Washing white clothes correctly means separating them from colored clothes and washing them together in the hottest water temperature that's safe for the fabric type—using a good heavy-duty detergent, as well as a bleaching agent where necessary. If washing your whites in the washing machine, ensure everything else in the load is white and color-safe.
A major problem with white clothes is yellowing, which can have several causes, including excessive exposure to chlorine bleach, nicotine, chemical reactions from deodorant, and poorly stored items that react with environmental acids. Brightening yellowed clothing may require additional cleaning agents, such as vinegar, borax, baking soda, bleach, commercial laundry whiteners, or bluing.
Here is a dependable method to follow for cleaning or brightening your washable white clothing.
Equipment / Tools
- Washing machine or large plastic tub for hand-washing
- Dryer, outdoor clothesline, or drying rack
- Iron (optional)
- Laundry detergent
- Oxygen-based stain remover
- Baking soda (optional)
- Distilled white vinegar (optional)
- Borax (optional)
- Oxygen-based bleach (if necessary)
|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; also separate fabric types|
|Iron Settings||Varies by fabric|
|How Often to Wash||After each wearing for items worn against the skin; whenever visibly soiled for other items|
How to Wash White Clothes
Sort the Laundry
The first step in keeping white clothes white is to sort dirty laundry carefully. Washing white clothes separately from colored laundry will prevent color bleeding and transfer from colored clothes, which leaves white fabric looking dull.
Follow stain removal guidelines for fabric and stain types. Most stains will respond to spot treatment with an oxygen-based stain remover just before washing. Brightening clothes that have yellowed may require a lengthier treatment. Soaking overnight in a chlorine bleach mixture can whiten, but it may damage fabrics if overused. A better choice is an oxygen-based bleach (such as OxiClean, Nellie's All-Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite), which is usually safer and can be used with all washable fabrics, except wool and silk. Follow label instructions, which may suggest overnight soaking before machine washing.
Load the Washer
Avoid overloading the washer. 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.
Set the Water Temperature and Cycle
Use hot water—or the warmest water recommended for the fabric—to help remove body oils and grime that can dull the material. Wash them using the normal or heavy-duty setting on the machine, depending on the severity of the stains or discoloration.
Add the Right Detergent, Start the Wash
When looking for a suitable white clothes detergent, check the ingredients; they should contain optical brighteners. These 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.
Add Vinegar to Rinse Cycle
When the load reaches the rinse cycle, skip commercial fabric softeners, which can leave residue on white fabrics. Instead, add 1 cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle to ensure that all the detergent is stripped away from the fabrics.
Inspect the Freshly Washed 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 if it still has a stain because the stain can become permanent.
Dry the Clothes
If possible, consider drying your white clothes outside, as it 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. Don't use dryer sheets—they can leave a residue that also causes yellowing. Remove clothes from the dryer while slightly damp, and air-dry them on a drying rack. Be careful not to over-dry, as excessive heat can cause stains and residual soil to yellow.
Treating Stains on White Clothes
Pretreat stains on white clothes before washing them whenever possible. Stains that slip through may be set in even more firmly by hot water washing. A bigger challenge is brightening white clothing that has yellowed over time.
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 or laundry whitener to brighten white fabrics; follow package directions or try old-fashioned bluing to restore brightness.
Chlorine bleach can be effective for brightening whites, but when overused, it can cause yellowing on clothing—especially on white synthetic fabrics. The trick is not to use too much. Never apply pure, undiluted bleach on any material. It needs to be cut with water. According to Clorox, to prevent yellowing, a good ratio is 1/4 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water for any bleach-safe item that needs to be soaked for whitening. It only needs to be soaked for 5 minutes. Cold water helps dilute chlorine bleach, while warm water helps dilute oxygen bleach.
Also, do not apply bleach and detergent at the same time. The two cleaning agents counteract the other, negating their effectiveness. If using a washing machine dispenser, the machine will dispense and dilute it with water. The machine will automatically release it after the washing cycle has begun, giving the detergent the time it needs to do its thing. Use 3/4 cups for a regular load and 1 1/4 cups for a larger load.
Be aware that if you have hard water or water with a metallic composition, chlorine bleach can cause whites to turn yellow as part of a chemical reaction. If you know you have hard water, avoid using chlorine bleach and consider oxygen bleach instead. Also, if line-drying a clothing item that was chlorine-bleached, keep it out of the direct sun. The UV rays from the sun can cause yellowing if any chlorine remains in the clothes.
White Clothing Care and Repairs
How you repair white clothing will depend on what type of fabric is used in the garment construction. Refer to washing instructions for various types of fabric for information on how to handle repairs.
Ironing White Clothes
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.
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.
How Often to Wash White Clothes
Since they're prone to discoloration, you should wash most whites after every wear—especially those that have been in direct contact with your skin. White sweaters, dresses, and other such items can be washed after every few wearings, though if stains or soil become visibly evident, treat the stains and wash the garments immediately. White sheets should be washed weekly.
Tips for Washing White Clothing
- Clean your washer thoroughly every three months to ensure it isn't discoloring your whites.
- If you have hard water, consider investing in a water-softening system. The minerals in hard water can leave whites looking dull.
- Never pour full-strength chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide into a washer filled with clothes. These substances should be first diluted with water.
- Do not overdry any items that have been washed using bleaching agents. The heat mixed with any bleach residue may cause yellowing.
How should I wash delicate whites?
As with colored delicates, hand-washing is the best strategy for delicate white clothing. You may need to soak or hand-agitate for an extra-long time to fully brighten whites when washing by hand. Some delicates can be machine-washed if you first place them in a mesh lingerie bag before adding to a small load with other whites suited to the same water temperature.
How can I remove under-arm stains?
Stains in the armpit area are usually caused by perspiration or greasy antiperspirant residue. Pretreating these areas with heavy-duty detergent, a grease-cutting dish detergent, or even shampoo will go a long way to brightening up this discoloration. Undiluted oxygen bleach rubbed on these areas can also do the trick.
Why shouldn't I use fabric softener when washing or drying white clothes?
Fabric softener liquids or dryer sheets leave a faint residue on clothes that can turn yellow from the heat of a dryer.