How to Brighten Colors While Washing Clothes

By: Beth Brindle  | 
You probably know how to get your whites white. But how can you get your colors brighter?

Key Takeaways

  • To brighten colors while washing clothes, turn them inside out to minimize fading from the washing process and hang them to dry away from direct sunlight.
  • Soak new clothes in salt water or use vinegar in the rinse cycle to set colors and prevent bleeding, with specific ratios and methods like using 1/4 to 1/2 cup of salt for overnight soaking or adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle to brighten and maintain fabric colors.
  • Wash clothes less frequently to preserve their colors, wash in cold water to save energy and protect dyes, and consider adding coffee or tea to the rinse cycle for very dark clothes. For white clothes, try a bluing agent to enhance their appearance without harsh chemicals.

Just about every laundry detergent in the world claims to whiten whites and brighten brights, so why do our most colorful clothes seem to come out of the wash looking less vibrant than before they went in?

Keeping your colors bright may not be the first thing on your mind when you wake up in the morning, and we hope you're not losing too much sleep over it at night, but unless you're going for that comfortably faded look, there's no denying that clothes look their best when the colors are crisp and new. Preserving the original color can also help you save money by extending the life of your clothing, since the best techniques for brightening colors tend to be gentler on fabrics than the old tried-and-true method of jamming as much as you can into the washer and hitting "start." (It's OK, we've all done it!)


Some of the best tricks for keeping colors bright rely on inexpensive, environmentally friendly ingredients you probably already have in your home. If you enjoy doing laundry as much as we do (which is to say, not much at all), you'll be glad to know that these color-saving tips are almost as simple as the throw-it-all-in-there approach, but with much better results.

Ready to wow your friends and family with your newfound knowledge of how to brighten colors while washing your clothes? Read on!


Tips for Brightening the Colors of Your Clothes

It may not be on the same level as launching a satellite into orbit or finding a cure for disease, but there's a science to keeping colors bright. Colors fade when the chemical bonds between the dye and the fabric break down, so the best way to keep your colors bright is to wash clothes in a way that either prevents dyes from dissolving, protects the fibers in the fabric -- or both. Follow these tips, and your colors will look as good as new!

  • Turn clothes inside out -- According to experts, the tumbling action of the wash cycle and the dryer can cause fabric fibers to break as clothes collide into each other and against the walls of the machine. While you can't prevent the damage entirely, turning clothes inside out before you wash them will keep the worst of the fraying on the inside, where it's out of sight. If you dry your clothes on a clothesline, hang them inside away from direct sunlight to help prevent fading.
  • Soak clothes in salt water -- Salt is inexpensive, environmentally friendly and great for keeping your colors bright. Before you wash that colorful new top, soak it overnight in salt water. Simply fill your washer with cold water, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of salt, and then add your clothes. In the morning, just add detergent and run the washer as you normally would. You can add additional clothes at this point, too -- just be sure not to overfill the washer.
  • Wash only when necessary -- The simplest way to prevent colors from fading in the wash is to wash your clothes less frequently. If you're careful, you can get several wears out of clothes you wear to work in an office or for a few hours to a dressy event. Promptly blot and spot-treat any liquid spills, and use a dry sponge or a fabric softener sheet to remove white deodorant streaks or powder makeup.
  • Wash in cold water -- Washing in cold water instead of hot not only helps keep your colors bright, it also conserves energy and saves you money. For best results, use a detergent formulated for bright clothes and cold-water washing.

What kitchen staple helps you lock in the color on your brightest bathing suit? For the answer, check out more great tips on the next page.


More Great Tips for Brightening Clothes

  • Break out the vinegar -- If you guessed white vinegar, you're right! Some swimsuit manufacturers recommend soaking new suits in a mixture of white vinegar and cold water to prevent fading and bleeding. Use 1 tablespoon of white vinegar for every 1 quart of water, and soak for at least 30 minutes before wearing your new suit. To keep your dark jeans dark, soak in a 50:50 solution of vinegar and water before the first washing.
  • Don't over-dry -- The heat from the dryer is harsh on dyes and clothing fibers, so be sure to take clothes out as soon as they're dry. Try to wash and dry similar fabric types together, or remove quick-drying items before the cycle ends. If your dryer has a moisture sensor setting, use it!
  • Coffee or tea? -- Add 2 cups of brewed coffee or strong tea to the rinse cycle to restore the color to black or very dark clothes. Skip the cream and sugar!
  • Go blue for bright whites -- To brighten whites in the wash, add a bluing agent. Bluing agents don't remove stains; instead, they make whites appear brighter by adding microscopic blue particles to the fabric during the wash or rinse cycle.

For more great laundry tips, check out the resources on the next page.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use regular vinegar on all fabric types to prevent color fading?
While white vinegar is generally safe for most fabrics, it's recommended to test on a small, inconspicuous area first, especially for delicate or non-colorfast materials.
How does the use of salt or vinegar affect the washing machine over time?
Regular use of salt or vinegar in moderate quantities is unlikely to harm the washing machine, but it's wise to run an occasional cleaning cycle with just water or a machine cleaner to remove any residue.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Mrs. Stewart's Bluing


  • Energy Savers. "Laundry Tips." U.S. Department of Energy. (April 15, 2012)
  • Gaulin, Pam. "How to Keep a Bathing Suit From Fading." Oct. 13, 2009. (April 13, 2012)
  • "The Wash Cycle." Jan. 2009. (April 15, 2012)
  • Mrs. Stewart's Bluing. "All About Bluing." (April 13, 2012)
  • Reader's Digest. "6 Secret Laundry Ingredients." (April 15, 2012)
  • "Your Top Laundry Questions, Answered." (April 13, 2012)
  • "1001 Uses for White Distilled Vinegar." (April 13, 2012)