What Causes White Residue on Washed Clothes

Illustration of things that cause white residue on washed clothing
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

One of the most commonly asked laundry questions is about visible residue left on clothes that have been freshly washed. It can be white specks or streaks left on dark clothes or blue or green residue left on light-colored clothes. Here are the reasons it is happening and what you can do to stop the problem.

What's Causing the Residue?

Residue left on freshly washed clothes is frustrating and time-consuming because of the time you waste rewashing the items to get rid of it. There are seven culprits that contribute to residue problems. Read through and eliminate each one to solve your residue problem.

#1: Undissolved Detergent

If you are using a powdered laundry detergent, it may not be dissolving completely. Always pour powdered detergent into the empty washer first before loading clothes. This will give it the most time to dissolve.

If you are washing in cold water, especially in really cold climates, a powdered detergent may not dissolve completely. For best results, dissolve the powder first in a cup of hot water before adding it to the washer or switch to a liquid formula.

The same steps should be used with single dose packets and some liquid detergents. If you are seeing blue streaks, you're adding detergent at the wrong time. NEVER pour detergent directly on dry clothes or throw the packet on top of the load. Add both to the empty washer drum first before adding laundry so the product disperses evenly in water.

If you have a washer with automatic dispensers, they may be clogged with detergent or fabric softener (even liquid products will clump) that is not dissolving. Remove the dispensers and clean with a solution of two cups of hot water mixed with 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar.

If the dispensers are not removable, fill each dispenser with heated distilled white vinegar and allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes. Finish by running a short wash cycle with no laundry in the drum to clear out the dispensers.

#2: Too Much Detergent

More is not always better. Using too much detergent can leave residue on clothes. This is particularly true in high-efficiency washers. These washers use much less water than a standard washer during the wash and rinse cycles. Using more than two teaspoons, yes, two teaspoons, of detergent will leave residue on your clothes.

#3: Too Much Fabric Softener

Never pour fabric softener directly on wet clothes and use the smallest recommended amount. If you have an automatic dispenser, clean it frequently.

#4: Clogged or Failing Water Pump 

If the water is draining out of your washer too slowly, lint, undissolved detergent, and soil can redeposit on your clothes.

Many new washers have a small door near the bottom of the washer to access the filter right above the water pump. On older washers, you will probably have to access the inner workings of the washer from the back to clean the pump area.

Open the access area to the drain line filter and check for clogs like lint or small items that can impede the flow of rinse water. You'll be amazed at what a button, coin, and lint can do to slow the draining action of a washer.

If you have cleaned the filter and the washer is still slow to drain, the water pump is probably failing. If you need a user or repair manual, you can find it here or call a technician.

#5: Overloading Washer

Washing a full load of laundry is a good thing to save time and money. However, cramming too many items into a washer doesn't leave room for the soil and residue to be flushed away. Learn the proper way to load a washer.

#6: Dirty Washer

If you have never cleaned your washer, it can have soil, minerals, and detergent residue that is redepositing on clothes. Think of it as the same as the soap scum in your shower. Because of the low volume of water, you must clean an HE washer monthly and a standard washer at least twice per year.

#7: Hard Water

Hard water can react with detergents and leave mineral deposits that remain on clothes. Explore steps you can take to do laundry successfully with hard water.

How Do I Get Rid of the Residue?

Once you have eliminated all of the causes of the problem, the only way to get rid of the residue is to rewash the clothes. Wash the stained items again in the hottest water suitable for the fabric but do not add any detergent or fabric softener. Instead, add one cup of distilled white vinegar to the wash cycle to help fibers relax slightly and release the residue.

If you have already dried clothes that have blue streaks from excess detergent or fabric softener, it will be harder to remove. Fill a sink or bucket with warm water and add oxygen-based bleach following package directions. Completely submerge the stained items and allow them to soak overnight and then wash as recommended without adding additional detergent.