Skip to Content

How to Whiten White Clothes That Have Yellowed

White clothes portray a cool, smart image. Or at least they do when they are new. But, all too often, they start to turn yellow and look dirty. Why do white clothes do that? Can I fix it? Is there a way to whiten white clothes that have yellowed?

White clothes can be whitened by adding a laundry whitening product to the wash. Oxygen bleach can also be used to remove yellowing from garments. Natural bleach-free remedies include white vinegar, baking soda, and dish soap. Chlorine bleach should be avoided as it increases the risk of yellowing.

In this article, I’ll explain why your white clothing turns yellow and how you can stop it. I’ll also show you how to turn your yellowed clothes back to their original vibrant white. Read on to find out more!

How to Whiten White Clothes That Have Yellowed

What Causes White Clothes to Yellow?

There’s nothing more annoying than having your favorite white shirt develop a weird yellow tinge. Known as yellowing, it’s a strange affliction that attacks all white clothing.

Nothing is immune. Not even your socks and undergarments. All clothing made from white fabric is destined to become a pale, shade of yellow. It’s not just yellow either. Sometimes, white clothes can also turn gray.

Whichever color they become, they are a shadow of their former brightness. But why? What makes white clothing turn from being bright and pristine to drab and dismal? It’s like all the shine has been bleached out of them.

Hold on to that thought for a while; we’ll come back to it later in the article. For now, we’ll take a look at the main culprits causing your whites to lose their former glory.

Nicotine

One of the more infamous ingredients in cigarettes, nicotine has the power to turn most things yellow. Whether it’s a tinge of yellow in their hair or the yellow-brown stains on their fingers, a seasoned smoker lives a life filled with yellow stains.

So too do their clothes. Nicotine will cause clothing to be yellow, not just for the smoker, either. Cigarette smoke will carry nicotine into the air, leading to staining on white clothing belonging to others in the household.

Deodorants and Antiperspirants

Deodorants and antiperspirants are great for hiding those nasty odors caused by sweat. Unfortunately, they have a downside. They can cause clothing to turn yellow, particularly if the product you use is still wet when you put your t-shirt on.

The soggy particles of the deodorant or antiperspirant will soak into the armpit of your shirt. This can be bad news for white clothes in particular. Ingredients in the sweat masking products will soak into the fibers and cause those irritating yellow stains.

As deodorant doesn’t stop you from sweating as an antiperspirant does, sweat can soak into the dried on deodorant stains. What you have now is a perspiration trap. Unable to evaporate into the atmosphere, the sweat from your underarms penetrates deep within the fibers of your white shirt.

Not Using Deodorants or Antiperspirants

If using these products can cause yellowing on white clothing, you’re probably thinking you’d be better off ditching the deodorant altogether. Nope, unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

Not using deodorant or antiperspirant can be just as damaging to white clothing. The thing is, we all sweat. I know it’s gross, but it’s a part of our day-to-day life. When you get too hot, your body cools you down by releasing water through the pores of your skin.

It’s not so much the act of perspiring that’s the problem. It’s the contents of the sweat. Ammonia, urea, salts, and a little dash of sugar are all waste products your body expels through perspiration. Add some food waste like garlic and you have a recipe for yellowing on the underneath your pristine white sleeves.

Baby Formula

Baby clothes are also susceptible to the yellow staining peril. The food they eat is partly to blame. Baby formula contains milk protein, a known offender for causing yellowing on white clothes, not just on its own. Milk protein has an often overlooked partner in crime.

One thing babies are famous for is spitting out what they just ate. Over their own clothes and yours! The combination of milk protein and saliva is a recipe for some icky yellow spots on garments, especially if they happen to be white.

It’s not just a formula either. You’re not safe from yellowing if you use breastmilk to feed your baby. Breastmilk also contains milk protein. Which, when mixed with saliva, will still stain your white clothes yellow.

Cooking Stains

Cooking food can be a major hazard to your clothes. It requires the use of oils and fats. Both are incredibly good at creating food stains. While you’re frying your food, the super-heated oil or fat can fly out of the pan and splatter all over your shirt. Leaving tiny traces of yellow wherever they land.

