Author Interviews
2:28 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

Embarrassing Stains? This Housekeeping Guide Gets That Life Is Messy

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 3:48 pm

Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that if you have bloodstains on your clothes, you probably have bigger problems than your laundry. But Jolie Kerr is here to help with all the stains — her new book is titled My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag ... and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha.

Kerr is known for giving cleaning advice for unconventional and embarrassing housecleaning and laundry problems — without the judgment of the typical holier-than-thou housekeeping advice columnist.

"No one should be like me," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I don't want anyone to go out and start acting like me. I'm nuts. I just want to help people with the one or two things they want help with." Kerr also writes the column Ask A Clean Person, which originated on Jezebel and now appears on The Hairpin and Deadspin.


Interview Highlights

On what to do about your smelly, mildewy towels

Run those towels through the washing machine, hot water, no detergent and a cup of white vinegar. White vinegar is going to kill that mildew smell. The other thing that the white vinegar is going to do is it's going to help to remove the excess detergent and fabric softener from those towels. ...

What you're doing is you're using way too much laundry detergent when you're washing your towels. Everyone does this; I'm guilty of it, too. We think more detergent means more clean; that's not the case. What happens when you use too much detergent is that detergent doesn't fully get rinsed out. ...

Mildew loves two things: It needs a drink, and that's the water, the water that you've given it by drying yourself off with the towel, and it needs food. And the food that it loves the most is it loves soap, and it loves skin. So it's already got soap hanging around there in that towel, and then it's got skin because you've dried yourself off. ... And while it's been hanging up in your damp bathroom, it's just been having a grand ol' party, drinking and eating and being all mildewy, and that's why your towels smell.

On why you shouldn't use bleach for 'protein stains'

You don't want to use bleach on any kind of protein stain. My rule of thumb that I tell people is that generally speaking, if it comes out of you — so vomit, blood, saliva, anything that comes out of you, sweat is another example — those fall into the category of protein stains. Oftentimes what happens with bleach when it comes in contact with a protein stain is that it can render that stain more yellow rather than taking it out.

You don't want to just put your stain treatments into the wash cycle. You actually want to apply them right to the stain and then let them work a little bit before laundering the item. That's going to give you the best results.

On underarm stains on cotton shirts

Yes, it's the sweat that's causing that yellow stain, but the other thing is the deodorant we're wearing, the antiperspirant that we're wearing, is causing those yellow stains. That's in part because the aluminum that's in that antiperspirant and deodorant is reacting with the protein in our sweat and also the protein that's naturally in many of our clothes — the fibers, particularly in cotton shirts, have a protein element. ... So basically what you're getting is a perfect storm of chemical reactions going on with the deodorant, the shirt and the sweat. Again, always [use] an enzymatic cleaner, never bleach. Bleach is going to make things a whole lot worse. ...

[Pre-soak] those shirts in some warm water and whatever enzymatic cleaner you're using, give 'em a good long soak if they're really bad. [That] will go a long way in getting those stains out. The other thing you can use is an old toothbrush ... or a laundry brush, will help to really [get] those stains out, so rubbing the pits of those shirts will help to lift a lot of the staining.

On using a science class volcano to clear a slow drain

Commercial drain clearers can be very, very hard on your pipes. ... It is incredibly important to know what kind of drains you have — if you have metal drains or if you have PVC — because you can cause a huge amount of damage if you use the wrong kind of product for your drain type.

One way to avoid all of that is to use a very natural, totally safe and very, very fun method for clearing a slow drain. ... This is probably not going to work when you've gotten to the point of a fully backed-up drain; this is for the slow drain and also for drain maintenance in general. It's a combination of baking soda and white vinegar and that is going to produce the very fun volcano effect. ...

When a lot of us were in grammar school, our science classes would have us do the baking soda and vinegar volcano. ... A good sprinkle [of baking soda] ... maybe four or five good sprinkles and then just pour maybe a half cup to a cup of white vinegar. I eyeball it. Then just let that work and run down the drain for a little bit. ... About five, 10 minutes later go in and just run hot water down, push it all the way through the drain to help clear things out.

On cleaning up cat urine

You want to treat [urine] with an enzyme. That's going to neutralize both the odor and any staining. Nature's Miracle, I think, is probably the best product out there. It's the one I hear from cat owners works the best, the one they tend to go to. ... One important thing ... is not to use white vinegar. You want to be careful not to use anything that has white vinegar in it and also anything that's ammonia-based. Both of those things are going to smell to a cat like urine and like they've marked the spot where you've cleaned and then they're going to keep returning to that and they're going to keep peeing on it.

On the many uses for denture tablets

They're great as a jewelry cleaner. ... Denture cleaners are also awesome for vases when they have maybe had a bouquet of flowers in them a little too long and that kind of gross scum develops. ... You can just drop them in and the fizzing will do the scrubbing for you. They're fantastic on stained Tupperware.

