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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn

We Tried 5 Methods for Cleaning Stained Plastic Containers and 2 Worked Ridiculously Well

updated Sep 28, 2022
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The problem with stained food storage containers is that they never really feel clean — even after you take them out of the dishwasher, where they’ve been washed and sanitized.

It’s hard to get excited about eating, say, a nice fresh salad, when you’re eating out of a container with a stain from last month’s pot of chili. Sure, it was delicious — but you don’t want to be reminded of it while chowing down on those greens! 

In our house, the stained storage containers get the boot to the back of the cabinet because no one wants to use them, and we feel too guilty about getting rid of them … so they just sit there, taking up space. After months of just shuffling these around, I decided it was time to see if it was possible to remove the stains. So I tried a few popular methods and noted my findings below, along with ratings of which performed best.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn

How We Tested Methods for Cleaning Stained Food Storage Containers

Before attacking my random, old containers that were stained with who knows what — I picked up a few new containers, made a paste out of water and turmeric, microwaved it in the containers, and let all five containers sit for a few days. Once they were good and stained, I washed them with soap and warm water, and let them dry completely before proceeding with the tests. I figured this would level the playing field.

The ratings: Each method received a rating. A one was given to the least effective method, and a five went to the most effective. Along with the rating you’ll find notes on how easy or difficult the method was, how much elbow grease it took, and how much time it took to remove. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell

Container Cleaning Method 1: Vinegar Bath 

  • Total time: 1 to 2 hours 
  • Rating: 1 / 5

The method: Make a solution of water and vinegar using 1 tablespoon vinegar per 1 cup of water. Pour into the container and let the solution sit for 1 to 2 hours. Wipe clean, rinse, and dry. 

How it went: After mixing the water and vinegar and letting it sit for almost two hours, I poured the solution down the drain and was surprised to see that nothing had happened. The stain was still prevalent. I even scrubbed it with a bristled brush — but I saw no difference whatsoever. Vinegar is great for removing weird odors, but I don’t recommend it for removing stains. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell

Container Cleaning Method 2: Dish Soap, Warm Water, and Paper Towels 

  • Total time: 2 minutes 
  • Rating: 2 /5

The method: Add a few pumps of liquid dish soap, a bit of warm water, and torn-up paper towel pieces to your stained container. Place the lid on, and shake vigorously for one minute. TikTok users seem to like this method, for what it’s worth.

How it went: I added about a tablespoon of Dawn dish soap, just enough warm water to cover the bottom of the container, and one paper towel torn into five pieces to my container. After placing the lid on and shaking (very!) vigorously for one minute, I removed the lid, rinsed the suds, and found the container to be squeaky clean — but not entirely stain-free.

The intensity of the yellow/orange color from the turmeric had been reduced, but there was still a stain left behind. This method didn’t seem to be any more effective than hand-washing the container in the sink and scrubbing well with a dish brush. I guess, though, I did get a little burst of cardio.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell

Container Cleaning Method 3: Sugar, Dish Soap, and Ice Cubes

  • Total time: 1 to 2 hours 
  • Rating: 3.5 / 5

The method: I’ve seen this on Instagram, but the directions never seem super clear. The general gist: Cover the bottom of the dish with sugar, add some dish soap and a few ice cubes, and let sit for an hour. 

How it went: I poured 1/4 cup of sugar into my container, then covered it with a significant drizzle of Dawn dish soap, a few tablespoons of warm water, and five ice cubes. I let it sit until the cubes melted, which took a little more than an hour (it’s cold in my kitchen!), and then I dumped the contents.

Using a damp cloth, I scrubbed the remaining sugar out of the bottom of the container and rinsed with warm water. I was really surprised to find that this worked decently well. I guess in the same way a sugar scrub can exfoliate your body, it can do the same for stains on plastic! 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell

Container Cleaning Method 4: Baking Soda Paste 

  • Total time: 31 minutes 
  • Rating: 4 / 5

The method: Sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of baking soda in the bottom of the container and slowly add warm water until you have enough to mix a paste. The paste should be just a tiny bit thinner than toothpaste; you want it to spread easily but not be runny.

Smear the paste all over the stained areas of the container, then let it sit for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, wipe the paste around with a damp cloth, rubbing the bottom well, then rinse with dish soap and warm water. 

How it went: Once I was able to get the right consistency with the paste it was easy to spread over all the stained areas. I let it sit for the recommended amount of time, wiped it out, rinsed, and — holy cow! — the results were impressive.

Not only did it do a great job at removing the stain, but it also removed any lingering odors. There is the faintest cloud of yellow on the bottom of the container, but you have to look really hard to find it. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Styling: Cyd McDowell

Container Cleaning Method 5: Hand Sanitizer 

  • Total time: 46 mins 
  • Rating: 5 /5

The method: Pour hand sanitizer over stain, let sit. Wipe clean and wash with soap and water. 

How it went: I poured enough liquid sanitizer in the dish to completely cover the stain, then let it sit for about 45 minutes. I dumped the sanitizer down the drain, then wiped around the dish with a slightly damp paper towel.

I was surprised to see quite a bit of turmeric come off on the paper towel, and even more surprised when I rinsed it down the drain to see that it had ALL come out! I loved this method, but realize that hand sanitizer is still hard to come by, so I also want to vote for the baking soda method above, too.

How do you clean your stained plastic food containers? Tell us in the comments below.