Laundry Lessons: Colors Bright and Whites White

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Dear Home-Ec 101,
It seems lately my whites or mostly whites have been coming out dingy and faded. I don’t want to use bleach on them because a lot of them have colored sections as well. What can I do to keep the whites sparkling without taking effecting the rest of the color on these garments? And what can I do to prevent the dinginess before it starts?
Thank You,
Dingy Darling

How to keep your colors bright

Heather says:

You are absolutely right to not reach for regular chlorine bleach. When concerned about preserving color, oxygen bleach is your go to, not chlorine. Both chlorine and oxygen bleach work through the same kind of chemical reactions. These reactions are oxidizing reactions that break the weak bonds of molecules that produce color. Chlorine bleach, in the chemical world it’s known as sodium hypochlorite, is a much stronger oxidizing agent. It releases lots of oxygen that bounces around in your washing machine seeking the ruin of souls, I mean color.

Sodium perborate or sodium percarbonate are both sold commercially as oxygen bleach and this is what you need to bleach colored items. Both sodium perborate and sodium percarbonate react in water to create hydrogen peroxide, which is quite unstable and breaks down into water and oxygen molecules. Since not as many oxygen atoms are zipping around in your washing machine, they settle for the easiest prey, which is usually the weak bonds on stains.

Fluorescent Whitening Agents

Products like Clorox 2 usually contain more than just the color-busting oxygen molecules. Frequently these types of laundry additives also contain fluorescent brighteners, commonly referred to -in laundry nerd circles at least- as FWAs or fluorescent whitening agents. These chemicals make whites reflect light more brilliantly.

Have you ever had an item of clothing look dazzlingly bright in the sun, to the point it was difficult to look at? That’s FWAs at work. FWAs are used both by clothing and laundry detergent manufacturers. We as consumers are so used to whites looking crisp and bright that anything less appears dull and dingy.

Soaking your striped and mixed color items in a solution of color-safe bleach (like Clorox 2) and water may restore much of the missing brightness. This isn’t foolproof, it may take a couple of trips through this laundry cycle, or it may be beyond repair.

Preventing Dinginess

To keep your mixed items -that sounds vaguely insulting, doesn’t it?- from becoming dingy over time, you’ll need to use either oxygen bleach or, for best results, a product that also includes those FWAs.

Don’t overload your washer.

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As an FYI, a frequent cause of dingy laundry overloads your washer’s capacity. Clothing will develop a layer of residue if the washer is overloaded. If there are too many items -or simply too much dirt- in your washing machine, the rinse water won’t be able to bring those molecules back into the solution in the rinse cycle.  This is especially true for those of you who live in areas with hard water.

Good luck!

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14 thoughts on “Laundry Lessons: Colors Bright and Whites White”

  1. I like to put in the Clorox 2 and my detergent, then let the washer fill up with warm water. I then add the clothes that need some brightening. Next, I let the washer agitate 2 or 3 times then stop it. I leave these items to soak right in the washer for a few hours. Later I let the washer complete all it’s cycles. I find this is very helpful to brighten the dull things.

  2. @jadedlou That’s a great tip for those with standard washers. Those of us with HE typically have to soak in a bucket. -Why can I not say or write the word bucket without getting “There’s a hole in my bucket” stuck in my head?

  3. I find that my HE washer has trouble getting out all of the deposits, detergent residue, etc. to my satisfaction. I suspect we have hard water, even though its not nearly as bad as what I considered hard water before. Using a quarter scoop of Oxiclean or a cap of Calgon now and then helps, and when it becomes really visible a packet of RLR (hard to find, but so worth it) really makes a difference.

  4. @HeatherSolos I still have my old standard top load machine. I’m sure it’s not too energy efficient but it’s a workhorse. I try to save energy by mostly using cold water in all the cycles.

  5. I have had good luck preventing dingy buildup using plain Borax every so often. I have moderately hard water. When I lived in an area where the water came out of the tap in chunks (literally, flakes and small pebbles of lime scale), nothing kept whites white, not even soaking in vinegar. Fluorescent brightener over a grayed white just looks weird to me, and I am leery of too many chemicals, so I quit using it years ago.

    Right now, I am trying to figure out how to keep microfiber cloths from getting dingy. I use them for wiping in the kitchen instead of paper towels, and they quickly get really gray. I wash them frequently and store them in a container with a mild bleach solution while in active use, which helps, but it seems they all eventually pick up something that grays them. I know, it’s just a cleaning rag, but I can be picky about some things, and it bothers me to wipe a counter top with what looks like a dirty rag even when I know that it is not only clean but also sterile.

  6. @lori.whitbey Oxy-Clean is just the brand name of oxygen bleach: /oxygen-bleach-an-introduction/ 🙂 It works fine

  7. Recently there has been a move to remove phosphates from laundry detergent. This is a real shame, as phosphates are great cleaners. More specifically, they are surfactants, which reduce the surface tension of water. That means less residue, fewer water spots and better cleaning.

    Anyway, the simple solution to many laundry (and dishwasher) woes is to put the phosphates back in. Go to the paint section of your local hardware store and buy a box of TSP. Make sure it is TSP (trisodium phosphate), and not the TSP brand cleaner with no phosphates. Add a teaspoon of TSP to your dishwasher, and a tablespoon to your laundry. What a difference!

    And don’t worry about the environment. Phosphates also make great fertilizer, which makes algae grow in city drains. City governments are trying to save money by cleaning out the algae less often. Also, modern water treatment plants remove phosphates, but cities are trying to hold off on upgrades. Again, to save cash. Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but dirty laundry is not the answer. Phosphates! Use them. Love them. Peace.

  8. @HeatherSolos My dh was set on a HE and that is one of my main peeves: can’t fill it and soak. I ended up putting a small kitchen/bar sink in my powder room off the laundry room so that it can double as a soak/laundry sink.

    Heather “seeking the ruin of souls, I mean color” cracked me up. Your RC and know your prayers? lol

  9. @Narey I am. I was sort of hoping some of my RC brethren may pick up on that (and not think I was being too irreverent).

  10. I found a website that sells Cascade with phosphates. I just started using it over the weekend and it has made a huge difference with the hard water stains on my stainless silverware.

  11. Can anyone tell me if adding a cup of vinegar to my top loading washing machine will help or stop my reds from bleeding onto anything/ everything that’s washed with them? My daughter tried to help me out by doing a little laundry, and now her Daddy’s “favorite tan shirt”, sorta looks like a girly ty-dyed pinkish thing ! lol Although he’s not finding any amusement at all over the new look of his favorite “go to town” shirt! This red shirt has bled on something before , (but not my husbands clothes) ha,ha 😬and I don’t know how to make it stop! Please Help


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