The Right Way to Bleach White Clothes (and Get Them So Bright)

published Apr 30, 2024
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Basket with dirty clothes near washing machines in laundry room
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There’s something perennially appealing about crisp, white clothes. They’ll never go out of style, they always look inviting, and they can flatter nearly every outfit. The only problem? White clothing gets dirty easily. 

It’s impossible to keep from staining white clothing over time, which is why bleach has been a part of laundry routines for generations. Aside from making white wardrobe items look pristine, knowing how to bleach white fabrics correctly can sustain everything from bath towels and bed linens to tablecloths and sofa covers for the long haul. Nevertheless, bleach can be intimidating to use — even for the fearless amongst us who go out to eat in white pants. 

Below, experts share their advice on how to bleach white clothes so they look like new. 

How to Safely Use Bleach

Bleach contains powerful chemicals and, when not used correctly, it can be dangerous to your health. So before you even open a package containing bleach, you should be aware of its strength and practice precautions. “Bleach safety involves wearing appropriate clothing and eye protection,” says Mary Gagliardi, also known as Dr. Laundry, Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert.

You’ll want to wear clothes you wouldn’t mind potentially discoloring, as well as gloves and perhaps even a pair of goggles if your eyes are sensitive. Work in a ventilated room, and use a measuring cup to dilute bleach with water according to the directions. 

“Also, make sure the item you want to bleach is bleach-safe, wipe up any spills or drips immediately with a paper towel or rag, and properly store the bottle when not in use in a dry place that’s away from children,” Gagliardi notes. “When stored as directed, bleach has a one-year shelf life and should be replaced after that.”

Additionally, bleach should never be mixed with other household cleaners like vinegar, ammonia, or rubbing alcohol, so always be sure to check the labels of your cleaning products to ensure it is safe to use with bleach.

How to Bleach White Clothes

There are a few ways to go about bleaching white clothing, but to start, know that you can’t bleach every white clothing item. It’s a bummer, but it’s true. Flip the care tag on your item to read its instructions, and follow the rules — with two interesting caveats. 

“Always avoid bleaching wool, silk, mohair, leather, spandex, and non-fast colors,” Gagliardi says. “An all-cotton or polyester-cotton blend T-shirt typically can be safely bleached, even if it’s labeled ‘do not bleach.’ But a white shirt that’s 97% cotton and 3% Spandex labeled ‘only non-chlorine bleach when needed’ is correctly labeled, and should not be included in your bleach load.”

How to Bleach White Clothes by Soaking

This solution works well to remove stains, whiten fabrics, sanitize, and disinfect clothing, Gagliardi says, but the process to do them varies. If you want to whiten or remove stains, Gagliardi says to use a ratio of one-fourth cup of bleach per one gallon of water, then fully submerge your laundry for five minutes. Rinse and wash regularly using detergent and bleach.

For pre-soak sanitizing, use a ratio of two teaspoons of bleach per one gallon of water and then soak the items completely for two minutes before rinsing completely and washing with detergent as usual. Finally, for presoak disinfection, Gagliardi suggests using a ratio of one-third cup bleach per one gallon of water, soaking for six minutes, rinsing completely, and then washing with detergent. 

How to Bleach White Clothes in the Washing Machine

Gagliardi says that this process depends on the type of washer you’re using, but in general, you’ll want to sort your clothing and then add detergent to the washer and bleach to the dispenser. If there’s no dispenser, start an empty load and then add the bleach to the water when the washer is about half filled, later throwing in the load to get cleaned. Make sure you are using a detergent that is safe to work with bleach, as not all detergents are compatible. Check the labels before mixing.

“Measure one-third cup bleach for a normal-size load with average soil, and two-thirds cup for an extra-large or heavily soiled load,” she says. “Check the washer’s use and care guide, which is usually available as a PDF on the manufacturer’s website if you no longer have it, to see what cycle is recommended, and if none, select the heavy-duty cycle in warm or hot water.”

One important note: If you have a high-efficiency washer, Gagliardi says that you should pour laundry detergent into the detergent dispenser, and then bleach into the bleach dispenser, filling it to the “max-fill” line. No bleach dispenser? Gagliardi says Clorox carries Zero Splash Bleach Packs that can be tossed in the washer directly.

Alternate Ways to Bleach White Clothes

If you don’t want to use chlorine bleach, that’s OK. There are other ways to bleach your white clothes. Patric Richardson, aka The Laundry Evangelist, actually doesn’t use chlorine bleach to treat his clothes. Instead, he recommends oxygen bleach. “Chlorine bleach can be tough to breathe in and can burn your skin,” he says. “You can soak anything in oxygen bleach to lift stains, except for wool or silk fabrics.”

In this case, Richardson recommends soaking the stained fabric for an hour before throwing it in the wash or adding one scoop to your washing machine before starting a load. And if you want to go the natural route, he has this suggestion: “Some stains can be removed by squeezing a lemon in the stain and then setting it in the sun. It’s remarkably effective.”

Can Bleach Get Rid of Yellow Stains on White Clothes? 

It’s possible to make unsightly yellow stains on certain white clothes disappear, but you need to identify the culprit first.

If you haven’t been using bleach during the wash cycles of bleach-safe white clothing, Gagliardi notes, the yellowing is likely due to the cumulative effects of going without it — and can be solved by pre-soaking your clothing in bleach.

For oil-based yellow stains, pretreat it with a little dish detergent first. Wash it out completely. Then use bleach as directed to remove the stain, recommends Gagliardi. “But if the yellowing is due to misuse, then bleach will not restore the items.” Make sure you use a dish detergent that does not have ammonia. 

For his part, Richardson says that yellow stains are best treated with oxygen bleach, just to ensure that the color of your clothing remains consistent. No matter which option you choose, at least you know you have a path forward when your favorite white T-shirt could use some brightening.