On seltzer treatment for stains: truth or myth?

It works for sure! ... It can work for basically any stain and the reason that it works really is that because you're getting to it immediately with some water. It's not so much that seltzer is so totally magic. The difference that seltzer has that flat water doesn't have is that it has some sodium in it. Sodium is a pretty good stain-killer. ... Salt is the go-to when you have a red wine stain. When you have a red wine stain, pouring a whole bunch of table salt on it will suck it right up. It has to be a fresh stain. ... Just plain table salt [no water]. ... You can go pour some wine on your carpet tonight and try it out!

During our interview Kerr also explained how to clean stains on the sheets, rust in the shower and gunk in the refrigerator. To learn more, click the "Listen" link at the top of this page.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Here's something Jerry Seinfeld used to say in his act back in the 1980s.

JERRY SEINFELD: Now they show you how detergents get out blood stains on television, pretty violent image there. Figure if you've got a T-shirt with blood stains all over it, maybe laundry isn't your biggest problem right now.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What Seinfeld said may be true. On the other hand, let's not underestimate the importance of getting out those blood stains. My guest today is here to help with that and other cleaning problems. She's known for giving advice on dealing with unconventional, embarrassing and gross house cleaning and laundry problems, which is why her new book is titled "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha," Martha Stewart.

Kerr also writes the column Ask a Clean Person, which originated on the feminist website Jezebel and is now on the women's website The Hair Pin and the sports site Deadspin. Jolie Kerr, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how did you become such an expert in cleaning?

JOLIE KERR: Well, I knew a lot about cleaning when I started writing a cleaning advice column, but I have become an expert by dint of doing the job of being a cleaning advice columnist. You know, I knew a lot about basic home care. It was just something that I was interested in because I probably am the world's boringest(ph) person if that's what I was interested in, but that was what, just a thing that I always liked.

I always liked keeping my home up, and a friend suggested I write a cleaning column. So I started doing that. And then what happened was that the questions that were coming my way went so far beyond what my more than basic knowledge was but certainly not expert-level knowledge was when I first started out. And so I did a lot of learning on the job to figure out how to help people with the questions that they would come to me with.

And, you know, some of them are somewhat basic questions that have to do with laundry, and then some of them are totally wild, you know, once-in-a-lifetime things like a boyfriend barfing in a leather handbag, at least we hope that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing for this poor person who it happened to.

GROSS: And I should say you address the column to men and women. You are not making the assumption that it is women who do the cleaning.

KERR: Absolutely I am not, no, no, no. I write for both men and women. It's very important for me to that. It was actually one of the reasons that I moved my column away from its original home into a place where I could be writing for both a male and a female audience. I personally view cleaning as a human problem, not a gendered problem. I would not be interested in only writing for a female audience and to continue to reinforce the notion that cleaning is women's work. I just don't see it that way at all.

GROSS: So in preparation for this interview, I collected questions from the FRESH AIR staff about cleaning, and we also asked for some questions from our listeners, who have lots of questions for you. And the first question is going to be from our executive producer, Danny Miller, and he is actually asking a question on behalf of Travis Bickle, who is the main character in Martin Scorsese classic master work "Taxi Driver."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And for anyone who's seen "Taxi Driver," they know that Travis is a very lonely, alienated taxi driver who thinks the world he sees around him is full of filth, and filthy people and crazy people. And he thinks of himself as the sane and decent one, when actually he's going crazy. So here's an excerpt of Travis Bickle's diary from "Taxi Driver," and you will see why we need your answer to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TAXI DRIVER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) All the animals come out at night, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies - sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets. Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the backseat. Some nights I clean out the blood.

GROSS: OK, so the question is what advice would you have for Travis Bickle on the nights when he has to clean off the blood from the backseat of his taxi.

KERR: That is a great question. The good news about cleaning blood is that there's actually a lot of ways that you can clean blood off of various surfaces. And the other good thing is that generally, taxi seats are made out of vinyl, which is pretty easy to clean, unlike leather or cloth. It's not as absorbent, and it's not as difficult and testy as leather can be. So with vinyl, actually you could just wipe it off. Generally speaking, though, you don't want to use bleach on blood.

So he could've used something like hydrogen peroxide, which is a very common way to remove blood stains from various surfaces, including upholstery. There's another really funny one. I don't know that he would like this because it might sound really gross to him, it sounds kind of gross to me, but it does work, which is that your own saliva will clean out a blood stain.

So for people who are on the fly and in a pinch and can't get access to any kind of cleaning product and have a blood stain on something, they can go ahead and spit right on the place where the stain is and rub it in a little bit, and that will take blood stains out.

