Hard Water Stains on Light Colored Material and Clothing

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Dear Home-Ec 101,
I live in NH and have hard water well water, which has been staining all of our light colored clothing and towels since we moved here 6 years ago. I figure I probably can’t get out the stains in our towels by now, but to prevent future stains, and to be able to wash whites in my front loading HE machine (which would be a blessed miracle!), would the use of Borax help? If so, how much should I use? I have a Bosch 500 Nexxt series front loader which uses the He detergents.

If you have any other ideas on what would help with my white/lights (until I can afford to put in a permanent water softening system), I would appreciate hearing them. I wish I had known about your website a long time ago!
Thanks so much!
Disgruntled in Durham

how to handle hard water stains
Heather says:

Until you can purchase a whole house water softening system you can use a non-precipitating water softener which you should be able to find in the laundry aisle of your local chain grocery or big box (Target style) stores. It’ll probably be near the borax and RIT dye rather than with the actual detergents. Follow the directions on the box, if they have any specifically for high efficiency washers. If the box lacks these instructions begin your experiment with a little less than a third of the recommended amount and increase in small increments until your desired results are achieved.

The same goes for Borax, you’ll probably use 2 TBSP per load in a high efficiency washer. Just be sure that you are not placing the borax powder in the same dispenser as liquid detergent. Why not? The combination of thick liquid and powder may cause a fun little caking problem, clogging your dispenser.

[pullshow id=”safety”] Your solution for the hard water stains is going to depend on the color of the stains. If the staining on your light colored fabric is the dull, grey or dingy discoloration and stiffness that occurs with calcium deposits you do have a chance of saving some of your clothing. Since you have a high efficiency washing machine, I recommend using your bathtub or sink to soak the articles you wish to try to salvage, but you can also follow the instructions in Solving the High Efficiency Washer Soaking Problem.

[pullthis id=”safety” display=”outside”]Safety note: If you have mobile infants, toddlers, or small children in the house, be absolutely sure that the bathroom remains locked while items are soaking. (The same goes for if you use a bucket or basin, kids are drawn to water like flies to, well… you know.) [/pullthis]

In a standard washer use the hottest water possible for the fabric + 4x the recommended detergent + 1 cup non-precipitating water conditioner, agitate just long enough to make sure the clothing has . The next morning allow the cycle to finish. Run the load again, but this time adding only the non-precipitating water conditioner. Check the rinse cycle to ensure that the suds are gone. If the water is still sudsy, run another rinse cycle and do not forget the water conditioner.

If your stains are yellow, your water may have a high iron content. These stains are notoriously difficult to remove. You can experiment with a cleaner designed to remove rust stains (like CLR) however you’ll need to test this in an inconspicuous location and RINSE thoroughly before washing in your clothes washer. Some people have luck removing iron stains with lemon juice, salt, and sunlight.

how to remove stains from clothes
Click the picture for more tips!

If your laundry has red, blue, or green stains from the water, you may have what is known as acid water. You’ll want to consult with your local agricultural extension office. They will be able to point you in the direction for the problems specific to your locale.

Good luck!

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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3 thoughts on “Hard Water Stains on Light Colored Material and Clothing”

  1. You can also use white vinegar and citric acid (lemon juice minus the lemon – usually found with the canning supplies) as soaking agents to remove hard water deposits, and if one doesn’t work, the other probably will as they chemically react a bit differently. Be careful with lime removers like LimeAway and CLR, as I have seen them bleach fabric…as Heather said, do a test spot first, and check your soaking periodically to catch it if it starts to do something funky. Some lime removers have purple dye in them…never use these on fabric as they will stain.

  2. If one has an he front loader and uses liquid soap, how does one add the borax? Dissolve in water or add to the drum?

  3. There’s a lot of iron in my water and I have the laundry battle too. However, I’ve had good results with a product called Iron Out. It can be found at most stores with a cleaning product isle; Menards and Walmart are two good sources. It has a wide variety of uses (besides laundry) for removing rust stains and iron build-up.
    Chances are, if you have rust stains in your laundry, you have them elsewhere in your home as well. I also use it to clean my tub, shower, sinks, toilet tank, etc. I even soak some of my dishes in it to remove stains from them. In addition to using it as a soak, Iron Out can be diluted and used in a spray bottle, or mixed with a little water to make a paste.


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