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?
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.
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.
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.
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