GROSS: So you said don't use bleach on a blood stain. Why not?

KERR: Generally speaking, you don't want to use bleach on a blood stain. You don't want to use bleach on any kind of protein stain. And my rule of thumb that I tell people is that if it comes out of you, so vomit, blood, saliva, sweat is another example, those fall into the category of protein stains, and oftentimes what happens with bleach when it comes in contact with a protein stain is that it can render that stain more yellow rather than taking it out.

GROSS: OK, well this leads to a problem that women have, which is if you get blood stains on your sheets. I mean, if they're white sheets, maybe you'd want to bleach the sheets, but you're saying don't do that.

KERR: Yes, don't do that. Stick with the hydrogen peroxide as opposed to bleach. Again, it's got that same antibacterial property to it that bleach has, but it won't render that stain yellow. Hydrogen peroxide is really always the go-to when you're talking about blood stain, although as I said, there are a lot of other ways you can go, weird things from saliva to meat tenderizer with blood.

GROSS: So say you're putting the sheet in the laundry. Are you putting in like a cup of hydrogen peroxide or just pouring that on the stain? What are you doing?

KERR: You should pre-treat the stain. Generally speaking, you don't want to just put your stain treatments into the wash cycle. You actually want to apply them right to the stain and let them work a little bit before laundering the item. That's going to give you the best results.

GROSS: So would the same apply to what you describe so tastefully as sex stains on your sheets?

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Yes, very much so, and sexual stains, which is of course my very nice term, and certainly one of the things that you absolutely never, ever want to put bleach on. It really is going to make those stains render much more yellow than they did even in their original state. And this is also very much true of sweat stains. Those yellow stains that people tend to get under the underarms of their shirts, an enzymatic-based cleaner is going to be a go-to for that.

I love OxiClean, that old infomercial product that a lot of people sort of blow off because of its informercial past. There are lots of other enzymatic-based stain removers out there. Zout is one of them. Really anything that has enzymes in it is going to go ahead and say that right on the label, so any kind of spray treatment. I find spray treatments are the easiest for people to work with. They're a little bit less messy than the gel sticks or making a paste out of a powder. But any of those are really fine, as long as they have enzymes in them.

And again, following that rule of thumb I gave you about the protein stain, whenever you're talking about a protein stain, the first thing you want to think about is I need an enzyme to counteract that.

GROSS: Does everything that you just said also apply to the dread skid marks?

KERR: You know, to some extent. Skid marks are a little bit different, though, and I just said that so seriously, didn't I? It's a ridiculous thing to talk about.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: They're among the easiest stains to get out. Of course they're gross, and we don't really want to think about them too much, but they do happen. The good thing about those kinds of stains is that really a little bit of soap and water is going to take them out. You don't even need to get super, super fancy. You know, you just have to maybe literally hold your nose and get a little soap and water and just rubbing the fabric against itself will really help to ease a stain out.

GROSS: So do that before you put it in the laundry?

KERR: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: OK. Now in talking about these stains you mentioned underarm stains from sweat and deodorant, and we have two people on our show who wanted to know about that. One is a woman, Heidi Saman, and the other is a man, John Myers, and they're especially interested in white T-shirts and white shirts. So what advice do you have for getting out sweat and deodorant underarm stains?

KERR: Sure thing. Well, the first thing I want to say is that I love that both a man and a woman asked that. It's actually probably my number one question, both from men and women, total equality when it comes to pit stains.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Which is great. I think that that is a wonderful, wonderful thing when we can start showing that...

GROSS: Equality at last.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Equality of filth is exactly what we want in life. You know, neither men nor women are dirtier than the other. It's just a total fallacy to insist that one way or the other, and I think pit stains are perfect example of that: they happen to everybody. And they happen for two reasons, actually, which you kind of touched on. One yes, it's the sweat that's causing that yellow stain. But the other thing is the deodorant that we're wearing, the antiperspirant that we're wearing, is causing those yellow stains.

Which is great. I think that that is a wonderful, wonderful thing when we can start showing that...

GROSS: Equality at last.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Equality of filth is exactly what we want in life. You know, neither men nor women are dirtier than the other. It's just a total fallacy to insist that one way or the other, and I think pit stains are perfect example of that: they happen to everybody. And they happen for two reasons, actually, which you kind of touched on. One, yes, it's the sweat that's causing that yellow stain. But the other thing is the deodorant that we're wearing, the antiperspirant that we're wearing, is causing those yellow stains.

And that's in part because the aluminum that's in that antiperspirant and deodorant is reacting with the protein in our sweat and also the protein that's naturally in many of our clothes, so fibers, particularly in cotton shirts, have a protein element to it. So basically what you're getting is a perfect storm of chemical reactions going on with the deodorant, the shirt and the sweat.

