You already know that water is useless when it comes to the torture of finding a wad of gum stuck to your hair or clothes. But why? Gum is a hydrophobic material, meaning it doesn't mix with or dissolve in water (for the same reason, your saliva won't break down gum when you chew it). Of course, this means that to remove it from your pants, your shoes, your couch, or your hair, you'll have to find a substance that it will respond to—specifically, other hydrophobic materials. Read on for six items to reach for when disaster strikes.
Apple cider vinegar is a popular all-purpose, inexpensive, antimicrobial house cleaner—and its miracle-working skills include gum removal. To save jeans, T-shirts, other items of clothing, or even carpets and upholstery, heat a quarter-cup of ACV in the microwave. Dip the section of clothing in the warm vinegar, or dab a bit onto the carpet or upholstery, and then, depending on the amount of gum that needs to be removed, pick your tools. For larger gobs, start by scraping with a small, blunt tool, like a butter knife or a cuticle spoon. Then grab an old toothbrush and start brushing. In less than a minute, the remainder of the gum will be off your fabrics and balled up in the bristles. (Note: This will ruin a toothbrush, so keep some spare used ones in the cleaning closet just in case.) Once the gum is gone and the brush is destroyed, send it off to be recycled.
2. PEANUT BUTTER
The idea of having peanut butter in your hair is only barely more appealing than gum, but the fats and oils in the spread are exactly what make it good for this task. Rub a couple of tablespoons of creamy (not crunchy!) peanut butter around the affected clumps of hair, and wait for eight to 10 minutes. On a molecular level, peanut butter is made up of mostly carbon and hydrogen, which makes it hydrophobic. Since gum is also hydrophobic, they basically cancel each other out (there's a saying in chemistry that "like dissolves like"). As they interact, you'll be able to slowly remove the wad from your hair, sans scissors. Once all of the gum has been pulled out, wash your hair as usual.
3. OLIVE OIL
For anyone with a nut allergy who would sooner chop off inches than smear peanut butter into their hair or skin, olive oil has the same solvent properties as PB, without all the goopiness. Olive oil (or canola or vegetable oil as well) is especially helpful for removing gum from eyebrows or eyelashes.
4. OIL-BASED CLEANSERS
Oil-based cleansers, intended to remove certain types of makeup or lotions, work on gum the same way peanut butter does. Many moisturizers, creams, and ointments are made with liquid paraffin, a highly refined mineral oil made of saturated hydrocarbons. Using an oil-based facial cleanser works well on these oily products because they're both non-polar solvents—if you apply a heavy nighttime moisturizer, it's most effective to use a cleansing oil to wipe it off in the morning. So, if you're already a cleansing oil devotee, removing gum (also a non-polar solvent) from hair or skin with it might not seem too bad. Dermalogica even advertises their PreCleanse oil as being an effective chewing gum remover, and had a beauty blogger test out their claims (spoiler: it totally worked!).
5. PETROLEUM JELLY
A more common medicine cabinet find that also works is petroleum jelly (like Vaseline), which is a safe, non-abrasive lubricant that is also often recommended for removing much harsher substances than gum—like tar. It's a cheap, gentle solution to use, especially if a large bubble pops all over your face, or you wake up from a nap with an accidental web of stringy gum stuck to your hair, face, or arms.
6. RUBBING ALCOHOL
For gum stuck to more delicate fabrics, try dabbing some rubbing alcohol on the area with a cotton ball, sponge, or Q-Tip. Rubbing alcohol is an isopropyl alcohol, which is commonly used to dissolve non-polar compounds and oils (which is why it's great as an antiseptic and disinfectant), and it works by breaking down the polymers in the gum. It also won't damage or stain more sensitive materials, which is why it's good to use on satin pillowcases, silk or polyester shirts, or anything that needs dry cleaning. Let the alcohol dry, and then gently scrape the gum off with a butter knife or cuticle tool. Then wash or send off to the cleaners as usual!