What Is Colorfastness in Clothing?

Color clothing laundry


Bowonpat Sakaew / EyeEm / Getty Images

Clothing is colorfast if its colors and dyes do not bleed or run from the clothing. If you aren't careful, you may find out that clothing is not colorfast when it's too late after you have a laundry disaster on your hands. If you wash a red non-colorfast towel with white socks, you may end up with pink socks. Sometimes clothes need to be washed a few times to make sure any remaining dye is washed out. This is especially true for bright colored linens (towels, sheets, and blankets) and for dark-colored denim items. You should first test clothing for colorfastness before using any type of bleach, bleaching solution, or strong cleaning product. Even vinegar or baking soda, which are essentially mild, can damage clothing that isn't colorfast.

What Is Colorfastness?

Colorfastness is a piece of dyed clothing's fade-resistance. Pieces that have a strong binding force between dye and the fibers of the clothing have a high colorfastness and will take a long time (or a lot of washed) before they begin to fade.

Variables That Affect Colorfastness

Many elements affect whether fabrics retain their dye or bleed, including:

  • The dye type—natural or synthetic
  • The type of fiber the dye is applied to
  • When and how the dye was applied to the fabric
  • The pH of various substances the fabric is exposed to (like perspiration)
  • Dry cleaning chemicals
  • Heat and sunlight, which can cause certain dyes to fade

How to Test for Colorfastness

The best way to test for colorfastness is to find a hidden seam of the garment or any hidden spot. Try using the bottom hidden seam on clothing that gets tucked in, as inner seams are usually a safe bet. There is always the chance that this test will remove a little color, so choose an area where it won't be noticeable. Apply the laundry detergent or stain remover to the hidden area and then dab the spot with a clean white cotton cloth. Use a white or very light-colored cloth so that you will be able to see any color transfer. If the color removes itself from the garment onto the cloth, don't use the cleaning product on the clothing as this piece of clothing would not be considered colorfast.

Fun Fact

Checking the care label can be helpful if you're wondering if an item will bleed in the wash—if it says "wash with like colors" or "wash separately," then the piece is unlikely to be colorfast. 

Clothes That Are Colorfast

Most cleaning methods will work well on colorfast clothing and you won't have to worry about damage. However, it's still a good idea to test new items on a hidden seam to make sure. Don't worry about this item transferring its color onto other items in your laundry cycle even with warm water settings. Basically, this is a low maintenance piece of clothing that doesn't need special washing instructions.

Clothes That Aren't Colorfast

Some special care will be needed with this clothing. Wash clothing that is not colorfast alone to keep the dye from transferring. You may also need to use a cold water setting to keep colors from fading. Be careful about stain treatment methods, and always test items in a hidden area before using. Keep in mind that you can use plain water to remove most stains if you get to them right away.