Nothing compares to the smell of fresh laundry that's been hanging outside to dry. Not only is it a fresh and efficient way to do laundry, it's also oft-touted as a way to brighten whites without having to use special detergents or harsh chemicals. All you need is plenty of time and sunshine.
How to Bleach Laundry in the Sun
First, wash your clothing as usual, adding up to ½ cup of lemon juice to the wash for an extra boost. (You can also add lemon juice to a spray bottle and spray directly on tough stains.)
After the cycle has finished, immediately bring everything outside into the sun and hang or lay your linens as flat as you can possibly get them. If using a clothesline, be sure to pin linens at the corners as opposed to folding in half so the sun can reach the entire surface. Leave your clothes to hang in the sun for a few hours and—supposedly—you'll have brighter whites without the harshness of bleach.
So... Does it Really Work?
For the first test I started with a pair of dingy, old paint stained socks (above).
I used the sun bleaching method for the sock on the left, spritzing it with a mixture of lemon juice and water, and left the sock on the right as I'd found it; no wash, no sun bleaching for comparison. Note: the sock on the right started out a bit brighter than our test sock!
I checked on the sock every few hours, soaking it once it had dried, hoping for something drastic, and found a tiny change in brightness after 8 hours.
The sock brightened a bit, but the difference wasn't as noticeable as I'd like it to be. In my research on sun bleaching, I found many people had to leave very dingy items out on their clotheslines for days at a time to lift the stains.
At this point I was feeling like my efforts to brighten my whites with the energy-free method were in vain and decided to pop the laundry in the washing machine with some OxiClean for comparison sake. The results were faster and more impressive than an entire day spent nursing the dingy sock. The test sock ended up brighting a few shades whiter than where it started.
Along with the socks, I also washed this very, very, dingy dish cloth to see if I could bring back the bright white background.
After washing it once and leaving it in the sun for 8 hours it was brighter but not as bright as I wanted it to be.
I also tossed the towel in to launder with the sock to see what OxiClean would do to it and, of course, it ended up whitening it to a much brighter shade in just a few minutes.
Sun bleaching helps if you're trying to limit your machine use, but washing with a commercial brightener like OxiClean worked way better.
Thin cotton linens like tea towels and sheets will brighten significantly faster than thicker mixed-fabric linens, so be sure to consider this when setting out items in the sun. If you're attempting to brighten thicker linens like terrycloth towels, socks, and reusable diaper liners, you should allow them to bathe in the sun for longer periods of time. At the end of the day, they'll be brighter and smell wonderful like the wind with no stench of chemical bleach to be found.
Sun bleaching is a wonderful natural alternative to bleach and other detergents that could potentially react to sensitive skin, and to the environment. Using the sun to dry clothing cuts down on your electric usage, and it also helps to kill bacteria which makes this method fantastic for drying kitchen towels—it just takes much, much longer than most of us are used to. If you live in a small space and don't have the ability to safely lay laundry out in the sun, you can do this indoors too! Just place your items hanging or laid flat (on something like this) in direct sunlight—just be aware that it may take longer to brighten your whites than if you were using this method outdoors.