How to Wash White Clothes


One secret to bright natural fabric whites? Using the sun's rays to disinfect and lighten them.
One secret to bright natural fabric whites? Using the sun's rays to disinfect and lighten them.
©iStockphoto.com/Pgiam

Few things say "spring" like a crisp white dress. And few things say "old" like that same dress a few washes later.

Dingy whites are one of the most common wardrobe scourges. It's surprisingly hard to keep clothes truly white, and more than few of us have purchased that dress in the blue to avoid the seemingly inevitable graying of a once-bright, elegant look.

If you've simply been adding bleach to your loads of white clothing, towels and sheets, and wondering why they're not, in fact, white, you probably want to read this. Many people are washing their white clothes in less-than-ideal conditions, and often it takes just a couple of small changes to get back to crisp -- or at least prevent a future white dress from going bad.

Here, some guidelines for washing your whites, including those with colored prints, that should help you get it right. Let's begin with the pure whites so we can get an idea of the white-washing basics.

How to Wash Pure Whites

While bleach can play a role in keeping your whites white, it can't do it alone. For optimal results, you're going to have to wash your whites differently -- and, of course, separately -- from the way you wash your colors.

So the first step, always, is to sort your whites from your colors. Color is not the only consideration, though, in sorting. You also want to take into account:

  • Care tags: Can you wash it? At what temperature? Can you use bleach?
  • Hardy vs. delicate fabrics: Is the regular, permanent press or gentle cycle best?
  • Dirtiness: Is the item very dirty or practically clean? You don't want dirt from a white work shirt depositing on a nearly perfect white blouse.

Once you have your clothing sorted by color, temperature, wash cycle and filth level, you'll probably find that your largest pile is lightly soiled, machine-washable and will do fine on permanent press. This is your standard load of whites, and it should come out just fine if you follow a few simple rules.

Temperature

Lots of us have abandoned hot water for cool or cold in a quest to reduce energy use. But it turns out what's better for the environment isn't always better for your clothes (or your health, since it's the hot water wash that kills bacteria left in your machine). When it comes to keeping whites white, the hotter the water the better. Of course, not all fabrics should be washed on hot, since they could shrink or become misshapen, so you'll have to make adjustments based on the instructions on the care label.

Additives

Aside from temperature, the other big consideration here is what you should -- or should not -- add to the water. Bleach is probably the most common additive to the white load, and that's not necessarily wrong. Bleach does help to whiten, and it has the extra benefit of disinfecting. There are a few of problems with bleach, though. First, the chlorine kind can be toxic and irritating for sensitive skin. Second, if you use too much of it, it can actually end up turning your clothes a bit yellow or gray, so you need to measure very carefully. Third, both chlorine and oxygen bleaches can weaken fabrics so they're more likely to develop tears, fraying or holes.

If you find bleach works well for you, consider using half the normal amount of bleach and supplementing it with an equal amount of baking soda, which can help the bleach whiten better.

If you're looking for alternatives to bleach that don't have the drawbacks, you've got a few options. Lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda all have gentle whitening qualities, and there's a surprising one, too: dye. At art stores and drug stores, you can often find white dye that, when added to the laundry, can help restore your whites to their original glory.

Now, this is all great for that white dress, but what about the white T-shirt with the green stripes on it?

For white items with some color, a few changes are in order ...

How to Wash White Clothes With Color in Them

All-white whites can be easier to wash than fabrics with some color in them, because bleach may not be an option for the latter, and hot water can cause some dyes to bleed.

When washing these items, check the care label to find out whether bleach is a no-no and whether cool or cold water is preferred over warm or hot. If you must turn down the temperature, by all means do so. Otherwise you could end up with a suddenly green shirt with green stripes that would only fit a toddler.

For your bleach-safe, hot-water-safe load, you'll follow the instructions for your pure-white load with the possible addition of a laundry "dye catcher." This additive (either in liquid or sheet form) catches loose dye in your laundry water and keeps it from re-depositing. This product can also help remove dyes that have already bled.

For whites-with-colors that don't like regular bleach and/or hot water, you can switch those out with a color-safe "bleach" (which contains hydrogen-peroxide) and/or cool water and still add the dye catcher. Those articles won't be disinfected, but they should still be acceptably white.

Worse comes to worst, when removing a stain from a mixed-white piece, you might want to think about spot-bleaching with a cotton-tipped swab (and gloves!), applying it only to the white, stained area. Again, though, this is not great for the fabric, so if you take this hail-Mary approach, rinse, rinse, rinse. Bleach residue can wreak havoc.

Finally, a few additional white-washing (and general laundry) tips ...

Tips for Washing White Clothes

The next time you do a load of whites, consider:

Pretreating: For stains, pretreating is the way to go. Before putting a stained item in the wash, apply a little liquid detergent, a paste made from powdered detergent and water, or a pre-treating stick or spray directly to the stain. Let it sit for at least five minutes and up to several hours, depending on the instructions for the specific product and the stubbornness of the stain.

You can also pour some bleach, detergent or straight-up soap into a bucket of water and soak the item.

Drying immediately: For both whites and colors, it's important to dry clothes immediately after the washing machine stops. Wet clothing that sits (and sits) in the machine can end up developing mold or mildew, which is not only unsightly and smelly, but also bad for your health.

Using sunlight: Drying in sunlight can actually help get your whites even whiter. Natural fabrics especially benefit from the whitening (and disinfecting!) properties of the sun's rays.

In the end, the sad fact is that some stained or aged white clothing is going to stay that way. Even the greatest efforts under ideal conditions might sometimes fail to return your white dress to its former glory. In this case, your best bet is to think ahead: If you really love that dress and will simply cry if it won't get clean, buy two.

For more information on washing whites and other laundry concerns, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Bartos, Lorene. "Red and white, wash them right." Journal Star. Jan. 23, 2010. (April 3, 2012) http://journalstar.com/lifestyles/home-and-garden/article_dd4bd938-07d2-11df-b760-001cc4c002e0.html
  • Bond, Annie B. "Tips for Keeping Your Summer Whites White." Care2. http://www.care2.com/greenliving/tips-and-hints-to-keep-whites-white.html
  • How to Eliminate Stains. Martha Stewart. (April 3, 2012) http://www.marthastewart.com/275491/how-to-wash-and-remove-stains/@center/277000/homekeeping-solutions
  • How to Remove Bleeding Dyes from Clothing. HowToCleanStuff. (April 3, 2012) http://www.howtocleanstuff.net/how-to-remove-bleeding-dyes-from-clothing/
  • Keeping White Clothes White. Baby Detergents. Nov. 19, 2010. (April 3, 2012) http://www.babydetergents.com/keeping-white-clothes-white/
  • White, Susan. "Getting Clothes Clean." NMSU. (April 3, 2012) http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_c/c-503.html