So again, in that case always an enzymatic cleaner, never bleach. Bleach is going to make things a whole lot worse, so enzymatic cleaners, but you can't just sprinkle, as I like to remind people, you can't just sprinkle a little OxiClean in the wash and expect a miracle. You are going to have to do a little bit of work.

GROSS: You mean like - yeah, go ahead.

KERR: Pre-soak, which no one wants to hear, I'm sorry to have to report that, but pre-soaking those shirts in some warm water and whatever enzymatic cleaner you're using, give them a good long soak if they're really bad, will go a long way in getting those stains out.

The other thing that you can use is either an old toothbrush, you know, not - certainly not the one you use on your teeth currently, but an old toothbrush or a laundry brush will help to really slough those stains out. So rubbing the pits of those shirts will help to lift a lot of the staining but also the residual deodorant and antiperspirant that tends to build up.

You get that kind of hard underarm feeling, that cardboardy feeling, that's really from the buildup of the deodorant.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jolie Kerr, and she's the author of the new book "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." It's a book about how to clean difficult stains and unusual stains. She's also the author of the column Ask A Clean Person, which is published in Jezebel and Deadspin. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk more about dirt. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jolie Kerr, and she is an expert in cleaning stuff. And her new book is called "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." She is also author of the column Ask A Clean Person, which is published in Jezebel and Deadspin.

And this next question is from one of our producers, Sam Brigger(ph). If you're washing your clothes, and there's still a stain after you've done putting it through the washing machine, does that mean you're stuck with the stain forever, or do you still have a chance of getting it out?

KERR: No, there is still hope, but don't put it in the dryer. Once you've put it in a dryer, your chances of hope are significantly diminished. The heat from the dryer will set a stain. But if you've put something through the washing machine, and you've taken it out, and you see that the stain is still there, just pull it out, treat it again, maybe try a different stain treatment. It may just be that the product that you used wasn't right for the stain you have.

Sometimes it's just a mystery as to why one product will work, and another doesn't. Maybe try something new. Treat it again. Maybe let it be treated for longer, so you know, again, spraying with a stain treatment and letting it sit for a little bit longer than you did last time and then re-washing it again, and the second wash should probably get that stain out.

Once you've put something through the dryer, as I said, it's a little bit more hopeless, but it's not impossible. So you can keep going. You can also take something to the dry cleaner, or you can do a DIY dry cleaning by buying dry-cleaning solvents, which you can find at any hardware store, home improvement store, and just spot-treat yourself.

The one thing you want to of course remember if you're going to work with dry-cleaning solvents on your own is to use appropriate protection and open windows. These are chemicals you're working with, so, you know, you don't want to be inhaling them, you don't really want to be having them come in direct contact with your skin.

GROSS: OK, so this next question comes from one of our producers, Phyllis Myers(ph). She wants to know the truth about seltzer when it comes to using seltzer to spot-clean a stain.

KERR: It works, for sure, yeah.

GROSS: What does it work for?

KERR: You know, it can work for basically any stain, and the reason that it works really is that you're getting to it immediately with some water. And it's not so much that seltzer is so totally magic. The difference that seltzer has that flat water doesn't have is that it has some sodium in it. Sodium is a pretty good stain killer. Again, when we were talking about the blood stains, salt solution, saline solution, even the contact solution, will work on blood stains.

And as I think everybody who drinks wine knows, salt is the go-to when you have a red wine stain.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

KERR: Oh, well, now you know that.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Yeah, when you have a red wine stain, just pouring a whole bunch of table salt on it will like suck it right up. It has to be a fresh stain.

GROSS: Wait, table salt in water or just plain table salt?

KERR: No, just plain table salt.

GROSS: Really?

KERR: Yeah, it's a weird, it's a weird phenomenon, and it's weird to see it happen because all of a sudden this mount of salt starts turning red. It's very cool. It's very cool stuff, so...

GROSS: Even if your fabric has already basically absorbed the wine?

KERR: It'll - as long as it's a fresh stain. That's for fresh wine stains, yeah.

GROSS: And then so you pour the salt on, the salt turns red, and then you're finished, or then you take cold water or what?

KERR: Well, then you'll - you know, you'll sweep or vacuum up the salt so it's away. There'll probably be a little bit of a residual stain. That can just be treated with a little bit of soap and water; if it's on a carpet, carpet cleaner; even a little bit of liquid laundry detergent.

GROSS: Interesting.

KERR: You could go home and pour some red wine on your carpet tonight and try it out.

GROSS: No, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: I didn't think you were going to do that. But back to that, but back to the seltzer, so one of the reasons that seltzer works a little bit better than flat water is that it does have sodium content in it. The real notion behind it is that you're treating the stain right away, right? So you look down at your blouse, you go oh no, I splashed a little bit of wine, you immediately dip your napkin into seltzer water, and you start dabbing at it.

