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 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, time-consuming and expensive because most of the time you must rewash the items to get rid of it. There are seven culprits that contribute to this problem. 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 in the water to dissolve.

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

The same steps should be used with liquid detergent and single dose packets. I know you've seen the blue streaks. NEVER pour the 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 in water to evenly clean the load.

If you have a washer with an automatic detergent dispenser, it may be clogged with lumps of detergent (even liquid products will clump) that are not dissolving. Remove all detergent/fabric softener/bleach dispensers and clean with hot water mixed with 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar.

If the dispensers are not removable. Fill each dispenser with heated pure distilled white vinegar and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes. Then run a 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 - both top loading and front loading. These washers use much less water during the wash and rinse cycles. Using more than two teaspoons-yes, two teaspoons-of detergent will leave residue in and on your clothes.

#3: Too much fabric softener

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

#4: Clogged or failing water pump 

If the water in the wash or rinse cycle 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 your drain line filter and be sure that it is not clogged with "gunk", lint or small items that could impede the flow of rinse water. You'll be amazed at what a button, coin and even lint can do to slow the draining action of your 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 clothes to "swim in the water" and 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 can build-up and redeposit on clothes. Think of it 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: Washing with hard water

Hard water can react with detergents and leave mineral deposits that remain on clothes. There are 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 (brand names are: OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) following package directions. Completely submerge the stained items and allow them to soak overnight and then wash as recommended without adding additional detergent.