Charcoal stains are treacherous—one wrong move and you'll have grainy black powder streaked all over your clothing and your hands. As soon as you notice the charcoal stain, wash your hands to keep from spreading it to carpet or upholstery. Next, take off the stained clothing and treat it as soon as possible. Inspect the care label before treating the clothing—if the garment is dry clean only, take it straight to the cleaners without attempting to pre-treat the stain.
Pre-Treat the Stain
To start, spread a clean rag or paper towel on your work surface. If any charcoal leaches through the fabric during pre-treatment, you don't want it to dirty up your countertop. Next, lay the clothing over the rag with the stained side down. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the detergent and stain removers work better if they soak through the fabric and attack the stain, rather than being scrubbed directly onto the stain.
Dab the affected area with a pre-treatment stain removal spray, available from any grocery store or drugstore. Stain-removal rubs will work too, although you'll need to be gentle with the rubber applicator. Let the clothing sit for the amount of time indicated on the stain treatment's bottle—usually, this is anywhere from two to 10 minutes. Next, pour a little liquid detergent over the stain. You don't need to coat the whole garment—just make sure the stained area is covered. Use a clean sponge or a soft toothbrush to gently work the detergent into the stain. Pat the stain gently but do not scrub. It's best to use a quick up-and-down motion. If you use any sort of sideways motion, you risk spreading the stain.
Wash the Clothes
First, read the clothing's care label for washing instructions. You'll want to use the warmest water specified and, if the care label indicates it's safe, add bleach to the wash cycle. Run the clothes through the washer all by themselves; you don't want to risk charcoal flakes getting on any of your other clothing.
Inspect the clothes at the end of the wash cycle. If the stain is still visible, dip a sponge in rubbing alcohol and pat the stains gently. Use the same motion you did earlier--all patting, no rubbing. Run the clothes through the washer again, this time without the bleach.
At the end of the spin cycle, take the clothes out the washer and inspect them again. Make absolutely certain that the stain is gone before you put the clothes in the dryer. If it is gone, dry the clothes according to the care label. If the stain isn't gone, start over from the point where you put liquid detergent onto the stain. This time, pat the detergent onto the stain and let it sit for 10 minutes before running it through the washer again. Then, when the stain is finally gone, pop it into the dryer like you always do.
Jenni Wiltz's fiction has been published in "The Portland Review," "Sacramento News & Review" and "The Copperfield Review." She has a bachelor's degree in English and history from the University of California, Davis and is working on a master's degree in English at Sacramento State. She has worked as a grant coordinator, senior editor and advertising copywriter and has been a professional writer since 2003.