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Dec 29, 2023


Updated March 7, 2023 Zoe Vanderweide Share this post I love the crisp, clean look of a pristine white shirt, so white tees, button-downs, and blouses are year-round staples in my wardrobe. My

Updated March 7, 2023

Zoe Vanderweide

Share this post

I love the crisp, clean look of a pristine white shirt, so white tees, button-downs, and blouses are year-round staples in my wardrobe. My problem: I’m messy.

Running to catch the train with a cup of coffee? You can bet I roll into work with a suspicious splash of brown down my front. Enjoying a glass of pinot noir? I’m just one overenthusiastic cheers away from a total crime scene.

And don’t get me started on condiments. Ketchup, barbecue sauce, mustard, and sriracha have ruined more of my clothes than I care to admit.

Dare I dream of a shirt that can resist liquids, spills, and stains (without looking and feeling like a raincoat)?

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To investigate, I tested three purportedly stain-repellent shirts from brands that specialize in making easier-to-maintain apparel. I wasn’t looking for perfection—none of the shirts promise to be completely stainproof—but I did want to see if they measured up to their marketing claims. (Mother Oxford’s site shows a shirt theatrically doused in ketchup then rinsed clean under the shower. I was skeptical.) I also assessed each shirt’s style and the feel of its fabric: After all, spill resistance is moot if the shirt isn’t something I’d actually wear.

Ordinary cotton, silk, and linen shirts get stained because those fabrics absorb liquids. When you spill water (or red wine) onto your clothing, it gets wet and saturated, which allows physical and chemical reactions to take place that result in stains. The fabric in most stain-repellent shirts, on the other hand, has been coated with slippery and ultra-durable chemical compounds called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which are also in everything from nonstick pans to food wrappers (read more about PFAS below). If you spill a cabernet or iced coffee on a treated fabric, the liquid immediately beads up and rolls off like drops of water on a windshield—or so manufacturers promise.

I focused my research on brands that have made stain resistance their raison d’être. Puzzlingly, many companies seem to believe that men are the primary audience for shirts that shrug off life’s little accidents (they obviously haven’t met me). But a few embarrassingly well-targeted ads on my Instagram feed were enough to spark inspiration. I settled on three well-reviewed brands that make women’s shirts—Ably, Numi, and Mother Oxford—and chose a popular style from each.

I went to work evaluating the shirts’ fit, feel, and stain-repellent fabric. All three felt remarkably like regular shirts, with none of the waxy stiffness of traditional outdoor apparel or the uncanny sheen of performance fabrics. In fact, were it not for their ketchup-splattered marketing, I wouldn’t have suspected a single shirt of having anything in common with kid-friendly couch upholstery.

A chic and oversized staff favorite

Right away, I loved the Mother Oxford button-up shirt (about $100 to $140 depending on the color). It has a chic, intentionally oversized fit, with deep side slits that make it look effortlessly cool when tucked in. The woven cotton is smooth and opaque, with just a hint of stretch, and it feels breezy and comfortable to wear.

A silk blend staff pick

The Simone Button-Up Blouse by Numi ($220) is polished and office appropriate. The crepe silk blend drapes nicely and feels light and elegant. Yes, it’s expensive, but you don’t have to shell out for dry-cleaning; unlike most of the silk shirts in my work wardrobe, this one can be machine-washed, dried, and ironed on low heat.

A staff favorite white tee

The Ably Daffodil Unbranded shirt (about $50) is a standard white cotton tee. Its material is comfortable and airy (if a little see-through), but the fit was snug across my shoulders, and the fabric bunched under my arms.

Now, on to stain testing. I started with red wine (difficulty level: uh oh) and proceeded to drip, splash, and straight-up pour it down the front of each shirt. The results, dear reader, were astonishing. On all three garments, I observed in flabbergasted delight as the liquid beaded up and slid right off without penetrating the fibers. A quick wipe with a dry cloth, and nearly all evidence of my sloppiness was erased (from the shirts, that is; my pants and shoes, utterly soaked in cabernet, were a different story). Splashes of concentrated cold brew produced similar results, although I did have to use a moist towel to remove all evidence of the coffee spills.