Your white clothing isn’t safe once you’ve put your food on a plate and sat down to eat. All the excess oil or fat left over from cooking is just waiting to ooze off your fork and down the front of your lovely, clean white shirt.

The longer the little fat droplets stay on the fabric, the more time they have to soak into the material. This embeds the grease into the fabric and increases the chances of the stains turning yellow.

Storing Your Clothing

Storing your clothing usually involves one of three things. Wooden shelving in your closet or wooden drawers in your bedroom. Sometimes, you might even use a cardboard box if you’re putting your white clothing in long-term storage over the winter months.

Wood and cardboard have a couple of things in common. Both are derived from trees and both are slightly acidic. The acid results from the processing techniques used to produce wood and cardboard. Over time, the acid content can leak out into the atmosphere. This is known as outgassing.

The acid gets soaked up by, you guessed it, your clothing. White clothes, in particular, show the evidence of escaping acid via the appearance of the infamous yellow tinge. The longer the garments have been in contact with cardboard or wood, the more yellowing you’ll see on the material.

Storing Clothes Where Temperatures Fluctuate

The best place to store clothes long-term is somewhere cool and dry. Depending on where you live, that can be a tricky combination to achieve. Any fluctuation in temperature will cause your stored clothes to turn yellow.

Both winter and summer months can vary in temperatures, from extreme cold to way too hot. This can be problematic for white clothing. Attics, garages, and basements are favorite storage areas for all sorts of items. But, they are also parts of your home that are less easy to stay at a constant temperature.

Chlorine Bleach

Do you remember earlier in the article, I mentioned white clothes end up looking like all the shine has been bleached out? Well, the truth is, it probably has. One of the biggest offenders for causing yellowing on white clothing is chlorine bleach.

Bleach makes a great disinfectant and is tough on bacteria. But, it can be public enemy number one in the laundry room. Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon react badly to bleach even when they are in blended fabrics like polycotton.

Not only does bleach weaken synthetic fibers, but it also makes them revert to their original color. In case you’re wondering, that would be yellow.

Natural fabrics like cotton and linen are also easily damaged by bleach. If you use too much of it, chlorine bleach will soak into the material. Sucking the sheen, luster, and crispness from white clothing as it descends further into the garment.

The old adage, less is more, is definitely a true statement about using chlorine bleach in the laundry room. For some fabrics, none at all is even better.

Line Drying Clothing Exposed to Chlorine Bleach

As if using chlorine bleach wasn’t damaging enough, line-drying bleached clothing can also turn your whites a dingy shade of yellow. Usually, hanging washing out to dry on a line is good for them. But, for clothes exposed to chlorine bleach, it can be devastating.

The reason is simple. It’s down to a naturally occurring bleaching agent. One is found outside on bright sunny days. Rays from the sun are incredibly adept at bleaching anything from the color out of plastic, to dirt out of white clothes.

Hanging your white shirt covered in chlorine bleach out in direct sunlight will increase the bleaching effect. It’s like hitting your garment with a double-whammy. Or a double-dose of yellowing.

Detergent and Fabric Softener

When you think about potential causes for yellowing on white clothes, the chances are your detergent was the last thing on your list. Detergent is more often associated with cleaning garments, so why would it turn white clothes yellow?

We’re back to the too much of a good thing issue. As with bleach, too much detergent is bad news for clothing. So too is too much fabric softener.

Adding too much of either product to your wash cycle will cause a residual build-up in the fabric fibers. Washing machines work on set timings depending on the cycle you choose. If it isn’t long enough, or the water level is too low, detergent and fabric softener can get left behind. Over time, this build-up turns into yellow stains.

Well Water

Technically, it’s not the well water causing your white clothing to be yellow. It’s the mineral content within the water. More specifically, it’s iron.

Some areas have high iron content. Not only can it turn the walls of your house yellow if water from the sprinkler system hits them, but it can also change the color of your clothes.

Too much iron in your washing machine will do more than stain your clothes. It can dye them yellow.

How to Whiten White Clothes That Have Yellowed

What Causes White Clothes to Yellow

You probably think it would be easier to ditch your white clothing than whiten it. I don’t blame you. With so many things destined to turn your whites yellow, it can seem like a daunting task to keep them looking white and bright.

