorine and thus prevents the chlorhexidine gluconate from setting.
By implementing these changes, we were able to reduce stains caused by this chemical by 80%.
In my years in the laundry business, I’ve seen a number of stain and odor problems overcome by using this kind of investigative process.
Oil stains on high-thread-count, polyester surgical gowns or on Gortex gowns can nearly be eliminated by the use of a solvenated detergent in conjunction with enzymes and by not using any softeners.
A barrier retreatment product, if used properly, will prevent oil from adhering to the polyester fibers while maintaining the barrier quality of the fabrics at like-new levels.
Residual odor problems in freshly laundered reusable diapers and underpads can be solved by switching to an enzyme detergent.
Numerous stains can be avoided by using a warm (not exceeding 120 F) freshwater flush at the start of the wash formula. Many medicines and body fluids react poorly in the presence of heat or wash chemicals. The closer blood gets to its set point (120 F), the more soluble it becomes.
The key to eliminating a stain is being willing to do the detective work required to identify the stain and then asking the appropriate people for help in developing a system to prevent it.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].