Cleaning

Wait—Have We Been Washing Our Whites All Wrong?

The super common mistakes you can avoid…and one that you can reverse.

July 24, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

See ya, stains

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“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.”
— Paula
Comment

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.

Skip the bleach

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.”

Kerr suggests an alternate method for regular upkeep: "Use a good laundry detergent along with a whitening laundry booster, but be sure not to overdose your laundry products. Laundry detergent buildup will create that grey appearance in whites over time." Her picks? Tide Ultra Stain Release for detergent, and OxiClean White Revive or borax for boosters.

Blue to the rescue

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 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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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.

46 Comments

Kanga1810 February 15, 2021
Other options that aren’t Tide for detergent? My husband and son have allergies and eczema and it makes them both break out or flare up.
 
gisella January 31, 2021
I have linen white pillowcases that date back ~ 1900 Northern Italy. They were dark beige and spotty yellow. I soaked them in a bin with OXYClean for whites, rotated them every day for a week. Washed on warm with vinegar and a regular liquid detergent. Success, they are bright white. As a side note, Dawn blue liquid dish detergent is a fantastic stain remover. I keep a bottle in the laundry room at all times.
 
Marilyn December 16, 2020
I have a top loading washer and no explosions
 
Marilyn December 15, 2020
I have white sheets and have been amazed that an old time fix works so well. I put a half cup baking soda in the washer, fill the fabric softener area with white vinegar, and wash on warm which is actually pretty coo. Sheets emerge odorfree, whiter, and fresh.
 
FrugalCat December 15, 2020
Wait, doesn't the baking soda and vinegar react to produce a volcano in your washer?
 
Doug D. December 16, 2020
Notice that FrugalCat said the baking soda went into the wash cycle and the vinegar went into the fabric softener compartment? All front load washers rinse clothes two or three times. So the baking soda would be gone before the vinegar was dispersed into the final rinse water, so there would be no soda to have a reaction with.
 
Sparky October 20, 2020
I started using wool dryer balls in my dryer about a year ago, and haven't had to use dryer sheets since. The dryer balls also help clothes dry quicker because they spread the heat around. Highly recommend.
 
Nana20205 July 27, 2020
If you suffer from allergies or hayfever, hanging laundry outside is a no no. Pollen attaches to the laundry.
 
Deborah B. January 31, 2021
The best thing for sheets is to take them out of the washer and put them on the bed. They’ll dry quickly. You get that crisp feeling without having to hang them outside.
 
Nancy S. February 10, 2020
I add white vinegar to all laundry in the bleach dispenser. Keeps everything, including the washer germ free and smelling fresh!
 
PJ M. May 13, 2020
That's splendid, but tis is not addressing the main issue of the article, namely the returning of white clothing to brilliant whiteness.
 
Can I. July 26, 2020
I do this too and it does help keep whites white.
 
Johanna K. July 26, 2020
It addresses an earlier point of preventing stains from happening in the first place.
 
Katie August 1, 2020
I use to do this, but I recently read that the vinegar can be really hard on your washer, leading to corrosion and other damage.
 
its_heather_leigh January 26, 2021
I use both Borax and Arm & Hammer Washing Soda (not at the same time) in my laundry, depending on what I'm laundering. They're relatively inexpensive and will give any brand of detergent a decent boost.
 
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!!
 
Doug D. December 16, 2020
I'm also a huge fan of soaking white laundry. It's much easier on your clothes as well, as the don't rub against each other, and everything stays bright-white. Another product that works wonders on whites is a product called WhiteBrite. Just use it in very HOT water, and make sure whatever you soak in it is completely white. Stunning stuff.
 
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!
 
kathleen L. July 27, 2020
Bluing is fantastic at making my whites crispy white looking. Perhaps the part the hairdresser is missing is that though it is called bluing it is very intense almost violet. I am guessing she has never bought and tried this product on whites. Trust me it works - miraculously!
 
Tina H. August 24, 2020
Not so on the blowing. My grandmother used it in her laundry as well. I think they used it on ring around the collar and sweaty armpits, but it worked on sheets as well. I don't think it has anything to do with the hair color wheel. I had a Papillon dog which cried a lot so she had yellow hair under her eyes and after a while her body hair would get dingy for lack of a better word. They sell dog shampoo with blueing in it to brighten up the white of dogs coats and take out the yellow from their tearing around their eyes. I know it really worked for my dog and I know they use the blueing shampoo before dog shows to make them look extra special. I don't know what is in the blueing pr even if they still sell it for your laundry, but I would really love to have some. I have some really ugly dingy socks that could use some. Does anyone know if you can still buy blueing and where can you get it????
 
2BGeorge October 19, 2020
Yes, it is still available. Search for Mrs. Stewarts Bluing Agent. It is in many supermarkets.
 
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 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.
 
2BGeorge October 19, 2020
Why such rudeness?
 
FrugalCat September 7, 2018
Also check out onegoodthing.com 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 ;)
 
Doug D. December 16, 2020
That Dawn, Peroxide and Baking Soda is the exact same formula used to get SKUNK stink off of a dog that has been sprayed.
 
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 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.
 
Doug D. December 16, 2020
Henkel of Germany is the firm that sells Peril in the US. Unilever sold all of their US laundry detergents such as All off several years ago. They recently have reentered the US detergent aisle with the acquisition of Seventh Generation and the Laundress line. All detergent was the best made years ago; it put Tide to shame.