All is not lost. You don’t have to be drastic and throw your white clothes out. Whitening white clothes with yellowed is the cheaper way to refresh your wardrobe. Better still, the methods in the following list are easy to do.

1. Oxygen Bleach

BleachUnlike chlorine bleach, oxygen bleach is safer to use on clothing, regardless of whether it’s synthetic or a plant-based natural fiber. The only fabrics you can’t use this method on are animal-based fabrics like leather, wool, and silk. A popular brand of oxygen bleach is Oxiclean.

You will need:

  • Oxygen bleach
  • Bucket of warm water
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual detergent
  • Distilled white vinegar

Step 1

Read the instructions on the packaging for the oxygen bleach. Add the recommended dosage to the bucket of warm water. Submerge your garment in the water and leave to soak for a minimum of 8 hours.

Step 2

Remove your garment from the bucket and wash it in your washing machine. Use your usual detergent but skip the fabric conditioner. Make sure the washing machine is set to the warmest temperature the garment can stand.

Step 3

Add ½ cup of distilled white vinegar to the final rinse. This will remove any oxygen bleach residue. Dry the garment as you would normally.

2. Laundry Whitener

OUT White Brite Laundry Whitener, Removes Red Clay, Perfect for Cleaning White Baseball Pants, Sheets, Towels, Safer than Bleach, Cleaner, Brighter, Fresher Laundry, 4 Pound 12 OunceLaundry whiteners are specifically designed to leave your laundry looking brighter. They also remove rusty yellow iron stains and accidental color bleeds.

You will need:

  • Laundry whitener
  • Bucket of warm water
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual laundry detergent

Step 1

Read the instructions on the laundry whitener packaging. Decide whether you will be using the product as a pre-soak in the bucket or directly in the washing machine. The packaging will give you the recommended dosage and the time you should soak it for.

Step 2

Wash your garment with your usual washing detergent. Once the cycle has completed, dry the clothing as you would normally.

3. Liquid Bluing

Mrs. Stewart's Concentrated liquid bluing , 8 ounceThis one is a little counterintuitive. It’s not a whitening agent as such. You are adding a bit of blue color to the wash. It gives the impression of a brighter white. Please note, this method is only suitable for white clothes that have yellowed.

You will need:

Step 1

Read the instructions on the bottle of liquid bluing. You want to make sure you use the correct amount in your washing machine. Too much and your yellowed white shirt could end up blue!

Step 2

Add the bluing to your washing machine at the start of the wash cycle or as part of the final rinse. Wash the garment using your regular washing detergent and dry as normal.

4. Baking Soda and Peroxide

Baking sodaBaking soda and peroxide pack a powerful punch for whitening clothing. This method works best on smaller stains rather than the whole garment.

You will need:

  • Baking soda
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Small bowl
  • Toothbrush
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual laundry detergent

Step 1

Mix 1 tablespoon of baking soda with 1 tablespoon of peroxide in the small bowl. Using the toothbrush, rub the mixture into the yellow stain.

Step 2

Allow the mixture to sit on the stain for about 10 minutes. Then wash the garment as you would normally with your usual washing detergent.

Step 3

Once the wash cycle has finished, check the garment for signs of yellow stains. If they have all gone, dry the clothing. If some yellowing is still visible, repeat the steps above. Only dry the item when you are happy with the results.

5. Dish Soap

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day's Liquid Dish Soap, Biodegradable Formula, Radish, 16 fl. ozDish soap is specially formulated to eat through grease. As some yellowing stains are caused by grease, fats, and oils, it should come as no surprise that dish soap can remove them.

You will need:

  • Dish soap
  • Bucket of warm water
  • Toothbrush
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual laundry detergent

Step 1

Add 1 cup of dish soap to the bucket of warm water. Stir it to make sure it’s well mixed. Add your garment and submerge it under the water’s surface. Leave it to soak for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Step 2

Give the garment a quick scrub with the toothbrush. Concentrate on the areas with the heaviest signs of yellowing or staining. Rinse the dish soap off under cool running water.

Step 3

Wash your garment as you would normally using your regular washing detergent. When you are happy, all traces of yellowing have been removed, dry the article. If not, repeat the steps above. Only dry the item when you are happy with the results.

How to Whiten White Clothes Without Using Bleach or Chemicals

Chemicals and bleach aren’t always the best products to whiten yellowed clothing. In this section, we’ll take a look at some natural products you can use instead.

1. Distilled White Vinegar

VinegarDistilled white vinegar is mildly acidic, making it a natural stain remover. It easily cuts through grease, grime, dirt, and yellow stains. Better still, it can also clean soap scum from out of your washing machine, so this one can do two jobs at the same time.

You will need:

  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Washing machine
  • Usual laundry detergent

Step 1

Wash your clothing as you would normally. Use your regular settings and add the usual amount of your laundry detergent. At the same time, add ½ cup of distilled white vinegar.

Step 2

Step away from the fabric softener and instead, add another ½ cup of vinegar to the final rinse. This will whiten and soften your clothes.

2. Baking Soda

The last time we looked at baking soda, it was in partnership with peroxide. This time, the baking soda is all by itself, making it a more natural solution for your yellowed whites.

You will need:

  • Baking soda
  • Bucket of water
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual laundry detergent

Step 1

Add 1 cup of baking soda to your bucket of water. The water needs to be high enough to completely cover your garment. Soak your clothing in the baking soda water for at least an hour.

Step 2

Remove the garment from the bucket and put it in the washing machine. Wash on your usual cycle using your regular detergent. Once the cycle is complete, check the garment for signs of staining. If they have all gone, dry as you would normally. If they haven’t, repeat the steps above.

3. Lemon Juice

Lemons are slightly acidic, like vinegar. This makes them a great kitchen cleaner. They also give off a lovely refreshing citrus smell. Able to cut through grease and grime, lemons are one of nature’s natural stain removers.

You can use lemon slices or lemon juice for this method. As this method involves boiling water, you have to be careful about the garments you use it on. Make sure they are heat tolerant.

You will need:

  • Lemon slices or lemon juice
  • Large cooking pot
  • Water
  • Laundry tongs or wooden spoon
  • Rubber gloves
  • A sunny day
  • Clothesline

Step 1

Fill your cooking pot with enough water to cover your yellowed clothing. Add the lemon juice or lemon slices and bring the water to a boil.

Step 2

When the water is boiling, remove the pot from the heat. Put on your rubber gloves to protect your hands from the heat of the water. Using either laundry tongs or a wooden spoon, put your clothing into the pot and push the garment under the water’s surface. Swirl the item around for about a minute.

Step 3

Leave the garment to soak for a minimum of one hour. Then remove the garment from the pot and gently squeeze out any excess water. Line dry your clothing outside. A bright sunny day will help the lemon juice bleach the clothing white. Gray days will also work but may take longer.

4. White Aspirin

Derived from the willow tree, everyone knows aspirin as a pain killer. It is especially good for dealing with headaches, backaches, and even preventing heart attacks, not many people know you can also use it to break down stains.

It has to be white aspirin, though. Don’t be tempted to use aspirin with added colors. Or you might find you swap the yellow tinge for whatever shade the aspirin was.

You will need:

  • White aspirin
  • Large cooking pot
  • Lukewarm water
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual laundry detergent
  • Clothesline

Step 1

Fill your cooking pot with lukewarm water. There needs to be enough to cover your garment. Add 5-6 white aspirin and allow them to dissolve. The number you use will depend on how large your garment is. You can use less than 5 for smaller items. A total of 6 should be ample for larger clothes.

Step 2

Add your clothing to the pot and stir it around with your hands. Leave the garment to soak for about an hour.

Step 3

Once the time has elapsed, wash your garment as you would normally using your regular detergent. Then line dry the clothing outside.

5. Borax

20 Mule Team Borax Natural Laundry Booster 65 Ounce pack of 2Borax is a laundry additive that adds an extra boost of stain-eating power to your laundry detergent. Not only that, but it can also soften hard water and neutralize odors. Free from phosphates and bleach, borax is made from sodium borate, making it a safe, natural alternative for whitening yellowed clothing.