It's really the dabbing with the water that's getting that stain out because you're getting to it before it's set in.

GROSS: So it's not the carbonation from the seltzer that's accomplishing anything?

KERR: No.

GROSS: OK. So say you have a stain, and all you have is water, that's the only thing you have available. Cold water is going to help?

KERR: Great, absolutely. I always tell people the first thing to do when you get a stain, run the water, get a little dish soap, put a tiny bit of dish soap on the stain, run the garment under the running water while rubbing it together, that stain's going to come right out.

GROSS: You know what I worry about when I do that? That the part where I've been rubbing with the soap is going to have its own stain, it's going to - like the dye is going to run a little bit or something - it's going to look different than the rest of the garment.

KERR: No, I don't think you need to worry about that. But the thing is, don't - you don't need to use a lot of soap. I mean, you don't want it to get so sudsy that you can't rinse the shirt out, right. So just really a tiny, tiny bit. And, you know, again, if it's a very delicate fabric, you don't want to rub it together so hard that you're abrading the fabric. But no, you shouldn't have any issue with dye run.

GROSS: OK, this question comes from me. If you have a towel that's gotten mildewed, what's the best way of getting the mildew out?

KERR: Ah, this is one of my favorite ones. So I'm going to tell you how to get the mildew out, and then I'm also going to tell you why that's happening. So the first thing to know is the way to get it out is to run those towels through the washing machine, hot water, no detergent, and a cup of white vinegar. White vinegar is going to kill that mildew smell.

The other thing that the white vinegar is going to do is it's going to help to remove the excess detergent and fabric softener from those towels. And that leads me right into the thing that is causing that mildew on the towels. What you're doing is you're using way too much laundry detergent when you're washing your towels. Everyone does this; I'm guilty of it too. We think that more detergent means more clean. That's not the case.

What happens when you use too much detergent is that that detergent doesn't fully get rinsed out. And I like to compare it to washing a plate with too much dish soap. When you use too much dish soap on a plate, think about how long it takes you to get the plate clean of the soap, right. In that case, though, you have time on your hands because it's up to you how long you're rinsing that plate, right. You can just stand there and wait and wait and wait until enough water has run down it so that it's clean.

When it comes to the washing machine, you don't have control over the length of the rinse cycle. That's preset for you by nature of the machine. So it's rinsing out as much as it can in the time that it allows for the rinse cycle, and anything that's left over in those towels soap-wise is going to just hang out in there.

Then you're going to dry them. They're going to come out of the machine smelling great. You're going to think you have fluffy, great towels. You're going to use it. You're probably going to use it again, which means you're going to hang it back up in your bathroom. The next day you go in, and it smells like mildew.

And the reason it smells like mildew is because your wet body has come in contact with that towel that has way too much soap still hanging around in it, and mildew loves two things. It needs a drink, and that's the water, so the water that you've given it by drying yourself off with a towel. And it needs food. And the food that it loves the most is it loves soap, and it loves skin.

So it's already got soap hanging around there in that towel, and then it's got skin because you've dried yourself off, and we molt constantly, and so you've added some skin. And while it's been hanging up in your damp bathroom, it's just been having a grand old party, drinking and eating and being all mildewy, and that's why your towels smell.

So to triage them, you want to run them through a wash cycle with vinegar and no soap to get that soap out, and then going forward, really try to cut back on the amount of detergent that you're using.

GROSS: It strikes me as kind of cruel that mildew likes soap.

KERR: I know, isn't it? Isn't that heartbreaking?

GROSS: It just doesn't seem right.

KERR: I know, dastardly, that mildew.

GROSS: Jolie Kerr will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jolie Kerr, who's known for her cleaning advice, especially her advice relating to gross or embarrassing household and laundry problems. Her new book is called "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." She also writes the advice column "Ask A Clean Person." I collected some questions from listeners and from the FRESH AIR staff.

Here's a question from someone on our show. She has a cat who drinks water from a bowl on the windowsill. The windowsill is made out of some kind of wood. And there's a little mold that started to grow on the windowsill. So what would you suggest for that?

KERR: Well, because it's for the cat...

GROSS: You know, because the splashes around on the water and it's like that's what the cat does.

KERR: Right. Right. Well, because cats will do that. Cats will do anything and everything to make your life difficult. They're charming animals in that regard.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Your cats hate you, basically. But you love them I love that you love them so, you know, I tease cat owners a lot. The thing to do that, one is to move the bowl for little bit. You want to go ahead and clean that mold with bleach. And the reason for that is if you use vinegar in a home with cats, that vinegar is going to smell to the cat like its own urine and it's going to smell like the cat has marked that place. And it's likely that the cat might respond by peeing on the windowsill, which is certainly not what you want.

