How to Clean and Care for White Clothing

keep white clothes white graphic

The Spruce

There are a few simple rules that should be followed to keep white clothes looking bright and clean. And, if they happen to get a bit dull, grey or yellowed, you can learn how to restore the brightness to white washable clothes. Since they're prone to discoloration, whites should be washed after every wear and should not 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.

How to Wash White Clothing
Detergent Heavy-duty detergent that includes an optical brightener
Water temperature Hot (or as warm as fabric will allow)
Cycle type Regular or Permanent Press
Drying cycle type Low (dry outside in sun when possible)
Special treatments Wash whites separately from other colors
Iron settings Varies by type of fabric

Project Metrics

Depending on how many garments you are treating, the amount of time required to clean your clothes will vary. The following project estimate is based on a medium load of white laundry, including several pieces that need to be treated for stains before washing.

Working time: 1 hour

Total time: 4 hours (add an extra hour if drying outside)

Skill level: Beginner

What You'll Need

Supplies

Tools

  • Washing machine (or large sink for hand washing)
  • Automatic dryer, outdoor clothesline or drying rack
  • Iron (optional)

Instructions

  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 that leaves white fabric looking dull.

  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 on fabrics leaving them looking dull.

  3. Choose a Detergent

    Select a detergent that contains optical brighteners. These brighteners work by tricking the eye—they bend UV light waves to showcase blue light while minimizing the yellow light you see—making fabrics appear whiter. Reduce the amount of laundry detergent you're using. Excess detergent can remain in the fibers and attract soil.

  4. Promptly Treat Stains

    Follow stain removal guidelines for different fabric types and types of stains. Chlorine bleach can work to 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.

  5. Wash With Warmest Water Possible

    Use hot water—or the warmest water possible 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.

  6. Rinse With Vinegar

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

  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 as 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 to freshen and whiten the garments. If drying outside is not available to you, dry with an automatic 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.

How to Brighten Already Yellowed Whites

Create a solution of oxygen bleach and cool water by following package directions—mixing enough to completely cover your yellowed whites. 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 following 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 a dirty washer is not contributing to the discoloration of your whites.
  • If you feel your laundry detergent is not cleaning well, you can boost its performance by adding one-half cup of borax or one cup of baking soda to each wash load.
  • If you choose to add chlorine bleach, then be sure to use it correctly. Adding bleach at the same time as the detergent counteracts its effectiveness.
  • If you have hard water, consider investing in a water softening system. The minerals in hard water will deposit on your whites and can leave them looking dull.

Ironing

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

Storing White Clothing

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

For heirloom items, wrap each piece of clothing in white, acid-free tissue paper and place inside an archival cardboard storage box. You can also include cedar chips to help keep bugs away and silica gel packets to soak up any additional moisture. Do not store the box in a basement or attic—opt for a temperature-controlled room with low humidity.