How to Clean and Care for White Clothing

Infographic for How to Keep White Clothes White

The Spruce

Overview
  • Working Time: 1 hr
  • Total Time: 4 - 5 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

There are a few simple rules to follow to keep white clothes looking bright and clean. And, if they happen to get a bit dull, gray, or yellowed, you can restore the brightness of washable white clothing with a few simple techniques.

How Often to Clean White Clothing

Since they're prone to discoloration, whites should be washed after every wear and shouldn't be mixed with darker colors in the washing machine. Chlorine bleach can be helpful, but it's not the only answer for cleaning white clothing. There are several other techniques to try.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washing machine or large plastic tub for hand-washing
  • Dryer, outdoor clothesline, or drying rack
  • Iron (optional)

Materials

  • Laundry detergent
  • Oxygen-based stain remover
  • Baking soda (optional)
  • Distilled white vinegar (optional)
  • Borax (optional)

Instructions

ingredients for keeping clothes white
The Spruce / Letícia Almeida
How to Wash White Clothing
Detergent Heavy-duty detergent that includes an optical brightener
Water Temperature Hot (or as warm as the fabric will allow)
Cycle Type Regular or permanent press
Drying Cycle Type Low (dry outside in the sun when possible)
Special Treatments Wash whites separately from other colors
Iron Settings Varies by fabric
  1. Separate Whites

    The first step in keeping white clothes white is to sort dirty laundry carefully. Washing white clothes separately will prevent color bleeding and transfer from colored clothes, which leaves white fabric looking dull.

    separating whites from bright and dark colors
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida
  2. Avoid Overloading

    Filling the washer to the brim with clothes is tempting, but it won't get you the cleanest results. When the washer is overloaded, there isn't enough space between items for the water to flush away the soil, and it redeposits the dirt on fabrics, leaving them looking dull.

    loading the washer
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida
  3. Choose the Right Detergent

    Select a detergent for white clothes that contains optical brighteners. They work by tricking the eye: They bend ultraviolet light waves to showcase blue light while minimizing the yellow light you see, making fabrics appear whiter. But don't think that more detergent means better results. Excess detergent can remain in the fabric fibers and attract soil.

    A bottle of laundry detergent
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida
  4. Promptly Treat Stains

    Follow stain removal guidelines for different fabric and stain types. Chlorine bleach can whiten, but it may damage fabrics if overused. An oxygen-based bleach (such as OxiClean, Nellie's All-Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) is usually safer and can be applied to all washable fabrics, except wool and silk.

    treating a garment with stain remover
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida
  5. Wash With Warmest Water Possible

    Use hot water—or the warmest water recommended for the fabric—to help remove body oils and grime that can dull the material. Wash on a normal or heavy-duty setting, depending on the severity of the stains or discoloration.

    the beginning of a wash cycle
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida 
  6. Rinse With Vinegar

    Skip commercial fabric softeners, which can leave residue on white fabrics. Instead, add 1 cup distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle to ensure that all the detergent is stripped away from fabrics.

    vinegar above the washer
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida 
  7. Check Clothes

    Check garments one by one before placing them in the dryer. If stains remain, retreat the spots, and wash again. Never dry a garment on high heat that still has a stain because it can become permanent.

  8. Dry on Low

    Drying white clothing and fabrics outside can make a big difference in their brightness. The ultraviolet rays from the sun will help freshen and whiten. If drying outside isn't possible, dry garments with a dryer on a lower heat setting. Remove clothes from the dryer while slightly damp, and air-dry on a drying rack. Be careful not to over-dry, as excessive heat can cause stains and residual soil to yellow.

    drying white clothing outdoors
    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida 

Ironing White Clothing

Check recommended iron settings for your garment, and avoid using heat that's too high. An iron that's too hot can scorch your clothing and leave marks that are very difficult (if not impossible) to remove. Keep the setting at a lower temperature, and use steam or water as needed to relax wrinkles.

ironing white clothing
The Spruce / Letícia Almeida

Storing White Clothing

Freshly washed clothes are less likely to discolor, so plan on washing and thoroughly drying your whites before putting them away. Storing white garments in plastic tubs or bags doesn't allow airflow and may contribute to yellowing and discoloration. Use cotton garment bags to protect out-of-season white clothing from dust and grime.

Treating Yellowing on White Clothing

To refresh yellowed whites, create a solution of oxygen bleach and cool water by following package directions, mixing enough to completely cover your garments. You can do this in a top-loading washing machine or a large plastic tub. Allow the dingy whites to soak for at least four hours or overnight. Drain the solution, and wash as usual. Repeat as necessary. You can also use a commercial color remover to brighten white fabrics; follow package directions or try old-fashioned bluing to restore brightness.

Tips for Washing White Clothing

  • Clean your washer thoroughly at least every three months to make sure it isn't discoloring your whites.
  • Boost the performance of your laundry detergent by adding a half cup of borax or one cup of baking soda to each load.
  • Use chlorine bleach correctly. Adding bleach at the same time as detergent counteracts its effectiveness.
  • If you have hard water, consider investing in a water softening system. The minerals in hard water can leave whites looking dull.