Engineers have created a breakthrough chemical coating that allows cotton to stay free of stains and odours by cleaning itself with a little help from sunlight.

The nano-particle, which is derived from an alcohol-based compound of titanium dioxide and nitrogen, is cheap, non-toxic and considered environmentally friendly.

The new treatment could bring an end to the days when you get a stain on your clothing and quickly run to the toilet to grab some soap from the soap dispenser and water to desperately scrub away the dirt before it became permanent.

During initial tests the coated fabric was marked with orange dye stains and exposed to sunlight for two hours. At the end of the period, 71 per cent of the stains had been removed.

The research took place at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Hubei University for Nationalities. It was published in the latest issue of the Applied Materials and Interfaces journal.

The substance for the coating is already in use for self-cleaning windows, odour-free socks and stay-clean tiles for kitchens and bathrooms.

Scientists believe branching out to fabrics will prove profitable, as there has been an increase in the demand for functional clothing.

"This kind of functional clothing has already proved very popular, especially in Japan where the authorities ordered a crackdown on air conditioning use after March's earthquake caused power shortages," said Isabelle Cavill, a clothing analyst at Planet Retail.

"It is also likely to prove popular in other parts of Asia where the heat causes sweat problems.

"The main retailers to pick up on this latest innovation are likely to be those selling basic ware.

"In the West that could mean Wal-Mart or Marks and Spencer would want to invest in the Chinese technology to take advantage of functional clothing becoming more popular with shoppers."

While it is only at the beginning of development, the chemical coating has a range of possibilities and could perhaps become a mainstay in the cleaning industry, working alongside professionals to keep environments clean and safe, and bring an end to the days of running to find a soap dispenser after a spill.