Introduction: The Complete Guide to Label Removal

Hello everyone! If you’re a fan of keeping things clean, creative reuse, or both, I hope this Instructable helps you out! These methods are my go-to tricks for removing labels and price stickers and clearing up residue they often leave. I frequently use them on glassware like jars from groceries, but they certainly extend to many other situations – for example, the first time I used mayonnaise to remove residue was on a bow saw. That trick is my favorite and has worked for me just the same on electronics’ plastic housing as it worked on glass jars, as we’ll soon see. Read on to hear more of how mayonnaise has worked for me. I’ll also include a little science for tho se of you who’d like to know more about how things work.

Since I most frequently use this on glass jars and bottles, I’ll start with a summary of ideas. Here’s a brief summary of the tricks so you know what’s to come after that:

  • Mayonnaise (and possibly other emulsions)
  • Soaking
  • Heat
  • Solvents
  • Abrasion (i.e. scrubbing)

Finally, I’ll present two case studies that I’ve done since the inception of writing

The real power of these isn’t in the individual methods, but how they can be combined for maximum efficacy, so there will certainly be connections and overlap between these steps!

Step 1: Why Would These Tricks Help You?

Label/sticker removal from new purchases is both the first and foremost application and the most straightforward. After all, when you buy something new and shiny, wouldn’t you rather it be new and shiny everywhere, not new and shiny except for that spot where the label used to be?

The other main application I’ve found is in repurposing containers once you’ve emptied them of their original contents, and that’s not just one idea but a whole spectrum of them for which Instructables is the perfect place to explore. Since I like a good solid glass jar, I often save the ones I like for holding things I’ve prepared like hot sauce or salad dressing, or bulk buys that could use a handier container than the large plastic bags I first bought them in.

Feeling more creative or artistic? Try a glass bottle cutter Instructable, make your own frosted glass, grow a plant, make blue-filtering glasses, build an automatic pet feeder… the possibilities are nigh endless!

Step 2: Mayonnaise (and Possibly Certain Other Condiments Like It)

Mayonnaise has practically been a silver bullet for me – it almost always does the trick with one or sometimes two applications and little extra effort. The idea is simple – get as much of the label off as you can, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise across it, wait a while, and then rub the residue off and wash off any mayonnaise that may still be left.

The first step is just to get off what you can before putting the mayonnaise to the task. This is because just as with any other method it takes more work to remove a thick layer than a thin one, and the outer layer of paper labels is typically something you can tear most of the way off by hand before bringing in the bigger guns. If the subject of your cleaning can be immersed in water, that’s a good way to loosen up paper labels; if not, try heat from a hair dryer. We’ll return to both of those after more on this method.

Once you’ve got most of the label itself off and are down to the residue, spread a layer of mayonnaise over the residue. Then, just wait! I don’t actually know how long you need to wait – I typically apply it and then either have to leave, need to go to sleep, or just forget about it, so a few hours is definitely enough. It changes from opaque to translucent after a while, and I figure by the time it’s made such a phase transition, it’s probably ready to be scrubbed off.

For the removal, I just use a paper towel and scrub. I’m not sure whether or not scrubbing with the part of the paper towel that has the mayonnaise on it matters, but that’s what I usually do since it’s the part that I was already scrubbing with anyway. Usually just one go is enough for me, but if at some point you notice that no more residue is being removed after several good scrubs, simply apply a little more mayonnaise and repeat the process.

I haven’t tried other emulsions yet since (1) mayonnaise has worked so well for me so far and (2) it’s cheaper and less likely to be eaten by me than the other candidates I have on hand, but I’d like to experiment with others – possibly in a future Instructable! I’m not actually sure what it is about mayonnaise that works so well, but experimentation could help me zero in on it. The oil and the vinegar are candidates for an explanation; mayonnaise is a convenient vessel simply because it’s a gel not a liquid and hence won’t run off. It could also have something to do with emulsification, which in a nutshell is the mixing of polar molecules like water or vinegar and nonpolar molecules like the triglycerides of culinary oils to mix. This can be done, for example, with amphiphilic (Greek for “both-loving”) molecules that have both a polar end and a nonpolar end, which is what the lecithin does in mayonnaise. (It’s in egg yolks or alternatively is commonly extracted from soy.) These amphiphilic molecules form bubbles with either polar outside and nonpolar inside or vice versa, et viola, an emulsion. As anyone who uses natural peanut butter without any additives knows, if not refrigerated some peanut oil can separate from the rest of the butter. Peanut butter is another example of an emulsion. Whether it’s the emulsifier, the vinegar, or the oil that disrupts adhesion is something I’m not yet able to say.

Step 3: Soaking

Simply being soaked in water is enough to weaken or loosen some adhesives and labels. Even if a soak doesn’t do the trick alone, it can be a good way to break down the fibers of paper-based labels, making them easy to remove in preparation for mayonnaise application. Any temperature of water helps, but if you use hot water (and it either soaks in quickly enough or stays hot long enough) you can get double the bang for your buck because heat is the next in our list of plans of attack.

