7 Effective Laundry Whiteners and Brighteners


There's nothing worse than finding a stain on your favorite shirt or realizing that your clothes are looking a little lackluster even after a wash. But laundering your clothes doesn't have to be stress-inducing. The next time there's a spill, it might be time to consider adjusting your laundry brightening and whitening methods.

With the help of our founder's handbook, Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook ($30.99, amazon.com), achieving your best and most vivid wash is mere steps away. In the expansive book full of cleaning tips, Martha discusses everything from how to clean every room in your home to the importance of reading cleaning labels before using products. This couldn't be more applicable when doing laundry. But that's not the only way to ensure your garments emerge from their wash and dry cycle looking their very best. Using whiteners and brighteners also help maintain the look of your whites and colors.

And the whiteners and brighteners we're suggesting here work wonders when used correctly and safely. One of the most effective ways to keep your whites white and to remove stains is by using bleach. The two different forms of bleach, chlorine and oxygen, both do their job exceptionally well—but it's imperative they're used separately. While these are without a doubt powerful tools to keep in your wash arsenal, they can also present safety hazards. Never mix chlorine bleach with either ammonia or vinegar; these combinations will result in the release of highly poisonous gases. If you're hesitant to use the type of bleach, not to worry. We're also sharing when and how to use each type of to get your clothes looking fresh. We also have a few non-bleach options. You can try solutions like borax, baking soda, enzyme pre-soaks, and more.

No matter your stain or concern, you'll find a way to make your clothes whiter and brighter. From easily sourced staples to unique concoctions, these techniques will have your clothes looking their best in no time.

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woman hanging up laundry on washing line outside
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Available at most supermarkets, borax is a naturally occurring mineral. It has antiseptic, antibacterial, water-softening, and whitening properties, and boosts the cleaning power of detergents. It is a useful additive when washing cloth diapers because it whitens and neutralizes the ammonia odors found in urine. Martha recommends adding 1⁄2 cup to the wash.

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how to fold towels

There are two types of bleach: sodium hypochlorite (commonly known as chlorine or liquid household bleach) and oxygen (also called color-safe or nonchlorine). Chlorine and oxygen bleach should not be used together—chlorine bleach will deactivate any oxygen bleach already in the laundry detergent. A fabric care label that doesn't mention bleach implies that you can use any type safely; it's best to avoid both types when washing anything with a "no bleach" label.

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Chlorine Bleach


This type of laundry brightener is most often used in liquid form, although it is also found in dry form. It's safe only on whites, deodorizes, and can lift stains and maintain whiteness, but it can't restore clothing to brand-new whiteness (unfortunately, nothing can). The bleaching action of liquid chlorine bleach takes about five minutes after adding it to the wash (although it may occur more quickly in hot water and more slowly in cold).

Chlorine bleach also acts as a disinfectant, since it kills bacteria. Always use caution when using chlorine bleach: It can weaken fabrics and even a tiny drop will spot or discolor a colored fabric. Always wear gloves and old clothes or an apron when you use it, and be sure to work in a well-ventilated area. Never add it full strength—always dilute it first in water and add it to the wash about five minutes into the washing cycle. Most machines have a bleach dispenser. Follow the instructions in your user's manual.

Also, never mix chlorine bleach with either ammonia or vinegar; these combinations will result in the release of highly poisonous gases. Do not use chlorine bleach on vintage linens, baby clothes, silk, wool, mohair, or any synthetic fabric. Avoid chlorine bleach if your water is high in iron (well water often is); it may cause yellowing.

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Oxygen Bleaches


Oxygen bleaches are available in both powders and liquids. It's a gentler, less toxic alternative to chlorine bleach that relies on hydrogen peroxide for its cleaning power. Oxygen bleaches maintain colors and help keep whites white, but they will not make them whiter. They are safe to use on colored cotton, wool, silk, and synthetic fabrics. It's added to the wash at the same time as detergent, and it's especially effective with hot water, but will still work well at temperatures below 130 degrees Fahrenheit as long as you increase the exposure time. For dingy whites, try presoaking the laundry with oxygen bleach overnight before washing. Always follow label directions.

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Enzyme Presoaks

woven laundry basket with detergent and towels
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These products are formulated to work on tough stains, especially hard-to-remove ones like perspiration and blood, but they can also be added to a load of wash to boost the effectiveness of regular laundry detergents. Enzyme presoaks consist of a number of active ingredients, including enzymes, which break down stains; builders, which enhance cleaning efficiency; surfactants, which loosen and remove soil; and bluing agents and optical brighteners, which make whites appear whiter. Some enzyme presoaks also contain an oxygen bleach, so be sure to read the ingredient list before purchasing.

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Washing Soda and Sodium Carbonate


Available in supermarkets, this mineral has strong cleaning and degreasing properties. Add two tablespoons to laundry detergent to make it more effective, or mix it with a small amount of water to form a paste to remove greasy stains.

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White Vinegar


Naturally acidic, white vinegar cuts grease, softens water, and whitens fabrics when added to the rinse water. Add it to the first rinse so it can be washed out by the second rinse. Depending on the size of the load, add anywhere from 1⁄8 cup to 1⁄2 cup. Although it was long thought to be a good idea to add vinegar or salt to wash water to help "set" dyes, this is doubtful. These household staples may indeed help to counteract dye loss by reducing the alkalinity of the wash water, but they will also inhibit the detergent's ability to clean your clothes. In any case, the quantities used would have to be extremely large to be effective.

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