GROSS: Perfect.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: So go ahead and move the bowl away and maybe just keep the cat off the sill for a day if you can. Use the bleach. Wipe it very, very well because what you also don't want to have happen is you don't want the cat to lick the windowsill and lick up the bleach residue. But that's going to go ahead and clean that mold off.

GROSS: So if you do use bleach, should you use water afterwards to get the bleach off, like...

KERR: Yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And if it's - if the bleach stops smelling, is that when you know that you've gotten it off?

KERR: That's a good indication. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. A lot of people have this question. Do you have a recommendation for a slow drain in a sink...

KERR: I do.

GROSS: ...without using one of the, like acid products?

KERR: Yes. I do. I do. And it's a fun one. So...

GROSS: Fun?

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Yes. It actually is fun. It is fun. And this isn't just me being a crazy clean person who thinks that all cleaning is fun. This is actually really fun one. So, you're absolutely right to say without using one of those acid products. Products - commercial drain clearers can be very, very hard on your pipes. The other thing to know before if you are going to use a commercial drain clearer is that it is incredibly important to know what kind of drains you have - if you have metal drains or if you have PVC, because you can cause huge amount of damage if you use the wrong kind of products for your drain type. So one way to avoid all of that is to use a very natural, all totally safe and very, very fun method for clearing a slow drain. Now I should say that this is probably not going to work when you've gotten to the point of a fully backed up drain. This is really for the slow drain and also for drain maintenance in general. So it's a combination of baking soda and white vinegar. And that is going to produce the very fun volcano affect. So when a lot of us were in grammar school, our science classes would have us do the baking soda and vinegar volcano, which is where you put a whole bunch of baking soda down, and then you pour vinegar over it and it has this huge cool bubbling up explosion type effect. It's not going to explode so much that it's going to go over the bathroom, so you don't need to worry about that. But it is really cool to watch and I do this in my house and it's very fun, always gives me a little thrill.

GROSS: How much of each are using?

KERR: How much of each are you using?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KERR: You know, a good sprinkle. I mean usually I'm doing it out of a box of baking soda. So, you know, maybe four or five good sprinkles, and then just pour maybe a half cup to a cup of white vinegar. I sort of eyeball it. Yeah.

GROSS: And then do you rinse it all down afterwards?

KERR: Yeah. Then just, you know, let that kind of work and run down the drain for little bit and work its magic. About five, 10 minutes later, go in and just run hot water down, push it all the way through the drain, help to clear things out.

GROSS: OK. Good. Thank you for that.

KERR: I told you it was fun.

GROSS: It's - yeah, as these things go, it sounds like fun.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So because of the colorful title of your book, I thought this question would fit perfectly with the mood. This comes from a listener who writes: A couple of summers ago, I was driving home a drunk friend of mine. And as she was puking out the car window, a gust of wind blew most of it back into the car and all over the ceiling. I've tried everything short of bleach to get the stains out and nothing has really worked. Any suggestions?

KERR: Ooh.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Well, first of all, I am so sorry that that happened.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: But, thank you very much for driving your friend home. That was a good deed on your part. So probably the best thing to do when you're talking about the headlining of a car, which is the top interior part that's generally sort of that soft fabric, is to use an upholstery cleaner. I like a foaming upholstery cleaner. I think especially when you're talking about the headlining of a car, it's a little bit easier to kind of control that. The one real trick with it is that because you can't flush water through it obviously, you want to be pretty sparing in your use of that product. I like Resolve, but there are plenty of other foaming upholstery cleaners. Packaged instructions are always the ones to follow, but just scrubbing at it with a little bit of that cleaner and a sponge should really take that off. If things are really, really bad - which it sounds like they are, you might want to go to a product that's what I call a super series cleaning product. There's something called K2R, and it's the kind of thing that you get at a hardware store. Basically, whenever I'm talking about anything at the hardware store you know I mean super business. This is like serious time when you go to the hardware store. K2R is a spray product. You spray it on a stain and it will be behind like a white powder, then you just brush that powder off and it takes the stain away. Again, when you're talking about anything like K2R, you know, a serious cleaning product, you want to use some protective gloves and make sure that you have a well ventilated area.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jolie Kerr. She's the author of the new book all about how to clean things, which is called "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." She also writes a cleaning column for Jezebel and for Dead Spin. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about interesting tips to help you clean your house, your clothes and other things. My guest is Jolie Kerr. She's the author of the new book, "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." She also writes the "Ask a Clean Person" column for Jezebel and Dead Spin.

OK. An animal question for you. And this question comes from Mary Shobert, who is married to our executive producer, Danny. They have cats. And so this is a cat urine question. What happens if you cat pees on your rug or on the furniture, how do you get out the smell?

