How to Whiten White Clothes That Yellowed Without Using Bleach

Yellow laundry stains on white shirt

moxumbic / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 10 - 15 mins
  • Total Time: 20 mins - 10 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $5-10

Crisp white clothes are a classic look that never goes out of style. But when the white clothes are yellowed or dingy, they make a different kind of statement. Using oxygen-based or chlorine bleach is a tried-and-true method for whitening yellowed clothes and linens. However, if you are out of bleach or want to try some different methods, here are 10 ways you can whiten yellowed clothes.

Most of these methods are not as efficient at removing yellowing from whites as bleach but with some patience, they will make white clothes whiter. Most of these bleach alternatives work best on natural fibers, like cotton or linen.

Don't use these methods on white clothes that have contrasting trims or prints. Don't mix the methods or chemicals; try one whitening method and if it doesn't produce the results you desire, try another.

 Detergent  Enzyme-based laundry detergent
 Water Temperature Depends on fabric type
 Cycle Type  Depends on fabric type
 Drying Cycle Type  Depends on fabric type
 Special Treatments  Use a whitening agent, do mix agents

How Often to Whiten Yellowed Clothes

The best time to whiten yellowed clothes is as soon as you notice the first sign of discoloration. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to bring the fabric back to bright white.

Tip

To determine if a fabric has yellowed, go outside and hold a piece of bright white paper next to the garment. Or, hold your garment next to a new, never worn white t-shirt.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • 1 Sink or plastic basin
  • 1 Washing machine
  • 1 Outdoor clothesline or drying rack
  • 1 set Measuring cups and spoons

Materials

  • 1 bottle Lemon juice
  • 1 bottle Distilled white vinegar
  • 1 container Citric acid powder
  • 1 box Baking soda
  • 1 container Bluing
  • 1 container Color remover
  • 1 container Dishwasher detergent
  • 1 box Borax
  • 1 bottle Hydrogen peroxide
  • 1 bottle OxiClean

Instructions

Whitening Methods for Yellowed White Clothes

  1. Baking Soda

    Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) helps cut through the soil on cotton clothing. 

    • Heat one gallon of water to boiling and then remove it from the heat source.
    • Stir in one cup of baking soda.
    • Add white clothes (especially effective for white cotton socks).
    • Soak them for at least one hour or overnight.
    • Wash as usual.
  2. Distilled White Vinegar

    The acetic acid in distilled white vinegar helps remove detergent residue that traps soil and leaves fabrics yellowed and dull.

    • Fill a sink or plastic basin with one gallon of hot water.
    • Add one cup of distilled white vinegar.
    • Add the white clothes and soak overnight.
    • Wash as usual.
  3. Lemon Juice

    Lemons contain citric acid that can whiten cotton, linen, and polyester fibers.

    • Mix one-half cup of bottled lemon juice (or the juice of four lemons) into one gallon of hot water in a sink or plastic basin.
    • Add white clothes and soak them for at least four hours or overnight.
    • Wash as usual.
  4. Citric Acid Powder

    Using the same whitening power as lemons, citric acid powder is more concentrated and easy to keep on hand.

    • Mix 3 tablespoons of citric acid powder in one gallon of hot water.
    • Add the white clothes and allow them to soak for at least four hours or overnight.
    • Wash as usual.
  5. Borax Powder

    A naturally occurring mineral, borax is a chlorine bleach alternative that helps remove stains and cuts through dulling residue.

    • Mix one-half cup of powdered borax per one gallon of warm water.
    • Add the yellowed white clothes and soak for at least 30 minutes or longer.
    • Wash as usual.
  6. Bluing

    A commercial product, bluing liquid or powder adds a trace of blue iron pigment that tricks the human eye to make fabric appear whiter. The treatment will fade after several washings but can be reapplied.

    • Following product directions, add bluing to a soaking solution, the wash cycle, or the rinse cycle in a washing machine.
  7. Color Remover

    A commercial product, color removers strip away residue and dye from whites that can cause yellowing or dullness. The product is chlorine bleach-free but contains sodium hydrosulfite.

    • Follow product directions carefully to prevent damage to fabrics.
  8. Hydrogen Peroxide

    Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is an oxidizing agent used as a mild form of bleach. Use a fresh bottle of the 3 percent solution sold in drugstores.

    • Load white clothes in the washer.
    • Add one cup of hydrogen peroxide to the washer's bleach dispenser.
    • Wash clothes as usual with your regular laundry detergent.
  9. Powdered Dishwasher Detergent

    Most powdered dishwasher detergents contain sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) that will whiten clothes made from natural fibers.

    • Heat one gallon of water and add one-fourth cup of powdered dishwasher detergent.
    • Stir to dissolve the powder completely.
    • Add the yellowed white clothes.
    • Soak for 30 minutes.
    • Remove the clothes and pour the solution down the drain.
    • Wash the clothes as usual.
  10. Sunshine

    The free ultraviolet rays of the sun will brighten white laundry.

  11. OxiClean

    OxiClean is powered by sodium percarbonate, which transforms into hydrogen peroxide when mixed with water. OxiClean isn't active until it gets wet, so the hydrogen peroxide it makes is the most potent and freshest option people can get. It whitens fabrics and other dingy surfaces really well and is still color safe. Most people don't realize how weak their hydrogen peroxide is and then incorrectly believe it is not effective at whitening.

    • Follow product directions carefully to prevent damage to fabrics.
    • This product is ideal for white fabrics with color striped or colorful fabrics sewn to it in sections.
FAQ
  • Do I have to use bleach to whiten yellowed clothes?

    No. There are several less harsh methods—baking soda, white vinegar, borax, and lemon juice—that can whiten yellowed clothes. They require more soaking time but are simple to use.

  • Can I use hydrogen peroxide to whiten yellowed clothes?

    Yes. Hydrogen peroxide is an oxidizing agent or a mild form of bleach that can whiten natural and synthetic fabrics that have yellowed.

  • Does bluing whiten yellowed white fabrics?

    Bluing adds an iron-based blue pigment that tricks the eye into seeing the white clothes as brighter and whiter. It does fade after several washings but can be reapplied with no harm to the fabrics.