How to Wash Dingy Whites

Sometimes getting white clothes to stay white or become white again can be a challenge. Stains and spots are only part of the problem. Over time, many whites can be subject to yellowing, graying or overall discoloration. A few simple tricks can help you restore the brilliance to even your dingiest whites. The method you use will depend on the type of whites you are dealing with.

Washing Whites with Bleach

This method is for cotton whites such as socks, underwear and other clothes that are bleach-safe—be sure to check the tags!

What You Will Need:

  • Washing machine
  • Hot water
  • Bleach
  • Detergent

Cleaning Process:

  1. Set your washing machine’s water temperature to hot.
  2. Set the wash cycle for “regular/whites.”
  3. Add designated amount of laundry detergent for your size load into the empty wash tub, and allow washer to fill.
  4. When washer is about ½ full, add the designated amount of bleach for your size load. If you have a bleach dispenser, use it. If not, add the bleach to the wash water BEFORE any clothing is added.
  5. Once the washer is filled, add the clothes. NOTE: Before adding clothes, make sure the detergent is fully dissolved and the bleach has been distributed into the water (the best way to do this is close the lid of the washer for a minute and let the machine agitate the water). This will prevent damage to your clothes.
  6. Let the clothes soak for at least 20 minutes. If you have a “presoak” cycle on your washer, use it. If not, simply leave the lid up or push the dial back in, this will generally prevent the washer from running.
  7. After the clothes have soaked, run the washer as usual.
  8. Once the entire cycle is complete, you may want to run the rinse cycle again, just to be sure all bleach residue is removed from your clothing.

Non-Bleach Method

This method is intended for machine washable dress shirts, blouses, and other clothes that are NOT bleach safe—again, check the tags!

What You Will Need:

  • Hot water
  • Large sink or bucket.
  • Liquid dish soap (such as Dawn or Joy)
  • Ammonia
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Washing machine
  • Laundry Detergent
  • Laundry Booster, such as OxiClean

Cleaning Process:

This method takes time and effort, but will help to turn even the dingiest whites white again.

  1. Check the tags on your clothes to make sure they will tolerate hot water. If not, adjust the water temperature suggested below to suit your clothes.
  2. Fill bucket or sink with hot water and add about 2 tablespoons of dish soap.
  3. Add clothes and allow to soak for 15 minutes
  4. Drain water and rinse whites with warm water.
  5. Refill sink (or bucket) with hot water and add about 2 tablespoons of household ammonia.
  6. Add clothes and allow to soak for about 15 minutes.
  7. Drain water and rinse whites with warm water.
  8. Refill sink (or bucket) with hot water and add about 2 tablespoons of white vinegar.
  9. Add clothes and allow to soak for about 15 minutes.
  10. Drain water and rinse whites in warm water.
  11. Set the water temperature on your washer to hot (again, check the tags on your clothes to make sure hot is okay to use), and set to the appropriate wash cycle for your clothes.
  12. Add designated amount of laundry detergent for your size load into the empty wash tub, and allow washer to fill.
  13. When washer is about ½ full, add the designated amount of laundry booster for your size load.
  14. When washer is full, add clothes and wash as usual.
  15. When cycle is completely finished, you may want to run the rinse cycle again to make sure all of the bleach residue is removed from clothes.
  16. Instead of drying your clothes in the dryer, if you have someplace outside you can hang them, hanging them to air dry in the sun will aid in the whitening process.

PLEASE NOTE: The above cleaning method should be safe for most clothing, but there is always a risk of damage or discoloration when treating extremely delicate fabrics or garments.

Additional Tips and Advice

  • Adding a single, plain aspirin to each load of laundry will keep the whites from getting dingy.
  • Always check the tags on all clothing before undertaking any of these cleaning methods to make sure your clothes can tolerate the water temperatures, wash cycles and cleaning treatments recommended.
  • If you routinely have trouble with dingy whites, you may have hard water. Adding a water softening agent to your wash (such as Calgon) may help prevent graying or discolored whites.
  • Always exercise caution when using bleach. It is a hazardous chemical and should be handled with care. For more information, see the Ashland Material Safety Data Sheet (PDF).
  • Try using a detergent with non-chlorine bleach for whites that cannot tolerate regular bleach.
  • Any perspiration stains that cause yellowing or graying (including “ring around the collar”) should be treated as soon as possible with a laundry pretreatment, such as Shout or OxiClean.
  • Adding a product known as Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing to your wash may help to whiten non-bleachable whites more quickly than the three-soak method listed above, depending on the severity of the dinginess. The product can usually be found in the soap or laundry aisle of your grocery store.
  • Never use any of the above methods on clothing or fabric that is dry clean only.
  • When using bleach through a dispenser, always flush the dispenser with a cup or two of plain water after the bleach is added, to remove any bleach residue that may damage your next load of non-bleachable laundry.

Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    I have hard water along with tons of different sediments, so we now have a water softener and very good filtration system. My only problem was I could never seem to get (or keep) my whites as white as when I first bought them. I am going to try these methods and I am hoping they will work well for me. Thank you for the tips, and wish me luck! :)

  2. Melvin says:

    I found out that most don’t remember the basic rules. Such as; Whites with whites; Colored with coloreds. Meaning when you buy whites socks; if they have brown, gray or any other color as the heel or toe; you’re not being your best! Whites go with whites; colors go with colors; any other combination will bleed, and sometimes permanently. So once done and especially dried; they will never become white as whites or colored as colored; they have blended and been made permanent.So that means if you want whites; you must buy new clothes of white only; not white and colors; to be washed as colored white combinations.

  3. Nancy says:

    In this “green” era, with the “green police” coming into our homes, washing machines no longer have a hot water cycle. Oh, it does say “hot” on the machine, but check it out; barely lukewarm. When we built our laundry room, I was insistent that there be a slop sink right next to the washer, and I have a hose attached to the faucet. When I do whites, I fill the tub with the hose with Hot Hot Hot water. And my whites are once again White White White!

  4. Mary says:

    Many of today’s materials are damaged by bleach. I washed my terry towels and washcloths in very hot water and bleach and after a few weeks, they were falling all to pieces. I just assumed they could be bleached. Now, I check the tags on all fabric before laundering. Also, cold water is better for white shirts and other white material; it doesn’t gray the clothes as bad as warm or hot water.

  5. Heather says:

    The “Non-Bleach” Method just saved my favorite T-shirt. It is a white cotton souvenir T-shirt from our visit to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington three years ago. It already was looking dingy, but last week it got mildewed in the laundry basket. I thought it was finally a goner. It is good quality thick cotton and that is why I think it has lasted so long. We are leaving on a trip Friday and I really wanted to take this T-shirt, so I thought I would give it a “last chance” and see if I could find something to try on the internet. I found this site and and since I use ammonia and vinegar to clean in the house often (vinegar for a fabric softener with my laundry), I thought I would give this a try… WOW!

    I live in Denmark, so my version of Dawn dish soap is called Fairy. I used the Fairy, ammonia and vinegar. I didn’t put it in the washing machine. I just hung it on the line because it was a sunny day here. All I can say is THANK YOU! I have my favorite T-shirt back! It looks almost new!

    When I get home from vacation, I have a few other things I am going to do this to! I know it will breathe new life into them.

    My shirt looks crisp, white and fresh… better than I could ever have expected.

  6. Jenny says:

    There is a possibility of us moving in the next year or so. If that happens, I am going to push for some utility sink so that I can do that non-bleach method in the laundry room instead of the kitchen sink.

  7. Susanna says:

    Would your method work with a blue and white striped shirt or would it fade the blue colour?

  8. Melanie says:

    Susanna,
    It is possible that the non-bleach method could work to brighten the dyed parts of the shirt as well. At the least, it shouldn’t cause any damage. Both ammonia and white vinegar are commonly used to brighten colored clothes. Be sure to follow the care instructions on the tag though. Also, after you add the solution (vinegar, ammonia, etc.) to the bucket or sink full of water, be sure to stir the mixture so that it is evenly distributed.
    The only part of the non-bleach method that could damage the dyed clothing is letting it dry in the sun, as sunlight can bleach or fade a colored fabric. Hang the shirt to dry in the shade instead.
    Source: HowStuffWorks – How to Brighten Colors While Washing Clothes
    Source: eHow – Why Should I Use Ammonia in My Wash Cycles

  9. Eddie says:

    My wife has turned my favorite T-shirt from white to blue; forgot she had put denims in the machine!
    Can anyone tell me how I can get it back to its original color, which is white with a yellow and green motive?

  10. Melanie says:

    Eddie,
    This is the article that you need: How to Fix Dye Transfer. See step 5.

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