Drunk off the success of the red wine experiment, I began squirting ketchup and sriracha (difficulty level: oh hell, no) with wild abandon. Unlike the wine, these viscous condiments clung to the fabric of all three shirts, giving stains more time to set in. While I tried to rinse and wipe messes quickly, I couldn’t get to all the spills in time. The ketchup came out under running water, but sriracha stains remained on all three shirts—especially the Mother Oxford button-up (which, to be fair, received the most aggressive splatter-painting by far).

To remove the sriracha stain, I followed up with a thorough rinse of each and pretreated stains with liquid detergent before promptly throwing the shirts into a cold wash, as recommended by Ably and Numi. When they emerged, all three were still clearly soiled. I tried again, this time pretreating problem areas with Spray ’n Wash Stain Stick and washing on the warm cycle according to Mother Oxford’s care instructions. The Numi blouse came out looking good as new, but the Ably and Mother Oxford shirts still had visible sriracha splatters. Sadly concluding that they were beyond saving, I consigned them to the back of my closet.

Until, that is, I was poking around my wardrobe some weeks later to discover something extraordinary: The stains on the Ably Daffodil Unbranded T-shirt had all but vanished, and those on the Mother Oxford button-up had noticeably faded. I’m not sure exactly how this happened (magic? divine intervention?). But associate staff writer Ellen Airhart noticed a similar phenomenon with sriracha stains on white Crocs. The mysterious fading stains inspired one last Hail Mary play to clean the shirts completely. I doused them in isopropyl alcohol—a much-touted remedy for sriracha stains—before slathering on more Spray ’N Wash and machine-washing on the warm cycle. The Ably T-shirt emerged pristine and the Mother Oxford button-up entirely spotless.

Amazingly yes, when it comes to liquid stains. Imagine you’re at work, and you’ve spilled coffee down the front of your shirt. Instead of spending 15 minutes in the office bathroom frantically rinsing, scrubbing, and crouching beneath the hand dryer, you nonchalantly brush the liquid off and get on with your day. This is the dream that these stain-repellent clothing brands are selling, and for the most part, they deliver. Each shirt was more than capable of handling an over-the-top amount of red wine spillage, so I can confidently recommend repurposing any of these garments as a toga for your next bacchanal.

Numi’s The Simone Button-Up Blouse was the top performer in my stain tests, requiring the least amount of elbow grease to clean. If you’re looking for an elegant, easy-to-care-for work blouse that will survive just about any stain it encounters, it’s a great choice. As for the Mother Oxford button-up, it’s a seriously stylish and versatile piece—I’d buy it if it had no stain-repelling properties at all—so its imperviousness to liquids is a welcome bonus. I was less enthusiastic about the Ably Daffodil Unbranded T-shirt (I’d hoped for a more flattering fit for $50), but it performed, well, ably, in our tests.

Viscous substances are a different story, however. They don’t slide off with quite the same ease as liquids, and sriracha proved a particularly formidable foe. But unless you’re planning on having a food fight at the family barbecue, you’ll probably be just fine: A small condiment stain, tended to quickly under running water, will come out of any of these shirts.

Most water- and stain-resistant textiles owe their liquid-repellent properties to chemical compounds called PFAS. The good news is that experts believe that occasionally wearing a shirt that’s been treated with PFAS (like wearing period underwear, yoga pants, or any number of other garments that contain PFAS) is unlikely to pose much personal risk. But high levels of exposure to certain PFAS—through contact with contaminated water, air, soil, and food or proximity to PFAS manufacturing—has been linked to increased cholesterol, changes in liver enzymes, and other harmful health effects. For more info, we discuss the health and environmental impacts of PFAS here.

This article was edited by Catherine Kast and Jennifer Hunter.

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