KERR: Sure. Well, first off, the cat is going to pee on your furniture right, because the cat hates you.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: So just bear in mind when you're going to get that cute kitty down at the shelter that it's going to wreak havoc on your life and it's going to do so deliberately.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You don't - do you have cats?

KERR: No, I do not have cats. I definitely do not have cats.

GROSS: You sound like you don't have cats.

KERR: No way.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: No. And I'm a dog person, although I don't have a dog either. So whenever you have a cat in the house, even before anything happens you always want to have an enzymatic cleaner. Again, just like when we talk about the things that come out of us - the protein stains that come out of us - protein stains that come out of cats are exactly the same, you want to treat them with an enzyme. That's going to neutralize both the odor and any staining. Nature's Miracle, I think is probably the best product out there. It's the one that I hear from cat owner's works the best, the one that they tend to go to. But there are loads of them out on the market. Really, most of them are going to work just as well as any other. One important thing, and we talked about this a little bit with the molds issue around cats is not to use white vinegar. You want to be careful not to use anything that has white vinegar in it and also anything that's ammonia-based. Both of those things are going to smell to a cat like urine and like they've marked the spot where you've cleaned and then they're going to keep returning to that and they're going to keep peeing on it and obviously, you don't want that. So that's a no-no. Stick with something that's a pet specific, enzymatic base cleaner.

GROSS: OK. And here's a question from me on a related note. And your answer might be the same for this, I'm not sure, but OK. So it's nighttime, your cat's in bed with you all snuggly, very nice, when suddenly you hear this horrible choking sound and your cat is either choking up a fur ball or is just throwing up on your blanket. So...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...and it's the middle of the night.

KERR: Of course, it is.

GROSS: Of course, it is.

KERR: Because the cat hates you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No. Stop it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Our cats love us. They just don't always show it in the most appreciative way.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what's your suggestion?

KERR: Sure. So again, you know, Nature's Miracle type products is great. And one of the reasons that it's great is that it's an all-purpose for basically - any pain a cat is going to inflict on your life...

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: ...which it will - as we've established - the Nature's Miracle is going to treat any of those. So when you're talking about vomit - if it's on a blanket actually, it's a little bit easier because hopefully, you can just pick the blanket up and maybe bring it over to the sink and sort of just rinse off the debris, as I like to call it, and then treat it with that stain treatment. And then probably you're just going to want to go ahead and launder that the next time you can bring yourself to do laundry.

GROSS: Right. OK. Let's get to a different kind of animal, and I mean insects. You have some interesting suggestions you have for what you describe as critter invasions...

KERR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...cockroaches, ants. What are some of the non-toxic, non-insecticide suggestions that you have?

KERR: Absolutely. Boric acid - which sounds totally toxic and terrifying, but is not toxic and terrifying at all, is really the best go-to when you're talking about virtually every kind of insect. Almost every insect hates boric acid. The brand name to look for is Borax. And Borax is actually great because not only will it work as an insect repellent, it's also really great in laundry. It's what my mom used to use on my baby clothes to get those poop stains out - what we were talking about earlier. And so she's always reminding me about how Borax is this miracle thing that kept all my baby clothes looking perfect. So it's a great laundry booster and it's also a great insect repellent and it is safe for humans, it's non-toxic. So a really great product to know about that's a nice alternative to those very, very chemically type sprays that we find. Those sprays work too. I once lived in the house that every April, without fail, ants would show up in my bathroom. It was the weirdest phenomenon and it was only in April and I would just get that Raid ant spray and spray around the perimeter of the bathroom and they would be gone, and then the next April, they'd come marching back in and it would be the same scenario over and over again. So those things work. But, of course, if you live in a home with pets, if you live in a home with children who - particularly ones who are crawling, and who are crawling around on the floor, using those kinds of sprays is probably not ideal for you and boric acid is going to be a great alternative.

GROSS: How much boric acid should you use, because you caution against using too much?

KERR: Right. You want to use just a very, very small amount. What it does is it coats the insect's shell. If you use too much, these insects are very, very smart. It's part of the reason they're able to survive so long, right? So the cockroaches in particular, if you use too high a stream of the boric acid that you've laid down, they'll just walk right over it. So what you want to have happen is you want it to be a fairly low stream, you know, pile. Pile isn't the word I want to use there because I don't want people piling it up, I want them to use just a really thin line of it. And then the insects will walk through it and then they'll become coated in it and then it's lights out for them.

GROSS: One of the things you recommend for some cleaning jobs is denture tablets, those tablets that you use to clean dentures. What would you use those for?

