Wait—Have We Been Washing Our Whites All Wrong?

September  7, 2018

With Labor Day crossed off the calendar, you might be thinking about how to get those crisp summer whites back to their best shade before you put them away for the season. Or maybe, like me, you're just catching up on laundry after a busy week (I, for one, have been known to wear my white jeans deep into the winter). Either way, we all know the best way to wash whites is to separate them from colors, use hot water, and add bleach, right?

Well...not quite. Turns out that last step might be making your whites look even dingier.

"I encourage people to ditch chlorine bleach for laundry," Jolie Kerr, the cleaning expert behind behind Lifehacker's "Ask a Clean Person" column, told me via e-mail. According to Kerr, bleach actually has a chemical reaction with protein—aka, any lingering sweat on your T-shirts or bed sheets—that causes whites to yellow. If you do want to wash with chlorine bleach, the best method is to run your clothes through a regular cycle to get any protein washed out first, and then run a second cycle with bleach.

Even for those of you who aren't trekking a woeful eight blocks to a crowded laundromat (lucky!), that's a lot of time, effort, and water to spend on one load of laundry. Which is precisely why Kerr suggests an alternate method for regular upkeep: "Use a good detergent along with a whitening laundry booster, but be sure not to overdose your laundry products. Detergent buildup will create a dingy appearance in whites over time." Her picks? Tide Ultra Stain Release for detergent, and OxiClean White Revive or borax for boosters.

As the owner of two sets of all-white bedding and several huge fluffy white towels that have all, um, seen better days, I'm also interested in any advice that helps me reverse the damage that wear and time (and my mistaken laundry habits!) have already done. Luckily, there are some handy tricks for reversing the dinge too, not just keeping it at bay.

"There's a product called bluing that I love-love-love for whites that have gone yellow," Kerr said. "It does exactly what it sounds like: It makes things blue. Which, in the case of whites that have yellowed, is a good thing because blue and yellow are opposite one another on the color perception wheel, so adding a bit of blue to something yellow will make it appear bright white to the eye."

For all you laundry nerds out there (hand raised!), Kerr has written at length about things like all-white bedding and summer stains, among many other tidy topics. Maybe next weekend I'll finally attack those wine-stained tablecloths and my rumpled linen duvet.

All that laundry got you hungry? Same.

Do you have any tricks or trusted products for helping whites look their best? Share them in the comments! I'm all ears.



Michael C. September 19, 2018
I agree with the addition of Oxi-Clean. On the label it speaks of soaking some items for six hours. Instead of that, I make the whites the last load of the day. I run the water add the detergent and Oxi-Clean. Let the washer agitate (I have a top loader) without the sheets for about five minutes being sure the soap and Oxi are dissolved. Then I add the whites run it for a few more minutes turn it off and let soak over night. In the morning turn the machine back on finish the cycle hang the sheet and PRESTO white whites!!
Emi September 12, 2018
I remember my mom using a blue powder for our white clothes which typical for Filipino to use those days I don’t know what is for but she use it this product was using in Philippines for more than 80 years I’m not sure if this is the same product but our white clothes stayed white until its get really old .
nancy E. September 11, 2018
Borax is wonderful and it also removes the smell of stale sweat from your bed linens
m September 8, 2018
I would like to chime in that adding a blue product to your whites, may not be a smart thing. I'm a hairdresser and I very well know the color wheel. And blue is not the opposite of yellow on the color wheel. The only color that would cancel out yellow would be purple/violet. This works in the hair business, but probably not with laundry.
WisdomBlessing September 22, 2018
You are exactly correct! That said, the color you suggest is the exact color your clothes will be if you add bluing . Very astute. Thank you for your comment. I am so glad someone had the common sense to mention what you did. People should not write about things they have never tried. Oh yeah, be careful not to turn all your whites dingy gray. Using Bluing is nowhere near as easy as this article makes it sound. Trust me, I have 37 or 40 years of home laundry experience.
Jo-ann O. September 7, 2018
I’m with Rachel. I add 1 cup of baking soda every time I wash whites. Costco has 13.5 lb bags at a great price.
Rachel September 7, 2018
I add baking soda to my whites to make them bright without bleach.
CMart September 7, 2018
I'll ask the dumb question and take the hit for everyone else who is wondering but afraid to ask:<br /><br />Why would using non-chlorine bleach (Corox 2, et al.) not be a workable solution?
Matt H. September 9, 2018
That is a pretty dumb questions tbh, since in the text of the article, the author does list non chlorine bleaches to use instead.
FrugalCat September 7, 2018
Also check out for lots of laundry tips. Jillee is the queen of washing and cleaning. Just the other day I refreshed my pillow protectors by making a paste with Dawn dish soap, peroxide and baking soda. Rubbed into the fabric, let it sit for an hour, then wash. Yellow stains come right out. This formula will also get yellow armpit stains out of white undershirts. Jillee has great tips on how to wash pillows and she makes a lot of products herself. She will also show you how to clean stuff you never thought you could rescue- purses, Uggs, etc. In fact, I think Jolie and Jillee could be...THE SAME PERSON??? J/K, Jillee is a 55 year old lady from Utah.
Author Comment
Cory B. September 7, 2018
Woah, definitely setting aside some time to go down the Jillee rabbit hole! Thanks FrugalCat ;)
Karin B. September 7, 2018
I use a front loading washer that heats to 165 degrees, I use 1/4 cup of Persil Megaperls for whites per load and nothing else. Persil Megaperls is a German product available at Amazon, I feel good to have clean, no bacteria, no body oils, laundry and I am not killing fish.
Matt H. September 9, 2018
Persil Power Pearls (as mega pearls is known in America) is sold in America. You don't need to special order it from Amazon.
Karin B. September 18, 2018
Thanks Matt