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How to Get Indigo Dye Out of Anything

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As much as one possibly can.

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

So, last week we threw a little housewarming party. I had a weak moment a couple hours before the party and ended up at Madewell, where I spent $200+ on new skinny jeans and a white button-down. I wore my white Toms wedges that night, and to my horror in the morning-hangover cloud, the denim had rubbed off onto the canvas.

Please advise on how to remove the stain. Much love. —Emily

As regular readers know, I've been in denial about indigo dye for some time now, but I finally decided to confront my fears about this tricky, misbehaving dye in a recent column. Now that I've pulled my head out of the sand and faced the truth about indigo dye — that it is virtually impossible to "set" so that it doesn't transfer onto the fabrics and hides it comes in contact with — this is a good time to address what to do when the dreaded dye transfer does occur.

Enter Emily, who did not have the benefit of access to The Rules and Regulations as They Pertain to Indigo-Dyed Garments on the fateful night on which she decided to pair new indigo jeans with white wedges. Rule 1 states: "Thou shalt not wear indigo-dyed garments with light-colored clothing or accessories." It's a tough rule, and since I live in the real world with the rest of you, I know it won't be strictly observed and many of you will wind up in Emily's proverbial shoes. So here are the basics of removing fugitive indigo dye that has stained everything from clothing to leather bags to your skin and nails.

Removing Indigo Dye From Fabrics

In an odd way, the fact that indigo dye behaves so monstrously in terms of its tendency to transfer onto everything it touches makes for good news when it comes time to remove it. Here's why: Indigo dye doesn't like to stay put, making it an easier stain to remove than, say, pomegranate juice.

When it comes to dye stains, the first thing you always want to reach for is rubbing alcohol, or products like hand sanitizer that contain a high concentration of alcohol. In the case of the Toms wedges, the correct application is to use a small rag (like an old washcloth or dish towel) or cotton balls to dab the rubbing alcohol onto the stain. This process will likely take several applications, so patience may be required. This is a good operation to perform while listening to a podcast or watching some mindless television.

If the stains are particularly dark, or if the rubbing alcohol just isn't touching the problem, there's a line of specialty cleaners called Motsenbocker's Lift Off that are especially good; in the case of dye, formula #3 is the one you want.

There's one other indigo dye stain removal method worth mentioning, though it won't apply to the shoes in question. It is, however, great to know about in cases where indigo dye has transferred onto washable garments, so since we're on the subject of the havoc that this pesky dye can deliver unto your wardrobe, here it is: Soak an indigo dye-stained article of clothing in a solution of lukewarm water and an oxygen bleach like OxoBrite for an hour up to overnight. Then, transfer it to the washing machine and launder as usual, being sure to check that all the dye is gone before drying it, as heat will set a stain. If there's still remaining indigo, run the garment through the wash again, but skip detergent and launder the clothing with only a scoop of the oxygen bleach.

Getting Indigo Dye Off of Leather

We've covered leather care a bunch in this space, so if you need a refresher on what different leather treatment products do and in what circumstances they should be used, check out my guide to the basics of caring for your leathers.

In the case of indigo dye that's transferred onto light-colored leather bags, saddle soap is what you'll want to use. When it comes to saddle soap, a little bit goes a long way, so don't overdo it. You'll need a damp soft rag, which you'll rub in a circular motion to pick up a lather of suds from the tin of soap. Then, working again in a circular motion, apply the lather to the stained leather. Rinse the rag well, wring it out so that it's only damp, and wipe the soap residue away thoroughly. Finally, apply a thin layer of leather conditioner to complete the process.

What to Do When Your Skin or Nails Turn Blue

Indigo dye transfer also befouls our skin and fingernails — I have a favorite pair of dark jeans that leave my hands ever-so-slightly blue-tinted to the point where I'm forever thinking I'm about to drop dead of poor circulation until I remember that, no, the problem is just my pants. I devoted a recent column to what to do when your jeans stain your fingernails that has a million (rough count) ways in which to reverse discoloration caused by dyes.

The quick version is that removing indigo dye from skin shouldn't take much more than a really thorough, sudsy hand-washing, but if that doesn't entirely do the trick, try hand sanitizer. It has a high concentration of alcohol in it, which is great at getting dye off of skin, as well as off of fabrics. In the case of stained fingernails, a nail brush plus soap and warm water will probably be enough. For bad staining, adding some baking soda or lemon juice to your nail brush or soaking fingernails in diluted denture tablets will return your talons to bright white in no time.