How To: Get iced-tea stains out of your plastic pitcher

Posted on December 12th, 2010 in Commentary by EngineerBoy

The pitcher in question...

I love home-made iced tea, and have gone so far as to post my recipe for it.  As you can see in the picture to the right, I use translucent Tupperware 1-gallon pitchers for the tea, and after over a year of use the pitchers were getting tea-stained.

I did a lot of things to try to remove the stains – scrubbing the hell out of them, letting them soak overnight with dish soap, filling them with boiling water hoping to cook the stains out, etc, etc, etc.  Nothing worked and the stains just kept getting more stainier.

I eventually turned to the web, and many (many) people recommended soaking overnight filled with warm water and a little bleach (yuck!) or OxiClean (double-yuck!!), but using any kind of chemical like that seemed, well, yucky.

Then I found someone who said they also had a problem with tea staining their plastic pitchers, and they solved it by alternating iced tea with lemonade, and the acidity of the lemonade helped keep the pitchers clean.

I like lemonade, but not enough to put it into my homemade drink-making routine, but it got me thinking.  Specifically, it got me thinking about citric acid, which is the part of the lemonade that is, well, acidic, and I started wondering if I could just buy some citric acid somewhere.

The Tea-Stain Terminator

And, as in almost all cases where I’m looking to see if something is available on the web, I turned to, and lo and behold, they had some – quite a few options, in fact.  I ended up ordering the liquid citric acid in a glass jar, pictured to the right.

I took my most stained pitcher, put about 2 ounces of the citric acid in it, and filled it to the brim with hot tap water and let it soak overnight.  The next day I poured out the water, scrubbed and rinsed the inside, and saw a tremendous improvement, although it was still a bit stained.

But, after treating it a few more times in rotation as the pitcher became empty again, it is now very, very clean.  If you inspect it very closely you can still see some slight discoloration, but it isn’t noticeable in normal use, and seems to be lessening over time with regular treatments.

My plan is now to use this treatment every once in a while on my pitchers, to keep them clean.  And, unlike with bleach or detergents, the worst case scenario is that the treatments might impart a slight citrus taste to the tea, which I don’t think I’d mind if and when it ever happens – and I certainly won’t be worried about any side-effects from ingesting a toxic chemical, because it’s just citric acid, which is edible.

So, if you have stained plastic food containers and are wondering how to safely get them clean, you may want to try soaking them in citric acid (or lemonade, if you are so inclined) and let a natural, edible acid do the work for you.

4 Responses to 'How To: Get iced-tea stains out of your plastic pitcher'

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  1. Voidable C said,

    on September 3rd, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    I use Mr. Coffee’s Ice Tea Machine and it has an opaque plastic container. After just a few weeks of use, it developed an impressive set of stains due to the tannins in the ice tea.

    My method of cleaning is to scrub the container with baking soda. Little water is needed. I use a wet, but wrung out cloth and fill and empty the container with water to have it wet, but empty. Then with the cloth, scrub away. You don’t have to go crazy, just work it a bit. For already heavly stained containers, soak it overnight with warm water and about a 1/4 cup of baking soda before cleaning.

    I haven’t tried your method, it may work great, I just have no other use for citric acid and would rather just use something I always have on hand instead of buying something just for this use.

  2. Chessie's Mom said,

    on October 31st, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I have found a very easy solution, based on the same principle, and you get a clean pitcher right away without soaking or the need to purchase anything special. I just take a lemon, cut it in half and then rub/scrub the entire inside surface of the pitcher with the cut lemon. Squeeze as you go to get the juice going. Works like a charm without much effort at all. The magic eraser of the citrus world! Use the other half to make a glass of lemonade, make salad dressing or spice up a recipe 🙂

  3. Tony Zine said,

    on September 8th, 2014 at 5:56 am

    What if you have a favorite pitcher that you cannot put your hand in because the opening at the top is too small. My wife works from 8:00PM to 4:00AM (Military) so I try to help as much as possible. She loves ice tea and drinks from 2 to 3 quarts a day. I have tried so many different ideas and it never comes clean. I am looking for the same type of pitcher but have been unable to find one to replace her favorite. Any ideas?

  4. EngineerBoy said,

    on September 8th, 2014 at 10:19 am


    Well, could you use a bottle brush on it, like this:

    I have some narrow-mouthed pitchers that I can’t get into and that the bottle brush won’t reach thoroughly, and for those I let the citric acid/water solution sit for a couple of days, then I rinse it out, fill it about 1/3 the way with hot water and soap, stuff a stainless steel wool pad in through the narrow opening, seal it tight, then shake it around for 3-5 minutes, changing the angle so that the pad gets into all the areas of the bottle.

    It’s not perfect, but it keeps me ahead of the game.

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