Your Comprehensive Guide to Washing Clothes, Including How to Keep Whites Bright and Darks From Fading

We'll help you keep every item in the best shape for as long as possible.

Photo: Jonny Valiant

Of the many household tasks we do each day, the laundry seems like it should be a no-brainer: put clothes in the washer, add detergent, and press start. While the process may seem simple, regular washing can take a toll on your garments, so it's important to understand the necessary steps to achieve a perfect load of laundry.

If you're wondering how to prevent white shirts from turning gray, the right way to sort your bright clothing, how to undo the damage when colors run, and which essential tricks you need to know to keep your clothes and linens in near-original condition, read on for our sage advice.

How to Keep White Clothes White

The main reason white items turn gray or become dull is due to incorrect sorting. People generally have few all-white loads, so they tend to mix whites with colored garments. Unfortunately, some types of fabric—notably cotton—aren't colorfast, so their dye molecules wind up in the wash water and settle on other fabrics, most noticeably on white and other light ones.

Washing heavily soiled items, such as athletic socks, with lightly soiled ones, such as sheets, can also lead to dinginess. Unless you add enough detergent to hold the dirt in suspension, it will end up back on the very articles you intended to clean.

Water quality, too, can affect how your whites emerge from the washer. Iron-laden water and hard water (rich in calcium and magnesium) can render detergents less effective and cause staining.

How to Wash Whites

Wash whites separately. The best way to retain whiteness is to launder white items together in the hottest water the fabric will tolerate (water that is at least 120 degrees is most effective at removing soil). Choose a detergent with a bleach alternative and/or enzymes, using the maximum amount recommended.

You can increase the cleaning power of a detergent by adding a laundry booster, such as Borax, oxygen bleach, or washing soda to help maintain whiteness. Before washing, soak heavily soiled items using an enzyme detergent or oxygen bleach, and launder them separately.

Treat Stains

To remove perspiration and other greasy stains, pretreat with liquid detergent, dishwashing liquid, or shampoo (use colorless ones to avoid dye transfer). Gently rub the liquid into the fabric using a clean toothbrush or complexion brush.

Tackle colored stains such as food spills (think: coffee or juice) and underarm yellowing, which is residue from antiperspirant or deodorant, by applying undiluted liquid oxygen bleach directly to the fabric immediately before laundering.

Once a month, or when your whites become dull, wash them with a color remover or soak items in boiling water and oxygen bleach in a basin (this is suitable only for fabrics that won't shrink). You may have to experiment to determine which technique whitens best.

Know Your Water

If your water has a high iron content (look for reddish stains in the shower and toilet), launder with an iron-removing product (available in the laundry aisle of many supermarkets). Don't use chlorine bleach: Combined with iron and hot water, it can yellow clothing. Instead, use oxygen bleach, which is a more effective (and more environmentally friendly) alternative.

For hard water (evidenced by rough, hard-to-clean deposits on bathroom fixtures), some detergent labels call for using larger amounts. If your water is particularly hard, you may not be able to get whites pristine unless you install a water softener, which removes minerals.

Accept Less Than Perfect

Even with meticulous sorting, don't expect whites to stay fluorescent bright forever. When white fabrics are manufactured, they are often treated with optical brighteners, which are chemicals that boost whiteness. They will eventually wash out and cannot be replaced.

Lucy Schaeffer

How to Keep Dark Clothes Dark

Articles of clothing collide with one another in the washer's interior during the wash cycle, which causes some of the fibers in the fabric to break, exposing the raw fiber ends. This friction disrupts the surface of the fabric, tricking the eye into seeing less color. Tumble drying can cause similar damage, though to a lesser extent. Also, washing darks in warm or hot water can hasten dye loss. With some fabrics, expect a certain amount of fading; there's no such thing, for instance, as truly colorfast cotton.

How to Wash Darks

Wash darks separately. To help preserve dark items' original colors and prevent bleeding onto lighter clothes, wash darks together using the cold-water cycle (60 to 80 degrees). Use the shortest cycle. Select the appropriate setting depending on how soiled the clothes are and what fabric they're made of.

Choose the Right Detergent

As far as detergents go, experts say that they don't really contribute to fading. While some formulas are designed specifically for darks, any liquid detergent without a bleach alternative is suitable (liquids work better in cold water; powders may not dissolve fully). To minimize abrasion, prepare your clothes for the washer by closing zippers, fastening hooks, and turning items inside out. Also, wash items of similar weight together—that is, don't wash a sweater and jeans in the same load just because they're both dark blue.

Line-Dry Darks

Whenever possible, hang dark items to dry (out of direct sunlight), as this helps maintain their original appearance. When you do use the dryer, opt for the lowest temperature suitable for the material, and be careful not to over-dry your clothes. Remove them from the machine as soon as they're dry or even while they're slightly damp; this will help keep shrinkage to a minimum.

Washing in Winter

Although cold water helps prevent dark clothing from fading, frigid outdoor temperatures may cause the washer's water temperature to fall below 40 degrees, rendering even detergents designed to work in cold water ineffective. If you live in an area with particularly chilly winters, don't use the cold-water wash setting during that time of year. Instead, select a warm-water wash and a cold rinse.

Aaron Dyer

How to Keep Bright Clothes Bright

As with darks, wear and tear in the washer and dryer as well as warm and hot water can cause colors to fade. Deep, bright garments often shed a little dye over time, so some color loss is inevitable.

How to Wash Brights

To avoid color loss, separate brights by color intensity. Launder colored items in two groups: brights and pastels. Wash brand-new brights on their own for the first few cycles, when they're most likely to bleed significant amounts of dye. Next, keep brights looking good longer by reversing them before washing. Choose the shortest cycle appropriate for the soil level and fabric.

What to Do When Colors Run

Forget soaking your bright fabrics in salt or vinegar to forestall bleeding—it won't help. If brights do bleed onto other clothing in the wash, don't put the stained items in the dryer. The heat will set the dye, making any discoloration permanent. Instead, launder the clothes again separately. As long as you don't apply heat, the dye should come out, even if you don't rewash the items immediately.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles