Our best advice on how to keep your favorite dark items from fading and keeping brights looking their best.
Credit: Jonny Valiant

Of the many household tasks we do each day, doing 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 achieving 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 Whites 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.

What to Do

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 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.

Credit: Lucy Schaeffer

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.

How to Keep Darks 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; theres no such thing, for instance, as truly colorfast cotton.

What to Do

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. 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.

Credit: Aaron Dyer

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.

How to Keep Brights 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. To avoid, separate 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.

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.

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February 6, 2020
Not with every wash, but dark or light there is a water softener from Calgon -- it's a liquid, found at any grocery under $4 .. it helps remove any residual clearning products. I also use Biz, especially soaking kid's white sox.
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August 14, 2016
HELP!! I have laundry (dark clothing) that are drying with grey streaks. I've tried repeating the wash via machine and via hand with no success. What cause this? I'm experiencing this with polyester knits or stretchy fabrics that are black in color.
Martha Stewart Member
April 7, 2016
I have been washing my white aprons with oxiclean and or javex. I have tried Tide and soda and vinegar. But to no avail, the whites are not white anymore. They are grey. I soak the aprons overnight in Oxiclean and javex in a bucket with hot water. Then i use oci clean powder and liquid to wash the aprons again. Still my aprons are grey and dingy. I work in a restaurant and cook and bake food. What else can I do to get the aprons white once again?
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November 14, 2013
Hi , nice tips! Often we can also use natural recipes to wash or pre-wash clothes, I have collected some of them here: http://www.cleaning-recipes.com Thanks!
Martha Stewart Member
February 16, 2012
I regularly use borax and oxygen cleaners in my he front loader. Add them directly into the drum before adding the clothes and use warm water. Some powders don't disolve in cold water. Remember that you need less.
Martha Stewart Member
February 15, 2012
wen, there are various models of HE washers, and mine is not very elaborate. It says to use liquid only. I don't want to negate the extended warranty that i'm paying for, especially if I doubt the powders would work in so little water anyway.
Martha Stewart Member
February 15, 2012
Love riot, if you use a powder he detergent then you can use a powder like borax, it says in the directions for your machine
Martha Stewart Member
February 15, 2012
I could use helpful tips now that I have an HE washer. It only has compartments for LIQUIDs, so these old tried and true tricks such as washing soda, borax, oxiclean, are no longer an option.
Martha Stewart Member
October 22, 2010
I'm still a little confused about washing brights - I just cannot wrap my mind around not separeting reds. Can I really wash a bright green shirt with a bright red skirt?
Martha Stewart Member
April 18, 2010
Harly41- Try adding white diistilled vinegar to the wash and rinse cycle, it removes kitty accidents and gas is a little more pleasant smelling :-) I have a handwash cycle that allows me to wash my own cashmere, in fact, I have handwashed many things that are "dry clean only"
Martha Stewart Member
March 18, 2009
Don't wash your cashmere sweater with jeans? Most cashmere fibers break down once they hit water, and should ONLY be professionally dry cleaned.
Martha Stewart Member
February 17, 2009
My son got gas on his clothes working at a counrty club golf shop. How do I get the smell out?