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Plastic is found everywhere in the kitchen, from ubiquitous cutting boards to storage containers to utensils designed for use with nonstick cookware. At some point in its life, each plastic item will inevitably become stained and discolored.
To keep your containers and other plastic items like cups, mixing bowls, colanders, spoons, spatulas, and even laminate countertops blemish free, apply the products and techniques outlined below, using handy household cleaners and common items that you probably already have on hand in the cabinet or fridge.
Here’s a quick roundup of everything we’ll cover up ahead:
11 Ways to Remove Stains from Plastic
- Rubbing Alcohol
- Hand Sanitizer
- White Vinegar
- Baking Soda
- Lemon Juice
- Hydrogen Peroxide
- Denture Tablets
- Dawn Power Dissolver
Be sure to protect your work surface, hands, and eyes when cleaning with potential irritants or bleaching agents.
Dilute harsh ingredients as directed and never mix methods unless you can ensure their safety – mixing other ingredients with bleach in particular can be very dangerous, causing a chemical reaction that produces toxic gases which may be extremely harmful to human health.
1. Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol can be used to clean coffee, tea, tomato sauce and tomato paste, juice and soda stains, and discoloration caused by most types of food dyes.
Usually, the discoloration can be removed if you rinse the item immediately after applying the alcohol, or by washing it with water and dish detergent afterwards. If the blemish doesn’t disappear, then pour the rubbing alcohol into the container instead and let it soak for a few minutes.
If the item isn’t a container, you can pour the alcohol into something that can hold whatever needs to be soaked. When the item is stain free, wash it, rinse it thoroughly, and dry.
2. Hand Sanitizer
This is a variation of the technique described above. You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your plasticware – the active ingredient in these products is the same, and the gel can make it easier to apply.
Squirt some into the container or apply it to the affected area to soak, then rub clean, wash, rinse, and dry.
Removing blemishes from plastic can also be done by using chlorine bleach. Bleach can be used to remove ink, juice, soda, coffee, tea, tomato sauce and tomato paste stains, and all other types of food dyes.
Make a solution of water and bleach, using one tablespoon of bleach per one cup of water. Let the containers and other items soak in the solution for one to two hours. After the stains are gone, wash the containers thoroughly, rinse, and dry.
4. White Vinegar
This method is similar to using chlorine bleach. In fact, you can use the same ratio of distilled white vinegar as you would for a bleach and water solution, with one tablespoon of vinegar per one cup of water. If you have concerns about using bleach in your containers, vinegar is a great alternative that is food-safe.
Vinegar even provides various benefits in foods, such as improved digestion. When used for cleaning purposes, it is an excellent sanitizing agent that spells death for many single-celled organisms like bacteria, and it can kill viruses as well.
For stain removal, follow the same directions as outlined for the chlorine bleach technique. Vinegar is also great for removing hard water spots.
To create a foaming cleaning paste, it can be used in combination with the next item on our list.
5. Baking Soda
Baking soda can also remove all of the stains that have been mentioned above, and it is particularly useful for removing oily residues.
Just make a baking soda paste by mixing a tablespoon or two with a little water and apply it to the discolored container. Let it sit for twenty or thirty minutes, and then use it to clean the container with a moist cloth. The lightly abrasive paste will lift stains away. Wash, rinse, and dry.
6. Lemon Juice
Fresh lemons are easy to come by, and the acidic power of citrus can work wonders.
Just rub the container or other item with lemon juice and leave it in the sun for one or two days. Acid in the lemon combined with the sun’s UV light will remove discoloration, and it will also kill bacteria.
Everybody has some of this in the cabinet! Use a damp cloth, warm water, and regular table salt to rub the stain away. Creating an abrasive paste can come in handy as well.
Skip the fancy, more expensive varieties of salt for cleaning, and save the fleur de sel for use in cooking instead.
Repeat this process until discoloration no longer remains, then wash with soapy water and dry.
8. Hydrogen Peroxide
Peroxide is another common household item and it can be used to disinfect and remove stains from utensils and containers, and to lighten older plasticware that has taken on a yellow tinge.
Like vinegar, it can be used safely in combination with baking soda, or you can use it as a spray or soak.
Used in the same way as lemon juice and placed in a sunny spot, that yellow color that comes with age for many well-used plastic products will fade away, if you give it enough time.
Be sure to use only a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution, and avoid anything stronger which may not be safe for household use. Wash and dry your cookware and cutlery well after removal.
9. Denture Tablets
Since denture tablets are so good at removing discoloration from dentures, why not try it with your containers and other plastic items? It works very well.
