How To Clean Up Your Nail Polish Stains


Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

A bottle of tangerine nail polish recently jumped from its shelf in the medicine cabinet, breaking and splashing the (fake marble) floor, (white painted) walls, and (fluffy neutral) bath mat in the process. I tried using nail polish remover to clean it up — the clue being in the name and all — but it only got me so far. I would usually reach for a Magic Eraser about now, but am concerned that it’s not the right tool for the job, and don’t want to exacerbate the situation. As a renter, I would prefer that this not be deducted from my security deposit in years to come, and also not to have to live with tangerine splatter between now and whenever I do move.

You all would be surprised, I think, to learn how common it is for bottles of nail polish to jump about of their own accord. It’s true! They’re willful little bottles of evil dressed up in bright colors, like those revolting wax soda candy things — or at least that’s what my inbox would lead you to believe. Speaking of my inbox! There’s a weird Clean Person phenomenon that happens in which questions come to me in topical waves; the other week I found myself practically buried in nail varnish questions. (This topical wave makes some sense, the nature of the seasons and exposed toes being what they are.) So today, we’re going to have a nail polish extravaganza! GET EXCITED.

I chose this particular question because it hits a broad swath of surfaces on which one might find a nail polish spill, which means I can load you all up with all sorts of information on how to cope with these kinds of tragedies, and I enjoy doing that. Oh but actually, before we get into what works let’s detour quickly and talk about what doesn’t work.

If you look online, you’ll find plenty of suggestions for getting nail varnish off of things on which you’d rather not have nail varnish. Among those suggestions are: nail polish remover (non-acetone); nail polish remover (acetone); isopropyl alcohol (the rubbing stuff); hydrogen peroxide; hair spray.

None of them work.

How do I know this? Because I tested them all out by painting swatches of OPI’s Mariah Carey Collection ‘Anti-Bleak’ on a rag and getting after each swatch with a different solvent. The only one that even made a dent in the staining was the pure acetone, but even that caused the stain to spread and didn’t come close to taking it entirely out.

Okay, so what does work? Unfortunately, you truly need to take into account the surface on which the varnish has spilled before selecting the right cleaning product for the job. Fortunately, today we’re going to go through a few different kinds of surfaces and the cleaning products they’ll respond to. Starting with …

Floors and Walls: Hey, LW, I have great news for you: You’re right to reach for your Magic Eraser! Those things! They are so totally magic, aren’t they?!? As always when considering their use, however, you’ll want to test it out on a small, unobtrusive spot on the wall or floor you’re attempting to clean to be sure that the Eraser doesn’t damage the finish. Of course in this case the finish is already damaged but The Clean Person’s Guild requires that I remind you about the spot testing in any discussions of the Eraser.

Another thing you should know about for these kinds of situations is WD-40. WD-40 is so righteous, you guys. Everyone should have a can in their home, that is my firm belief. It lubricates the mechanism on drawbridges! How have you lived all this time with that squeaky drawbridge, I ask you? To use it, spray it on the stain and then wipe it up with a clean rag. If you find yourself with WD-40 residue, a bit of soapy water applied with a rag or sponge will take that right away.

Carpet, Upholstery & Washable Fabrics: As mentioned upcolumn, nail varnish remover will work — but it has to be the acetone kind, not the non-acetone kind. That’s important to know since most of us shy away from acetone as a polish remover because it’s way harsh (I had it on hand, heh, because I am a slut for glitters and those suckers are a beast to take off, so I use acetone in glitter removal situations). But … it’s not gonna work all that well, and I have higher standards for myself, and by extension for you, than ‘not working all that well’ so let’s get into the Serious Business of Removing Nail Polish Stains From Cloth-like Things.

First up are two brands I love love love, that both offer multi-product lines devoted to stain removal. Both will give you instructions on how best to use them, and you should follow those instructions. The first are the Motsenbocker’s with their line of Lift Offs. #3 is the one you want for nail varnish spills. This is the stuff you want if you’ve got the polish on your carpeting or upholstery.

Next up are my beloved Stain Devils. Sometimes I coo at them, “Ooooh helloooo tittle Devvies! And how are you fine Sirs today?” because I am a crazy person but also because they come in these darling wee bottles that I mention here for those of you who are space constricted and don’t have tons of room to store stain removal products. When it comes to the Devils for nail polish removal, #1 is what you want. However, the Devs aren’t so friendly with carpeting and upholstery, so stick with them when you’re dealing with stains on clothes and bathmats and such. Or throw caution to the wind and use them on your carpets and upholstery, I mean you’ve already tossed nail polish all over the place — what more harm could it do?

