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Wait—Have We Been Washing Our Whites All Wrong?

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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.

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"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.

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"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.

Tags: Laundry