Wait—Have We Been Washing Our Whites All Wrong?

December 26, 2018

If you're anything like me, you both insist on all-white bedding—from the pillowcases and duvet cover, down to the fitted sheet—and regularly spill stuff on it. Not intentionally, of course, but regularly all the same. (Lookin' at you, Sunday morning coffee, and uncapped pens of all colors.)

But no big deal, right? Because bedding was made to be washed. And my entire life, I've thought the secret to washing whites was simple: just separate them from colors, use hot water, and add bleach.

Well...not quite. As I recently learned, that last step might be making my 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.

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“Borax is wonderful and it also removes the smell of stale sweat from your bed linens”
— nancy E.

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.


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Cory Baldwin

Written by: Cory Baldwin

Food52's director of partner content Cory Baldwin has been an editor at food, travel, and fashion publications including Saveur, Departures and Racked.


Rob P. May 25, 2019
To reduce wear on bedding and all clothes, hang them up to dry. Most that lint you take from your lint trap is your clothes wearing away. Outside is great in the summer but not for year round. String a piece clothes line anywhere you can, put on hangers on a rod, any way possible. After they have dried you can throw them in the dryer with a dryer sheet and "fluff" as i call it. Unless they were outside, keep that smell! At least if you have fresh country air like I do. As well as reducing the clothes rubbing against them selves in a hot dryer for so long and wearing, you extend the life of your dryer, save energy and money but it does take a little longer, some might only be out time spent looking at their phone!.
Pamela January 9, 2019
The key to getting out virtually any stain and/or discoloration is to dry it outside in the sun. The bleaching power of ordinary sunshine is magic.
Steven W. April 19, 2019
Borax is the way to go...and yes, hang them outside if you have a yard! Why spend money when borax is inexpensive?
Jean K. November 19, 2018
Can persil megaperls be used in HE washing machines?
Alan January 7, 2019
Persil Megaperls is made for HE machines. Most, if not all, washing machines made and sold in Germany (where the Persil by Henkel is made) are all HE.

Been using Megaperls (both the universal and color formulas) for years in my Miele HE machine.
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.
Claudia T. December 9, 2018
In the traditional RYB color model, yes, purple and yellow are complementary colors, but in RGB and CMY models of color perception it's blue and yellow.
If we want to get nitpicky, you could try to get "laundry purpling" vs bluing. Start that trend. It's been called bluing for a long time, though. Historically people used cobalt or indigo or ultramarine from crushed lapis lazuli, all blue things. Now we use blue iron salt(Prussian blue) or synthetic ultramarine. Some white cloth is already blued in the manufacturing process before you even buy it, and the bluing is just adding back what gets washed out over time.

I always did wonder if this is why Tide liquid is bright blue!
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:

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.
Paula November 19, 2018
Hmmm, I did a search of the article and didn't find any reference to non-chlorine bleach. So as far as I can see, that was not a dumb question at all;. No need to be rude, my friend.
Sue E. November 22, 2018
I too searched the article & found no mention of non-chlorine bleach. I saw OxiClean but I think that’s different. I suggest you be more polite in your posts, but maybe that’s just my Southern upbringing.
Smaug December 26, 2018
No, a lot of Northerners favor civility as well.
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.
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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
Alan January 7, 2019
It may be different though. Not sure who makes the Power Perls for the US market. The UK versions of Persil are manufactured by Unilever and the European versions are produced by Henkel in Germany. I imagine the formulas are different between the manufactures.