You might find that various brands get their cleansing power from different active ingredients. While some are made with citric acid and sodium bicarbonate – aka baking soda – others contain peroxides or bleaching agents like sodium hypochlorite and sodium perborate, which can help to keep dentures as well as plasticware clean and gleaming.
Put two tablets in a cup of hot water and allow them to dissolve. Pour the mixture into your stained container. Let it sit until all discoloration is gone. Wash well, rinse, and dry.
This method employs the same concept as using denture tablets with another common household product that you might find in the medicine cabinet. And like lemon juice, with this option you’ll be utilizing the cleaning power of citric acid.
Put 2 tablets and about a cup of warm water in the container, allow the tablets to dissolve, and let the solution sit for one or two hours before washing. If the blemish doesn’t come out in a few hours, let it continue to sit overnight instead before washing with warm soapy water and drying with a clean dish towel.
(Hint: You can also often find powdered citric acid available in bulk at the grocery store, and it is often cheaper than branded products or ready-to-spray cleaners with fancy labels.)
11. Dawn Power Dissolver
Dawn Power Dissolver is designed to remove stains, so try it with your plastic items.
If you are not able to find this product at your local store, 32-ounce spray bottles are available in packs of two on Amazon.
Dawn Power Dissolver Spray 2-Pack, available from Amazon
Just spray it on and allow it to soak in for at least 30 minutes to dissolve grease and lift stains. Be sure to wear rubber gloves when applying this product, to protect your skin. Rinse and dry, and you’re good to go!
Stuck with Tomato Stains?
Another note worth pointing out is that you cannot remove tomato discoloration from plastic that has been microwaved. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. The heat from the temperature of the microwave oven has baked the stain in, and it is now essentially part of the structure of the container.
Bleaches and sun exposure can help, but it will be very difficult if not impossible to truly remove this type of stain once it has set in.
We used to recommend a product called Cascade Plastic Booster for stain removal, and it was touted by its proponents for excelling at removing tomato sauce stains in particular from plastic, as well as extending the life of plasticware.
The active ingredient in this product was benzoyl peroxide, an antibacterial oxidizing agent known for its drying and whitening power that is often used in commercial production of certain products and found in acne face washes. We have not found any comparable products for use on dishware available on the market today.
The best thing to do is not to put anything made with tomato sauce or tomato paste in your plastic containers, and to refrain from using them to reheat food in particular, or you’ll have to live with the results of the blemishes down the line. It’s better not to use plastic at all for storing tomato-based items.
Try glass for storage instead. Glassware often makes much more sense, and has the added benefit of being chemically inert. It will not react with acidic ingredients or leach potentially harmful chemicals into your food.
Pyrex brand food storage containers are a favorite, and though the white plastic lids are prone to staining, darker colored lids in shades of navy, green – or even red! – stand up to the test of time when it comes to storing leftovers.
Pyrex Simply Store 18-Piece Glass Food Storage Container Set, available from Amazon
An assorted set of nine rectangular and round glass Pyrex containers in several sizes with multicolored plastic lids is available from Amazon.
Extending the Life of Plasticware
If you find that your plastic containers and other items age before their time and become unsightly, try some of the cleaning methods outlined above to remove the blemishes rather than disposing of them right away.
It’s important to remember that plastic is porous, and will soak up whatever is put on it. Heat can exacerbate the process. Washing containers quickly after use can help to prevent stains in the first place, and avoiding the use of sharp utensils that may scratch plastic can help to extend the lifespan of these products as well.
But when stains have already set in, the methods outlined above can come to the rescue!
What’s your favorite household tip for cleaning unsightly stains from plastic cookware? Which of these items worked for you? Let us know in the comments!
And for more easy tips that can help to keep your kitchen clean, we suggest reading the following guides next:
- Butcher Blocks and Wood Cutting Boards: The Best Natural Methods for Care and Cleaning
- Cleaning Tips for Small Kitchen Appliances
- Your Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Kitchen Cabinets and Cupboards
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on June 12, 2012. Last updated November 30, 2022.
About Allison Sidhu
Allison M. Sidhu is a culinary enthusiast from southeastern Pennsylvania who has returned to Philly after a seven-year sojourn to sunny LA. She loves exploring the local restaurant and bar scene with her best buds. She holds a BA in English literature from Swarthmore College and an MA in gastronomy from Boston University. When she’s not in the kitchen whipping up something tasty (or listening to the latest food podcasts while she does the dishes!) you’ll probably find Allison tapping away at her keyboard, chilling in the garden, curled up with a good book (or ready to dominate with controller in hand in front of the latest video game) on the couch, or devouring a dollar dog and crab fries at the Phillies game.