Few sartorial items are as universally cherished as the plain white T-shirt. Afterall, it’s the most versatile item in your closet: Pair it with heels for a night out, wear it under the slip dress du jour for an office-appropriate ensemble. Or, you know, throw it on with some blue jeans for the official off-duty look that’s favored by everyone from farmers to supermodels. You don’t have to adopt a John Mayer level of OCD for them to look fresh. But there are a few steps you should incorporate into your regime. We enlisted the help of two experts for advice on keeping your whites white.
KEEP THE LOADS SMALL
Are your T-shirts looking gray and dingy? You might be overstuffing the machine. “The more clothes you have in the load, the more dirt and grime that’s released in the washing process,” explains Brian Johnson, director of education at The Drycleaning & Laundry Institute. “Once that soil gets into the water, it will eventually redeposit back onto the clothes.” So don’t cram too much into your washer. Also key: Wash whites with whites.
USE THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF DETERGENT
The type of soap you use isn’t as important as the amount you use, says Johnson. When dirt is released into the water, one of the detergent’s key jobs is to keep it from redepositing on the fabric,” he says. “If you don’t use enough detergent, you can’t create that effect, which holds the dirt until the drain cycle.”
THE BEST WAY TO WASH A WHITE T-SHIRT
Abrasion from agitation breaks the surface of the T-shirt and causes little fibers to stick out. Turn your T-shirts inside out before tossing in the wash, says Mike Abbott, director of R&D at Hanes. “This keeps the outside of the garment looking fresher.” Next, add a detergent with a whitening agent and select warm water. “Hot water degrades the color of the shirt faster than warm water,” he says.
Have a shirt that also needs ironing? Here's how to get it perfectly pressed and wrinkle-free:
CAN YOU BLEACH WHITE T-SHIRTS?
Bleach is tricky. “A good quality bleach works for 100 percent cotton items,” says Abbott, but avoid it on pieces made with synthetic fibers like nylon or spandex. (Meaning most of your fancier T-shirts.) “Bleach breaks down spandex,” he says. Too much bleach can cause even your 100 percent cotton whites to yellow. To be safe, go with non-chlorine bleach, like OxiClean.
This old-school product might just be your new favorite. If beach can cause whites to yellow, why on earth would you add blue to your wash? “The human eye actually sees blue as white,” explains Abbott, “so bluing agents are optical blinders for whiteners.” They add a tint of blue to cover up the yellowing from dirt, oil, or chlorine bleach and make garments appear whiter.
HOW TO TACKLE YELLOW UNDERARM STAINS
The pesky yellow armpit stains that send your versatile wardrobe staple to the undershirt pile? Blame the aluminum in your antiperspirant. That’s right, the agent that stops you from sweating reacts to perspiration, creating the yellow armpit stain. It’s a vicious cycle, and sadly, once those stains set in, they’re impossible to remove, says Johnson. His advice: Prevent these stains from setting in by washing your white T-shirts ASAP. “Most people try to get a couple of wears out of things,” he says. “But in a couple of days after wearing, you should run it through a wash cycle.”
To deal with heavier stains, including those yellow armpit stains, soak your garment in a non-chlorine-based bleach, like Oxiclean, for 30 minutes before washing. Make sure to use the hottest water temperature that’s recommended on the care label. “Heat increases all chemical reactions, so the hotter the water, the better your detergent is going to behave,” he says. For light stains, treat with your detergent (most have oxygen-based bleach as part of the formulation) and toss in the wash.
THE BEST WAY TO DRY A T-SHIRT
Unlike a majority of the garments we’ve written about here, your white T-shirt can definitely go in the dryer -- just take it easy. “You don’t want to make it bone-dry,” warns Abbott. “Drying too much degrades the cotton and can also cause yellowing.” For best results, set your dryer on a shorter cycle, remove while damp and hang to dry it. You can also use a low-heat iron setting to smooth out any wrinkles, or a steamer like the Rowenta Steam 'N Press which allows for both.