How to Remove Sunscreen Stains to Keep Your Fabrics Fresh

An unexpected hardware store staple is the key to eliminating these complex stains.

Sunscreen may be an essential part of maintaining healthy skin, but it is not without drawbacks: The ingredients in sunscreen can leave ugly stains on clothing, beach towels, and other fabrics that can be incredibly difficult to remove.

Sunscreen stains are combination stains, which means that they are comprised of more than one stain type. In the case of sunscreen, the formula contains oils that can leave grease stains on clothing, plus a more difficult stain type: mineral stains. Understanding the science behind these complicated stains is the key to unlocking the secret to removing them.

Row of colorful beach towels hanging on hooks
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What Makes Sunscreen Such a Complicated Stain?

Sunscreen is a combination stain made up of oil and mineral compounds, which are broken down for stain removal in different ways.

Avobenzone, an ingredient found in most sunblock formulas, is the primary culprit that causes difficult-to-remove sunscreen stains on clothes, towels, and outdoor fabrics. Avobenzone, an oil-soluble dibenzoyl methane derivative that the FDA approved for use in sunblock formulas in 1988, works as a sunscreen agent by absorbing ultraviolet light. It also has the propensity to oxidize in water, causing deep orangish stains.

These stains may look to the eye like rust stains and, in a sense, they are: When sunscreens containing avobenzone mix with minerals like iron that naturally occur in our water supply, the resulting stains have a similar makeup to rust stains. Those stains need to be treated in the same way as you would a rust stain.

It's worth noting two things. First, areas with hard water—water with a high mineral content—will experience more of this type of staining caused by sunscreen simply because of the properties of the local water supply. Second, synthetic fabrics are more likely to experience these types of stains than are natural fibers, like cotton, linen, or denim.

What to Avoid When Treating Sunscreen Stains

The complicated chemical nature of sunscreen stains doesn't stop with our water supply: Chlorine bleach and oxygen bleach, two commonly used stain removal agents, actually have a negative reaction to rust stains and should be avoided when treating sunscreen stains. Both forms of bleach have a negative chemical reaction to rust stains that cause them to deepen.

Additionally, because of the naturally occurring mineral content in our water supply, avoid soaking sunscreen-stained garments as a stain removal method; prolonged exposure to water will make the stains worse.

Methods for Removing Sunscreen Stains

Identifying the nature of sunscreen stains is the key to unlocking the secret to removing them: Sunscreen stains on clothing and other fabrics should be treated in the same way as rust stains.

Applying a commercial rust stain remover to orangish sunscreen stains is one option. There are commercial rust stain removers that are designed specifically for use on laundry, such as Carbona Stain Devils #9 Rust and Perspiration, and multi-purpose rust removers, like Whink Rust Stain Remover, that are formulated to remove rust stains from hard surfaces such as porcelain or iron and that can also be used on fabrics.

Another, more DIY approach to rust stain removal can be used to treat sunscreen stains: A combination of lemon juice, salt, and time will remove dark orange sunscreen stains from clothing and other textiles.

Note: These instructions are for fabrics that can be safely washed in water; fabrics that cannot tolerate water, such as rayon, silk, or triacetate, should be dry cleaned.

How to Get Rid of Sunscreen Stains with Rust Remover

Treat sunscreen stains prior to laundering to reduce staining effects caused by the chemical reaction between avobenzone and water.

What You'll Need

Step 1: Apply Rust Remover to Stains

Follow manufacturer instructions for use on fabric. After applying the rust stain remover, use a laundry brush to work the product into the fabric and lift the stain away. (An old toothbrush or a nail brush can be used as a laundry brush if needed.)

Step 2: Launder as Usual

Once the stain has been removed, launder the garment as usual. Check that the stains have been eliminated entirely before putting the garment in the dryer, as the heat from the dryer can set stains in, making them very difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

How to Remove Sunscreen Stains Using Lemon Juice and Salt

A combination of lemon juice and salt can be used to remove rust-like sunscreen stains; here, the method you use is key to making these pantry staples pull double duty in the laundry room.

What You'll Need

  • Lemon juice
  • Salt
  • A laundry brush

Step 1: Flush the Stain

Flush the stained section of the garment by holding the fabric under cool running water. Work quickly, only exposing the stain to water for as long as it takes to saturate the area.

Step 2: Lay the Garment Flat

Lay the garment flat on a surface where it can sit, undisturbed, overnight. If the flat surface is metal, wood, or another material that should not get wet, place a folded towel between the garment and the flat surface.

Step 3: Apply Lemon Juice and Salt

Squeeze lemon juice directly onto the stain so that it is well saturated, then pour a pile of salt on top of the lemon juice.

Allow the lemon juice and salt to sit overnight, to penetrate and break down the stain. In the morning, brush the salt into the sink or trash and launder the garment as usual.

Tips for Preventing Sunscreen Stains

It can be difficult to avoid them entirely, but there are some steps you can take to protect your clothing from hard-to-remove sunscreen stains.

  • Treat sunscreen like perfume: Apply it and let it dry before putting on clothing.
  • Look for sunscreen formulas that do not contain avobenzone.
  • Remove stains prior to washing in water, or send sunscreen-stained clothing to be dry cleaned.
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