Even if you take great care when washing white clothes, it's not unusual for white clothes and linens to yellow over time. But if you're asking: can you remove yellowing from white clothes? The answer is yes.
Most white fabrics can be whitened by using laundry products like oxygen-based bleach, bluing, chlorine bleach, or natural methods like the sun's ultraviolet rays to remove the yellow or dingy gray residue. Here are several methods for whitening yellowed clothes.
What Causes Yellowing of White Clothes?
Environmental factors like the nicotine from cigarette smoke or greasy cooking residue can cause fabrics to yellow. Underarm yellowing on shirts happens due to a reaction between your antiperspirant and body salts. Clothes that are stored improperly can react with the acids in a cardboard box or wooden shelves and turn yellow.
|Detergent Type||Enzyme-based laundry detergent, oxygen bleach, chlorine bleach, bluing, color remover|
|Water Temperature||Varies by type of fabric|
|Cycle Type||Varies by type of fabric|
Do not ever mix whitening products in the same cleaning session. Mixing chemicals may result in toxic fumes.
Method #1: Oxygen Bleach
The most gentle method to whiten whites that have turned yellow is to mix a solution of warm water and oxygen-based bleach powder. Follow the package recommendations as to how much powder to use per gallon of water.
- Mix enough of the oxygen bleach and water solution to cover the garments.
- Submerge the white garments and allow them to soak for at least eight hours or overnight.
- Wash the garments using a good detergent and the hottest water recommended for the fabric.
- Add 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar to the rinse water to help remove any detergent residue.
- If you see improvement but the fabrics are still not as white as you'd like, repeat the process with a freshly mixed batch of oxygen bleach.
This process is safe to use on polyester clothes, synthetic fabrics, and natural fibers like cotton and linen, as well as printed fabrics. Do not use oxygen bleach on silk, wool, or leather including any trim or embellishments made from those materials.
Method #2: Laundry Bluing
An old-fashioned laundry product, laundry bluing improves the brightness of white fabrics by adding a blue pigment that counteracts the natural yellowing that occurs during regular laundering. The eye perceives the nearly undetectable amount of blue and sees the fabric as whiter. Bluing is added to the wash or rinse cycle.
- Always dilute bluing (it is highly concentrated) in cold water before adding it to any type of washer.
- To whiten whites in a standard or top-load HE washer in the wash cycle, stir 1/4 teaspoon liquid bluing into one quart of water and add the solution to the wash water.
- To use in the rinse cycle, use 1/8 teaspoon dissolved in a quart of water. Never use an automatic dispenser for bluing in a top load washer for either the wash or rinse cycle addition because it will stain the dispenser.
- For use in a front load washer, use the same amounts of bluing but dilute it in one to two quarts of water and add through the dispenser directly into the wash or rinse cycle after it has already filled with water.
Method #3: Commercial Color Remover
If neither oxygen-based bleach nor bluing gets your clothing white enough, use a commercial color remover such as Rit Color Remover to strip away the yellow. It should not be used if there is colored trim or decorations on the clothing.
Use color removers in a well–ventilated area. Open windows and turn on a fan to circulate the air.
- The garment should be freshly washed.
- Fill a large stainless steel pot with enough water for the fabric to move freely. Cover the pot and heat the water on a stovetop to just below boiling (or around 200°F).
- When water begins to simmer, add the packet of color remover and mix well with a stainless steel spoon.
- Keep the water temperature at a low simmer.
- Wet the white garment and add it to the bath.
- Allow the garment to soak, stirring occasionally for 10-20 minutes.
- Remove the garment from the pot and rinse in cool water.
- Wash the garment as you usually would.
Method #4: Chlorine Bleach
Chlorine bleach is great for cleaning and disinfecting but it can cause yellowing if overused or if used on white synthetic fibers like nylon, microfibers, or polyester. The bleach weakens the fibers and returns the synthetic polymers to their original color, yellow. Overuse of chlorine bleach can also cause white natural fibers like cotton and linen to turn yellow. If you can detect a chlorine odor as you remove wet laundry from the washer, you are using too much bleach.
To whiten cotton clothes:
- Soak clothes in a solution of 1/4 cup of chlorine bleach per gallon of water for 5 minutes.
- Wash the clothes in the hottest water recommended using your regular detergent and 1/3 cup of chlorine bleach. Use the bleach dispenser or add the bleach 5 minutes after the wash cycle has started.
Method #5: Use the Sun to Whiten Clothes
If possible, line-dry white laundry outside in the sun. The ultraviolet rays of sunlight will help to whiten the clothes.
Method #6: Baking Soda
Baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, helps boost the performance of your laundry detergent to remove the soil that leaves clothes yellow.
- Heat enough water to submerge the clothes to boiling and then remove the pot from the cooktop.
- Stir in one cup of baking soda per gallon of water.
- Add the white clothes (especially effective for white cotton socks).
- Soak for at least one hour or overnight.
- Wash as usual.
Method #7: Distilled White Vinegar
Distilled white vinegar contains acetic acid that helps remove detergent residue that leaves fabrics looking yellow.
- Fill a sink or plastic basin with enough hot water to submerge the clothes.
- Add one cup of distilled white vinegar per gallon of water.
- Add the white clothes and soak overnight.
- Wash as usual.
How to Prevent White Clothes from Turning Yellow
- Sort clothes and wash only white clothes together.
- Use a high-quality detergent that contains enough enzymes to remove all of the soil during the wash cycle.
- Do not use too much detergent or fabric softener. The high heat of a clothes dryer can "bake" the residue into the fibers and leave them grey or yellow.
- Use deodorants that do not contain aluminum and allow the deodorant to dry completely before putting on a white shirt.
How to Store White Clothes to Prevent Yellowing
Make sure the garments or linens are completely stain-free, clean, and dry before storing. Wash and dry your hands before handling the item because lotion or creams can discolor white items. Choose a cool, dry space for storage to avoid extreme temperature changes. Use the right type of storage container to prevent yellowing. One choice is to use storage boxes sold for archival storage that are acid- and lignin-free. Or, use a container made of cast polypropylene with #5 or the letters 'PP' in the recycling triangle symbol that does not emit damaging fumes.
Can you remove yellowing from white clothes?
Yes—you can remove yellowing from white clothes by using oxygen-based bleach or one of the other recommended methods. Just as it took time for the clothes to look yellow, it will take time to restore your desired level of whiteness.
How can I make my whites white again?
The easiest and safest method to make whites white again is to use a solution of oxygen-based bleach and warm water. It can be used safely on almost all types of fabric. You can also make whites white again by using the ultraviolet rays of the sun or using laundry bluing, baking soda, vinegar, or chlorine bleach.
Will Oxiclean whiten yellow T-shirts?
Definitely. Oxiclean or any brand of powdered oxygen-based bleach will whiten T-shirts that have turned yellow or grey. The trick is to let the yellowed shirts soak in the solution for several hours or overnight. You may need to do some additional scrubbing in the armpits to remove deodorant and body soil build-up.
Heirlooms. University of Georgia Extension.