Fluffy white towels on table with shutter doors

How to Wash White Laundry to Keep It Looking Brilliant

Just as there are rules in life for things like how to drive a car, how to cook a meal, or how to manage your money, there are a few simple rules for how to wash white clothes to keep them looking brilliant and clean. And, if they happen to get a bit dull, gray, or yellowed, there are rules for how to restore the brightness of washable white clothing, too.

Fluffy white towels on table with shutter doors

Separate whites

Sort dirty laundry very carefully. Never allow items of color—any color, no matter how pale—to sneak into a load of white laundry. Washing white clothes separately prevents the dye from colored items from bleeding and transferring to white things. Even though the effect may not be noticeable at first, this is how white things begin their journey to become dull and dingy eventually.

Treat stains

Make sure you pre-treat all stains on white clothes before putting them into the washer. This is your window of opportunity to make sure they will be completely removed—before they hit the washer and dryer.

Add borax to every load

The secret to keeping all your whites sparkling white (maintenance) is to add 1/2 cup of borax to every wash load. Dump it into the drum before you add the clothes, linens, etc. Make this a habit and expect great things. In only a few months you will notice how brilliant and white your white things come out.

Avoid crowds

White things need their space to get really clean and white. Suppose the washer is packed to capacity. That leaves precious little room between these items for the water to move powerfully enough to flush away the soil that the detergent will have loosened. When left to dry on fabric, that left-in residue will leave those items looking dull and, eventually, gray.

Overcrowding is not good for any laundry loads but is especially troublesome for white clothes.

More is not better

Whether yours is an older top-loading machine that uses a lot of water or a front loader that uses what seems like hardly any, chances are good you’re using way too much detergent. It is difficult to imagine, perhaps, but you should measure by tablespoons, not cups with most machines. Experiment to find the right amount for your machine or follow the label instructions (warily), then carefully measure for each load.

Detergent that doesn’t get rinsed away thoroughly gets stuck between the fibers of your white towels and sheets will make them feel rough and scratchy, not soft and fluffy—and eventually dingy gray.

Hot, hot, hot

Use hot water in the wash cycle for white items (or the warmest recommended for the fabric) and cold water for the rinse cycle(s). This helps to remove body oils and grime that can leave fabric looking dingy and gives the dirty detergent the best opportunity to be rinsed away completely.

Rinse with vinegar

Forget commercial fabric softeners, which can leave residue on fabrics that can be harmful to our health, but they’re not good for the washer and dryer, either. Instead, add 1 cup distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle to ensure that all the detergent is stripped away from fabrics.


Once white items come out of the washer, check again to make sure all stains are gone. If not, re-treat and re-launder. If a stained item goes through the dryer, you’ve just guaranteed it will be much more difficult to remove, if at all. Heat treating does that.

Low and slow

If you have the opportunity and the right conditions where you live, hanging your white items out on a line or dryer rack in full sun is ideal. The ultraviolet rays from the sun will sanitize, freshen, and whiten them!

If that is not possible, dry whites on a low heat setting in the clothes dryer. This will take a bit longer, but your items will last longer, and any stains, dinginess, or grayish tinge will be much easier to reverse. Overdrying can also cause stains you can’t see to turn yellow.

fresh clean white sheet drying on washing line in outdoor

Turn dingy gray back to bright white

Stuff happens. White sheets, towels, mats, clothes, and underwear can turn dull and dingy gray over time. That doesn’t mean they’re ready for the rag bag. The s0lution is a process known as “laundry stripping.” Do this a couple of times a year, and you’ll never find yourself living with the heartbreak of stiff, scratchy, dingy-gray whites again!


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10 replies
  1. Diana Detwiler says:

    Have white baseball pants can’t remember what I used with cascade to get all the stains out. Can you help me. Thank you

    • Mary Hunt says:

      I haven’t used liquid chlorine bleach in my laundry process for months—maybe a year by now! Once I performed “laundry stripping” on all of our white clothes and linens—AND religiously add 1/2 cup borax to every wash load (whites and colors) since, that jug of bleach has remained unopened. Honestly, I only now thought this through in response to your comment! Wow. It is amazing.

  2. Linda says:

    I have no problem with whites or getting stains out. My problem is really unusual. Married for 54 years, I have washed a lot of clothes. However, in our current (and hopefully final) retirement area, in Tennessee, I have had a problem with my blue clothes. We have some items that are decades old, and seem to look the same. I started to notice however, that my navy blue tunic top was actually turning purple. Only the threads are still blue. We have towels that were such a bright aqua that I was afraid to buy them, and now they are a light green. I had robin egg blue towels that are now yellow. The last set of towels were from Costco – a medium dusky blue set of their Charisma line – and they became blotchy where the color was washing out looking kind of like a grey or purplish color.
    I went to the Utility District and they came out and tested all the water. We do not use a softener or treatment system. They claim all our numbers from testing came out fine. My husband has noticed some of his cotton underwear has changed also – again, blue into purple, and red into kind of a brick color.
    I do not even use color safe bleach. I do use borax on occasion, but not even a half cup when I think it is needed. We have never noticed the problem on blue jeans.

    Has anyone else had this issue? As I said, I have things that belonged to my mom, that have never changed colors. We also have a few pieces of clothing we don’t wear regularly any more, but are over 20 years old, and they have never changed color. We were originally from the Chicago area and have lived in the Nashville area 7 years.

    I am currently doing a “Columbo test” with 2 neighbors. I purchased 4 towels, all the same. One will be left as the new towel. The others are all being washed once or twice a week to see how they will compare after about 3 months. Some other people have noticed some of their clothing has changed colors too. I believe that it is more noticeable on towels because they are used and rotated more frequently than a top you might wear for a few hours and then wear another time or two before washing.

    Any thoughts?? Thank you.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Do you hang your clothes outdoors to dry? Sounds like sun fading to me. If not my second guess is that your municipal water has a higher than usual level of chlorine.

  3. Theresa Taylor says:

    Dear Mary, you are a natural born writer and teacher. Problem; what to do with a down/feather bed that goes on top of mattress. I get pricked all over when it was used. Putting a sheet over it made no difference. Those feather quills are all popping out. Too many to pick out. So it just sits in laundry room. What could I use it for? My comforter was like that, too, but I spent the time to remove those pricky bits. Comforter is quite flat now but it works for me as long as it’s in a cover and I use a top sheet. Yeah, I’m the princess who couldn’t sleep when a pea was hidden under a dozen mattresses. lol! So, alternate uses for the prickly feather bed? Thanks.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      It sounds to me like a problem with feathers as opposed to down. In the future, stay away from feather filled comforter or mattress topper, or even one that is a combination of feathers and down. As for repurposing it, I don’t have a suggestion to offer. Trying to remove the feathers to fill say throw pillows is going to create a problem the likes of which you cannot even imagine!

  4. Mary says:

    I would love to wash on hot and rinse in cold but I go to the laundromat to wash clothes. The option to separate wash and rinse temperatures is nonexistent. Any laundromat tips?

    • Mary Hunt says:

      In that I am not familiar with your laundromat, I don’t have any ideas how you could override or create settings that are not readily available. Let’s invite readers who might have an option to weigh in. Anyone?


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