KERR: Oh, I love denture tablets. I'm so glad you asked about that one. I use denture tablets actually to clean my wedding rings. They're great as a jewelry cleaner. You want to be sure that you're only using them on jewelry for which you would use another kind of jewelry cleaner. Some metals and hard gems are going to be fine. Don't ever use them on any kind of soft gem, like a pearl or an opal, very, very bad. Actually, you never want to use any kind of cleaner on a pearl or an opal. Those are very, very delicate gems that you're talking about. Denture cleaners are also awesome for vases when they have maybe had a bouquet of flowers in them a little too long and that kind of gross scum develops. Also, some vases are just very hard to clean because they have a narrow base. So denture tablets are great because you can just drop them in and the fizzing will do the scrubbing for you. They're fantastic on stained Tupperware - when you get those red tomato sauce stains, I hear about that a lot. Denture tablets will help with that. So, but there's really - there's like almost no limit to what denture tablets are fantastic for.

GROSS: OK. So here's another kind of stain. You know how sometimes, like, a bottle of shaving cream or, you know, some other bottle like that that has metal, will sometimes rust and then leave a rust stain on your sink?

KERR: Yes.

GROSS: What's a good way of getting that out?

KERR: Sure. I've got two different ways. The first is just to go with a good ol' Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Those things are awesome and I love using them and they work wonders. So they're very easy. If you promise not to tell Mr. Clean that I said so, because I don't want him to be mad at me, you can even buy a generic brand one. Most stores will sell their own in-house brand version of the Magic Erasers.

Those things are actually made of melamine foam. So you can also just buy bulk melamine foam if you're really, really into the Magic Erasers. I give this alternative for two reasons. One, it's cheaper. And, two, when you're talking about the use of the Magic Eraser in any of its form - generic, whatever - you do always want to spot test to make sure that it's going to be safe on the surface you're using it for.

You can think of those almost as working like very, very fine sandpaper in that they'll remove the top layer of the surface. So I like that analogy a lot because it's a good reminder to always test first to make sure that it's safe. So if you've tested first and you realize, oh, this is going to cause another blemish in the surface - it may take up the stain but it's going to leave behind something else that I don't want - another really good way to get rid of those rust stains is to cut a lemon in half.

Sprinkle it with kosher salt and just scrub at the stain using the cut half of the lemon with the kosher salt. The combination of the salt and the lemon is going to cause a bit of a bleaching effect, which is what you want to remove the stain, and the salt itself is an abrasive and is going to help again to slough that stain off.

GROSS: Oh, sounds good. And one more question from our staff. Here's another question from our staff. Our producer Lauren Krenzel wants to know how do you get out the gunk from refrigerator gaskets?

KERR: Oh, the gunk from refrigerator gaskets. That's a good one. White vinegar, again, actually is the answer to that. White vinegar is great on the refrigerator because it's non-toxic. So you don't want to use something super toxic near your food source. And getting into the gaskets, the best thing to do is to dampen a very thin cloth.

There are some cleaning cloths that are out there on the market that are really, really, really thin. They're usually like blue and white kind of very tight chevron pattern. Those are great because they are super, super thin and they allow you to kind of use your finger to go in between the little rubber folds that get up there in that refrigerator gasket.

The other thing that will work really well to get into those tight spaces are some Q-tips, cotton swabs. And, again, you know, you just dip a little bit in the white vinegar and you just kind of go over. It's detail work but it doesn't take very, very long.

And it's kind of grossly satisfying to see what that Q-tip has behind it. So if you can kind of look forward to the enjoyable grossness, the satisfying grossness, of the task, it makes the tedious detail work feel a little bit better.

GROSS: So what's your cleaning schedule for today?

KERR: Cleaning schedule for today? It's Tuesday so I did my kitchen.

GROSS: So you have a schedule that you adhere to every week?

KERR: Oh, yes I do.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That makes a lot of sense if you can do it. You know? I mean, if you're...

KERR: Yeah, Monday through Friday.

GROSS: Yeah.

KERR: Absolutely. And I don't clean on the weekends. So Tuesday is kitchen cleaning day.

GROSS: How stuffed is your cleaning close with products?

KERR: Oh, my gosh. Well, first of all, I don't have a cleaning closet because we only have one closet in our apartment. I live in a tiny little New York tenement. But we keep my cleaning supplies underneath the sink in the kitchen. I just recently got a whole bunch of new samples of products I'm really excited to try out and that made things very difficult down there in terms of fitting everything in.

It's pretty stuffed but it's also very, very organized. I've got little sections and I use bins to corral certain things. So all my laundry products are together and all my rags are together. It's insane. I mean, no one should be like me. I don't want anyone to go out and start acting like me. I'm nuts. I just want to help people with the one or two things that they want help with.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been fun and helpful.

KERR: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Jolie Kerr is the author of the new book "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." You can read her tips for cleaning your kitchen, both daily cleaning and hard cleaning, on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews three shows on HBO Sunday: the season premiers of "VEEP" and "Game of Thrones" and the series premier of "Silicon Valley." This is FRESH AIR.

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