Step 4: Heat

Most things destabilize under enough heat – solids melt into liquids as the chemical bonds holding them together are broken, fuels burn as their molecular bonds are broken and oxygen reacts with the freed atoms, and so on. It’s similar for us, but our label adhesive bonds are generally much weaker and can be overcome with much less heat such as from a hair dryer. That said, even these temperatures can still be too hot to be in comfortable direct or prolonged contact with, so be careful! It can be hard to peel off labels simultaneously with heating them for this reason, so aim carefully or try using some sort of tong or hand covering. So far I’ve been able to get by with just careful aiming and hand placement.

Be sure to peel quickly before your subject cools back down, or you’ll most likely be back where you started as the adhesive reattaches itself. Adhesives often work through weak interactions known as van der Waals interactions which tend to be reformed as easily as they’re broken because all the interactions involved are relatively weak. By contrast, stronger chemical bonds typically require breakdown and rearrangement of molecules or parts of molecules, which requires more energy in either direction the reaction is taken – as an example, gasoline doesn’t spontaneously burst into flame but requires a spark or flame to get started, even though the overall reaction gives us a net energy output that we use to drive our vehicles. Breaking carbon dioxide and water apart to form the hydrocarbons that make up gasoline is of course an even more uphill challenge, of course.

Step 5: Solvents

Though it was mentioned earlier separately under the heading “Soaking”, water is in fact a solvent too – it’s just a very mild and weak one. Typically, for me, using solvents means using acetone, which is easy to find in paint thinners and nail polish removers. This is something I don’t like to use unless I have to, though, because I don’t want to breathe the fumes and always wear my respirator when I do. (That’s more than is generally necessary, but I really like to be on the safe side.) Sometimes, alcohol can succeed as a middle ground choice, stronger than water but weaker than acetone. In any case, solvents are best used in conjunction with scrubbing, with a simple paper tower at first or with something more abrasive if that doesn’t cut it. What we really want is simply to weaken it so it can be scrubbed away without much trouble; after all, it would take a very powerful solvent, a long time, or both to dissolve the adhesive completely.

As the name suggests, solvents work by dissolving things, in our case glues and adhesives. To describe it briefly, the interactions between molecules of the solvent and molecules of the solute (which is the thing we’re trying to dissolve, in this case residue) are stronger than the interactions solute molecules have with one another, making it easier for the solute molecules to dissolve into the solvent than to stay with the rest of the solute. Often this means that solvents are composed of either very polar or very nonpolar molecules, depending on whether you’re trying to dissolve something that is polar or nonpolar, respectively. Acetone is very much in the polar category, as are alcohol and water.

Step 6: Abrasion

Finally, we come to abrasion, which really just means any sort of scrubbing. What you use here depends on what you’re working on, as you don’t want to scrub so hard that you damage the actual thing you’re trying to clean! Towels, as I’ve cited before, are the always-safe choice if you don’t need to get into serious scrubbing. If you do, however, you can try kitchen scouring pads, melamine foam (which you may know as magic erasers), or steel wool. The choice is an important one – one of my rules or maxims is BFAW: Brute Force Always Works… but not always the way you want it to! That caveat of course points to the fact that if you’re too harsh you risk damaging that which you mean to clean.

The only two times I can think of mayonnaise not doing the trick were times that I resorted to abrasion with great success. The first time, I used a combination of mopping with acetone and scrubbing with steel wool to clean outstandingly tough glue off of a glass jar. Steel wool is serious business; glass is the only thing I’ve worked with tough enough to stand up to steel wool without collateral damage. The other time was on my coffee table when part of a magazine somehow became affixed to it. A melamine foam eraser made relatively quick work of it but wore away the finish where I scrubbed. No matter, though, since I simply reapplied it afterward, but this is an example of why it’s important to be careful with what you use!

Step 7: Case Study #1

The first of my two case studies is a shredder I bought from a local thrift store. When I tried peeling the label off, it quickly tore and left a large section intact, which could make it difficult for mayonnaise to work its wonders. I therefore ran upstairs to fetch my hairdryer (which at this point I still haven’t, to my memory, ever actually dried my hair with) to heat it up and help it peel off while remaining more intact. It worked! There was still residue left behind, so you can guess what I used. The mayonnaise did a fine job, and afterward I cleaned up with a simple moist cleaning cloth to remove any mayonnaise that wasn’t wiped up with the paper towel I first used.

Step 8: Case Study #2

A classic glass jar of good old sauerkraut is my second case study. I began by soaking it to loosen the label, tore off what I could around the edges, soaked some more, and then pushed off the remainder in rolls as the pictures show. Then I went to mayonnaise, which worked just as faithfully has I’ve come to anticipate. Following that, after the usual dish soap and brush routine familiar to all my dirty dishes, the jar is ready for action once again!

Step 9: Conclusion

Thank you for reading and I hope you find some of these tricks useful! Please feel free to share your own tricks in the comments, and I would definitely like to hear your creative reuse ideas and other ways you might use your new label removal tricks! If you liked this Instructable, I would definitely appreciate your vote in the Spotless Contest. Thank you again!

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