Laundry Stripping is the Easy Solution for Dingy Gray Sheets, Towels, Underwear

Laundry stripping is a hot topic on the Internet, especially on cloth diapering and laundry forums. So is laundry stripping just a trendy topic or a fabulous laundry technique to solve an age-old problem?

The problem of dingy gray laundry is not foreign to my email inbox. In fact, it’s a subject that shows up a lot. Why do bedsheets, towels, socks, and t-shirts turn dull and gray, feel stiff, and lose absorbency?

It’s the residue and buildup of detergent, fabric softeners, and minerals from hard water that we’re not removing with regular washing methods. Add to that the accumulation of sweat, body soil, deodorant, lotions, shampoo, conditioners, oils, and more that adhere and get stuck to the fabric’s fibers, and what do we get? We think linens and clothes are clean but may come out with lingering odors and a poor appearance.

Laundry habits that cause dingy gray results

  • Using cold water for every type of laundry load
  • Going weeks between changing and washing bed sheets and towels, allowing them to become heavily soiled
  • Using too much detergent, fabric softeners, or scent enhancers
  • Using laundry detergent that does not contain enzymes that break down soil
  • Failing to clean your washer

If anything in that list looks at all familiar, you need to know what laundry stripping is and how to do it.

Laundry stripping

Laundry stripping is the process of removing all the buildup and getting down to the bare fabric. It’s a specific process that removes gunk that attracts more grime and residue—all of it remaining even after regular laundry routines. The results of this process, known as laundry stripping, are nothing short of amazing.

As wonderful as this treatment can be, you need to know that it is a robust process that, if overdone, can be harsh on fabrics. It should be done only a few times a year, or when clothes and linens begin to show signs of getting stiff and dull.

The process of laundry stripping is not suitable for all fabrics. Do not attempt to strip the following:

  • Any fabric that cannot tolerate hot water
  • Delicate fabrics like silk, spandex, or lace that require hand washing or the gentle cycle
  • Colored items that are not colorfast (the dye has not been stabilized, which means the process that follows will likely pull out the color and send it down the drain! Check the item’s label.)

 

Gather these items

Equipment

  • bathtub, large sink, or large bin
  • long wooden spoon, broom handle, or similar
  • washing machine

Ingredients

 

Instructions

Start clean

Start with clean laundry that has been separated into whites and colors (see above). You can strip an average size load of laundry at a time in a tub, sink, or bin that is large enough to allow the items freedom of movement during the process.

Do not mix whites with colors. Separate colors so that you are stripping items that are the same color and that you know are colorfast.

Laundry stripping is especially useful for washable whites.

 

 

Hot water

Make sure the tub is clean.  Fill it halfway with the hottest water available from the tap. Ideally, the water should be 140 F. If your water heater cannot be adjusted for the process, be prepared to add enough boiling water to make sure the water is very hot.

Add products

For a standard-size tub, add 1/4 cup washing soda, 1/4 cup borax, and 1/2 cup detergent with enzymes. If yours is a larger and or deep tub, double these amounts making sure the ratio is always twice as much detergent as the other products. Example: 1/2 cup each borax, 1/2 cup washing soda to 1 cup detergent, and so forth.

 

Add items

Drop items to be stripped into the hot water, making sure they are open and can move freely. Do not overload. Use the wooden spoon or broom handle to make sure everything is submerged and completely saturated.

Soak and stir

Now the process begins. Once an hour and until water is completely cooled (3 to 4 hours or longer), stir the items through the water. What you see—the color of the water—may be shocking.

Drain the swamp

As satisfying as this process can be, you may find this disgusting. Just keep in mind that dark water is all of the dirty, graying, dulling residues that have built up in the linens and clothing. It really does look like swamp water. After a number of hours, when the water is back to room temperature,  it’s time to pull the plug. Let it drain.

Squeeze out the water

Wring and squeeze as much water from the items as possible and transfer them to the washer.

Run a full washer cycle

Set the washer to Cold and run a normal cycle with an extra rinse if possible. Do not add any detergent or other products. If you are concerned that you have not fully rinsed away all of the stripping residue, run the items through another full cold cycle with an extra rinse.

Dry the laundry

Dry the laundry as you usually do in an automatic dryer, on a clothesline, or drying rack.

Enjoy!

I cannot adequately describe the satisfying joy this process gives. I took notes and photos of my maiden voyage on the sea of laundry stripping. I made a couple of minor mistakes, but nothing that prevented absolutely lovely results.

 

My first Laundry Stripping Adventure

I can’t recall a time when I was excited and at the same time, embarrassed to share my adventure with you. Excited because it’s a super dramatic solution to a common problem, embarrassed because it’s gross. Let me just put it this way: I would have sworn that I have the cleanest, whitest, softest laundry in town.

While everything I read and researched on stripping laundry suggested that every household has clothes and items that need to be stripped of residue and buildup, I didn’t really believe it. I didn’t have any dingy gray towels or sheets to test strip, or so I believed. But I do have these bathroom rugs.

Three heavy white bathroom mats have presented a total mystery. They’re at least 7 years old, and as often as I launder them—they have become less than brilliant white. Ah-ha! Those rugs would be my test items for laundry stripping.

At the last minute, I decided to throw in a pile of face cloths that had tattletale make-up stains and also a set of bedsheets I took them off our bed to make the process even more challenging and or successful.

Notice that the items do not appear to be noticeably gray or dirty—except for those rugs.

pile of white laundry

 

Here are the exact products I used. My local supermarket did not have a free and clear version of Persil with enzymes in stock, so I acquiesced to this “Original” version. It does contain fragrance, which we do not prefer. I will use this version in the future.

laundry stripping products

 

Next, I filled the large, deep bathtub with hot tap water and a few pots of boiling water—plus the three ingredients: 1/2 cup super washing soda, 1/2 cup borax and 1 cup heavy-duty detergent. (That tub is huge and for that reason I doubled the amounts from those stated above.)

