How to Get Dye Out of Clothes

Help! My Colors Ran in the Wash

Laundry dye stain
Microzoa / Getty Images

No one wants to open the washer and see a load of laundry looking tie-dyed as a result of a shirt or jeans that left dye all over the other clothes. So, how do you remove dye stains from clothes?

Whether you find that all of your white underwear is now pink (that rogue red sock) or your favorite striped sweater no longer has crisp lines, dye bleeding is always a headache. But the offending dye can almost always be removed from washable fabrics if you follow these steps.

This dye removal process works on all white, colored, or print washable fabrics (do not use on silk, leather, or wool). Just remember to use oxygen-based bleach and not chlorine bleach which can cause more damage.

Removing Dye Transfer or Color Bleeding Stains

The first thing to do is find the bleeding culprit and pull it out of the washer. Carefully check each piece of laundry on the front and back for stains. Remove any pieces of laundry that have not been affected.

Next, rewash all the stained clothes using a non-chlorine (oxygen-based) bleach (brand names are OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) in addition to your regular laundry detergent.

Follow the oxygen bleach package directions for how much to use for each load of laundry. These products are safe to use in both high-efficiency front load and top load washers as well as standard washers. Oxygen bleach is effective at any water temperature; however, if your water is very cold take the time to dissolve the oxygen bleach in a quart of very warm water before adding to the washer.

The rewashing with oxygen bleach must be done before the stained clothes are put in the dryer. The heat from the dryer will set the dye stains and make them much harder to remove.

Illustration of how to remove dye stains from clothes
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

What if That Doesn't Work?

If the clothes got tossed in the dryer before you saw the dye stains or the dye transfer is heavy and rewashing doesn't work, you will need to slow down and allow some time to soak the dye-stained items before rewashing.

Go back to the oxygen-based bleach and cool water. You will have the best results if you use a powdered oxygen bleach formula rather than a liquid formula because the powder form is more stable than liquid formulas. You'll get more cleaning power for your efforts.

Follow the package directions as to how much oxygen bleach to add per gallon of water. Mix the solution in your washer, a large non-metal tub (plastic storage containers work great), deep sink, or bathtub. When the solution is ready, submerge the stained items and allow them to soak for at least eight hours. Check the clothes and if the dye stains are gone, wash as usual. If they remain, mix a fresh batch of the oxygen bleach and water solution and soak for another eight hours; then wash.

Patience will be a virtue.

How to Prevent Color Bleeding and Dye Stains

The first step in preventing dye stains and color bleeding is to sort clothes correctly before loading the washer. Just because something hasn’t faded before doesn’t mean it never will. Sometimes it takes several trips through the washer before unstable dyes begin to leach out and cling to the unsuspecting!

Can you prevent or stop color bleeding? Sometimes.

  • Wash all new clothes with similar colors before wearing. This will remove some unstable dyes and will even prevent dye transfer from clothes to other surfaces (couch cushions, your favorite undies).
  • If the garment is labeled as dry clean only, wet a cotton swab and rub it across an inside seam or hem. If you see color on the cotton swab, you'll have dye stain problems if you choose to wash the item.
  • Handwash brightly colored items separately or in a load with similar clothing. Jeans bleeding blue dye on other blue jeans don't do much harm.
  • Use cold water when washing colored fabrics because it is more gentle on fabrics and will help the color last longer.

There are loads of old wives' tales and internet hacks out there about how to set dyes and prevent color bleeding ranging from adding salt to vinegar to coffee to the washer water. In reality, these don't work on today's dyes and fabrics. Use a bit of caution when washing bright colors, instead.