Because I’m a ‘save the best for last’ kind of gal, the final product we’ll talk about today — dry-cleaning solvents — are basically your slam dunk option. Also: pretty cheap! (Five-ish bucks?) Also also: can be used on loads of other stained things!

Last week when I was over at the Boys’ Dorm we talked all about dry-cleaning solvents. And then we lit our farts on fire. So if it’s okay with you minxes, I’m just gonna crib off myself and tell you what I told the fellers about the procuring and use of dry-cleaning solvents:

First we need to get our hands on the stuff: Your best bet for buying dry-cleaning solvents is to order online; Home Depot doesn’t carry anything, which is strange to me. Get it together, Home Depot! But Sears does carry some brands, so if there’s a Sears near you, check that out. Also, local hardware stores are likely to have something. Right, but online is a sure thing.

A few brands to look for are Guardsman, Citrus Guardsman, K2R.

Since we’re working with a harsh cleaning solution, the usual caveats apply: wear protective gloves; work in a well-ventilated area; test the product out on a small, unseen area of the fabric you’re going to clean to be sure it’s colorfast/doesn’t disintegrate immediately upon contact with the solvent. Once you’ve determined that your fabric isn’t going to melt away, go ahead and put a small amount of your solvent on a clean rag—here, you’ll want to use a white- or light-colored one so you don’t run the risk of a dark-colored rag bleeding onto the fabric and making things worse. Now blot at the stains.

I know you’re going to be tempted to use a lot of solvent to speed things along, but resist that urge. Dry-cleaning solvents actually work better when used sparingly. So resist, resist, resist! Once the stains are out, there’s one last really important step: removing the solvent. If you don’t completely remove the solvent it can leave a stain. Which obviously defeats the purpose. To get all the residual solvent out, go over the areas where you’ve used it with a clean, wet rag—again, white- or light-colored is the way to go. You’ll need that rag to be somewhere between damp and sopping, by the way. You don’t want to saturate the fabric, but there does need to be enough water to remove the solvent.

Being the fashion addict that I am, I’m constantly switching my nail polish colors. This leaves me with unsightly yellow stains on my nails from my darker colors. That then forces me to enter into an endless cycle of opaque polishes. Hello, it’s Spring. I need some sheers in my life!! Jolie, save me from the gross yellow nail staining.

I will save you! But first, a disclaimer: health & beauty advice falls a bit outside my wheelhouse. I’ll tell you what I told the guys when they asked for help with their stinking feets which is that absolutely, if you have health & beauty questions that you think I can help with, go on and ask them and I’ll do my best, but there are far more qualified folks than I to help you out with personal grooming quandaries.

Okay but this one! I actually know this one and have been waiting for an excuse to share this thing I learned with the world. You’re going to think it’s nuts/love it: denture tablets.

Here’s the thing — there is this nail whitening soak stuff that you can buy for like $20. Which is a lot of money for nail whitening soak stuff I think! So one day while I was in the Duane Reade, fondling this stuff longingly and thinking about how $20 is a lot to spend for a fingernail whitener that I actually don’t even need but find irresistible because it’s a cleaning product and I’m me, I decided to do some sleuthing. I found the ingredient list online, then Googled all the things that were in it, double checked with a scientist friend and confirmed that the Nailtini is basically selling crushed up denture tablets for $20.

More good news: denture tablets are pretty cheap and actually go on and buy generic brand ones, they’re all the same stuff. That tip comes from a dentist friend. My professional friends, by the way, love it when I exploit their years of learning in order to divine the best way to clean stained fingernails.

So right, denture tablets! Dissolve them in a bowl of warm water, soak your nails, maybe go over them with a soft toothbrush while they’re submerged in the solution. That will brighten them right up. Hydrogen peroxide or lemon juice mixed with warm water will also work as a soak to whiten nails; here is a great guide to all different kind of nail soaks for discoloration, peeling nails, brittle nails, etc.

Okay so … since we’re on the subject, what nail colors are you wearing? I’m working out the Pantone Universe Emerald and luuu-huuu-ving it.

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, Spring 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

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