 

I added the items and stirred them to get everything submerged and saturated. It didn’t take long to realize I had way too many items for one stripping session, but by now everything was soaking wet. So, I added more hot water.

 

Within about 15 minutes, this is what happened. Did I say “embarrassed?” More than that, I was stunned. Shocked!

dirty laundry stripping

 

After an hour, look at this.

 

It took a good 5 hours of soaking and hourly stirring for the water to completely cool. It got darker and blacker with each stir and hour of soaking. What on earth?! I could not believe what was happening. Gross! But at the same time, quite satisfying.

I drained the swamp, squeezed and wrung out the water, and proceeded to do three loads through the full washer cycle set on Cold (as above). By the time everything was dry and folded, this took the better part of a day. But oh, the results!

My very old white bath rugs look like new! They are fluffy, soft, and brilliantly white.


Look at that!

 

white rugs after stripping

 

The sheets and towels? Better than new.

Updated maintenance

It has been nearly three years since I added laundry stripping to my laundry routine. After doing this four times with the white linens, towels, and mats we use regularly—and adding 1/2 cup of borax to every load of white and color laundry—I noticed something amazing. The stripping bath no longer turned ugly gray.

Currently, I will hold off on laundry stripping until needed. However adding 1/4 – 1/2 cup of borax to every load of laundry (depending on load size) —white and color—is making all the difference to keep whites white and colors bright and smelling great!

I have not added chlorine bleach for many months— it is just not needed (I used to go through gallons of it in what seemed like no time at all). Borax is amazing as it also eliminates odor and kills germs, too.

 

 

    WALMART 4-Pak $26.17

 

    TARGET 1-Pak $5.66


    WALMART 2-Pak $23.58


 

    WALMART 64 Loads $13.97


 

 

    WALMART $12.97 TARGET $12.99


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51 replies
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  1. Esther Edwards says:

    I did a laundry stripping with my 120 grain hard water. Complete failure. I even did it twice but they look worse than before. Any suggestions? I did a small load with bath towels and white kitchen towels and a few cotton slips.

    Reply
  2. Kim says:

    I did this expecting the gross swamp water that I had seen on the videos…I didn’t get it. I did get softer sheets and towels, but not the swamp.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      That means you are a master Laundress. You don’t overuse detergents and other such laundry products! Happy for your outcome—softer sheets and towels are nothing to laugh at 🙂

      Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      No, I wouldn’t. The purpose of each is to “soften” the water. Baking soda does a minimally good job of that, but Borax is much better and has far more helpful properties.

      Reply
  3. Sharon says:

    I used to use Borax and washing soda but have switched to Oxi-Clean with every load. What is your take on the latter? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Oxi-Clean is a lot different. More expensive, and less “potent” as it has a lot of filler. The main ingredient in OxiClean Antibacterial Versatile Stain Remover & Disinfectant according to its MSDS, is sodium carbonate which is washing soda, aka soda ash. You’re spending more for Oxiclean than you would for straight soda ash (you can use less because of the fillers).

      Reply
  4. BT says:

    I tried this on an old hi-vis yellow work shirt that had set in grease stains and, oddly enough, sun damage. As soon as the shirt hit the water, the sun damaged areas turned from bright yellow to a dingy orange. The protected areas (like under the collar) were fine. And the grease didn’t come out. Point…this trick can’t work miracles, and check to make sure it won’t discolor your garment first.

    Reply
  5. All gems says:

    Oh boy! I have a new hobby at least for the next few weeks! I did this and I’m STUNNED at the results. It was disgustingly satisfying.

    Reply
  6. Wendy Tucker (Tockman) says:

    And what should those of us who live in an apartment building with coin operated washers and dryers do? Landlords won’t permit tenants to own their own appliances. Suggestions?

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      I would make sure to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup borax plus detergent to each load of wash. And always opt for extra rinse if that is an option. You might also check with management to learn how often the machines are sanitized. If you notice the washer having a disgusting odor, report that to management and request the machines be sanitized regularly. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  7. Sandra Golightly says:

    Yes to adding Borax to laundry. My husband works at a steel mill. His clothes get dirty. Borax plus laundry detergent is the only way we can get his clothes clean. Plus, he does his own laundry and can easily add Borax. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Reply
  8. Priscilla says:

    When I want to do stripping, I just fill my washer full of very hot water and add a cup of Iron Out , agitate until dissolved, then add all the white items I want to strip, soak for 5 hours or more agitating every hour for a couple minutes, then complete the regular cycle. When the cycle is done I put them through another cycle with detergent so they won’t smell like Iron Out. Lastly I put them through another rinse cycle. Everything looks brand new.
    These directions are for whites only.

    Reply
      • Rhonda says:

        The Costco rugs are called “Charisma Bath Mat”. They sell online in a 2 pack for $39.99 in several different colors. I don’t know how much they are in store or if you can buy just one rug (I haven’t bought any for a while). I buy the dark blue and I LOVE these Charisma Bath Mats, they are thick and soft, last for a long time and wash easily (I use cold water and air dry to make the non-skid backing last as long as possible). I have found that the backing doesn’t shred or fall apart, it just starts wearing down and getting “smooth”, so the grippy backing just doesn’t grip as well and the rug starts sliding. I hate rug sliding, so when that starts happening I put a new rug out. I use them all over the house and even on my front porch and get compliments on them. You can also find them on Ebay if Costco is out of stock for an extended period of time (which happens occasionally), but they’re going to cost more money on Ebay than at Costco. You cannot beat the quality for the price, in my opinion.

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