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, weekend coffee and uncapped pens of all colors.)
But, no big deal, right? Because bedding was made to be washed. All my life, I've thought that the trick to washing whites was to separate them from colors, use the hottest water the fabric could tolerate, and add bleach. Too often, though, they just came back looking dingy.
Many trials (and errors) later, I am forced to admit my technique is, quite possibly, flawed. So, I reached out to the experts—and turns out, I did get a lot wrong.
Patric Richardson, aka the Laundry Evangelist recommends getting to stains, wait for it—before they even happen. “With white shirts, I always spray them—especially around the underarms or cuffs—with a 1:1 solution of vinegar and water before throwing them in the wash. That ensures that future stains won’t set.” He also suggests attacking a stain as it happens, with either the same vinegar-water combo or a spray of lemon juice, and leaving it to soak for 15 to 20 minutes before washing.
Ditch the hot water
According to Richardson, when it comes to laundry cycles—whether for whites or colors—a warm water-express cycle is your best friend: “Hot water causes damage to textiles that are anything other than 100 percent plant-based, and barely anything we own really is. As for shorter cycles? “If I had to design a washing machine, that’s the only cycle it would come with,” he says.
He also recommends line-drying as far as possible to avoid that extra bit of abrasion that machine-drying brings. Another friend to whites? The sun. If you have access to outdoor space (a fantasy I’ve long let go of), there's nothing quite like treating your whites to some good ol' Vit D.
Here’s what’s probably the most important lesson I learned: Absolutely nobody recommends chlorine bleach! "I encourage people to ditch chlorine bleach for laundry," wrote Jolie Kerr—The Times' cleaning guru and the expert behind the podcast Ask a Clean Person—in an e-mail to us. 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.
Richardson says there’s another reason why bleach will never work like you expect it to. “Did you know,” he says, “that the bright-white color on your clothes is not a natural white—which is closer to an ecru shade. It’s a blue dye that’s a brightening agent.” So, when you add bleach, he says, it’s leaching the dye from the item, draining it of what you think of as white, and making it appear “dingy”! “They’re not dingy, you’re just lifting the color off.”
As the owner of two sets of white linen, huge fluffy towels, and about 12 white t-shirts that have all, um, seen better days, I'm also interested in any advice that helps me reverse the damage that misuse, the passage of time, and my mistaken laundry habits have wreaked. Luckily, Kerr had a handy trick for reversing the dinginess. "There's a product called Mrs. Stewart's Concentrated Liquid Bluing that I love-love-love for whites that have gone yellow," Kerr said. "It does exactly what it sounds like: It turns things blue. Which, in the case of whites that have gone a bit yellow, is exactly what you want, because blue and yellow are opposite one another on the color perception wheel, so adding a bluing agent to something yellow will make it appear bright white to the eye."
The trick to getting bluing right, though, is to use only half the amount and in the slot where the fabric softener goes. “So it’s released at the right time in your cycle,” says Richardson. And while we’re on the subject of softeners, he says: “Ditch them: they gray whites, coat the fabric, and reduce absorbency—all the things we don’t want.”
While we're on the subject...
Do you have any tricks or trusted products for helping whites look their best? We are all ears.
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