You will need:

  • Borax
  • Washing machine
  • Your regular laundry detergent

Step 1

Add your usual amount of laundry detergent to your washing machine as you would normally. At the same time, add ½ cup of borax. Put your clothes in the machine and wash them.

Step 2

Remove the clothing from the washing machine at the end of the cycle. Check them for signs of yellowing. If the item still has a yellow tinge, repeat step 1. For items that are free from yellow stains, dry them as you would normally.

6. Sunshine

Rays from the sun are a natural bleaching agent. They can bleach plastics, outdoor furniture, and white clothes that have gone yellow. There are a couple of things to watch out for, though.

Not all fabrics can be left out in direct sunlight. If your shirt is a synthetic blend, you might want to hang it under some shade. Keep any garment treated with chlorine bleach out of the sun too! A few hours outside in the sunshine will refresh your garment to its original white hue.

You will need:

  • Sunshine
  • Washing machine
  • Your usual laundry detergent
  • Clothesline

Step 1

Wash your clothing as you would normally. For particularly yellowed clothing, use one of the laundry additives mentioned earlier. Vinegar, for instance, or lemon juice. Do not use chlorine bleach for this method! Also, avoid using any laundry additive that may contain chlorine bleach.

Step 2

Hang your clothing outside on a clothesline for a couple of hours or until it is dry. A sunny day will work best for this method. A slightly overcast day will take longer to achieve the same results.

Can You Prevent Yellowing on Stored White Clothes?

Yes, you can prevent yellowing on stored white clothes. However, doing so does require a little planning.

As we discussed earlier, yellowing on white clothes can be caused by many things. You need to avoid all of them to prevent your white clothes from going yellow when they are being stored.

Before you get your clothes anywhere near the storage containers, make sure you wash them. Clothes should be clean, stain-free, and dry before being stored. Any trace of underarm deodorant, sweat, or dirt from the last time you wore the item will turn into yellowed areas in storage.

The next thing you want to check is your storage containers. If you are using cardboard boxes, make sure they are archival quality. Archival quality means they are made from acid-free cardboard. It’s the type of storage solution used in museums to protect historical garments. Being archival means, they will not leach acid into the fabric of your clothes.

Similarly, you can also wrap your garments in archival quality tissue paper. This should help keep your clothes yellow-free if you store them on wooden shelves.

However, a small word of caution. Paper and cardboard can soak up moisture. If they get wet, either from condensation or humidity, they can soak acid from any wood underneath them. Regardless of whether it’s a closet shelf or a wooden floor.

Whenever you are storing items made from fabric, be sure to avoid areas of extremes in temperature changes. Places like garages, basements, and attics all fluctuate from too hot to too cold, depending on where you are and the time of year. Any variation in temperature can cause yellowing on white clothing.

You might think plastic totes are the solution to avoiding moisture. Some plastic can out-gas chemicals which cause yellowing. Again, archival-quality plastic totes are the ones you need to look for.

How to Keep Your White Clothes From Turning Yellow?

The best way to keep your white clothes from turning yellow is to wash them thoroughly. Removing all the elements that lead to yellowing, like sweat, for instance, will keep them fresh, clean, and white.

Adding borax or vinegar to every wash load is a great way to eat away at those pesky yellow-causing culprits. The added boost of stain-busting power will ensure even the slightest trace of sweat or food residue has been removed.

Make sure you follow the instructions on the detergent you use too! Don’t add any more than you need to. Too much is as bad as not enough. For those accidental overdoses, add a cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle.

If you have been using a little too much, you might find your washing machine has become caked in detergent residue. A small amount of clear ammonia will get rid of any detergent build-up in your machine. Simply add some to your machine and run it on a quick cycle, free from detergent and laundry.

Another way to reduce the risk of yellowing is not to overfill the washing machine with clothes. Keep to smaller loads. That way, you have a better chance of removing all the detergent during the final rinse. You can also wash some garments hotter than others. Hot water is better at dissolving detergent than cooler temperatures.

Avoid using chlorine bleach on any of your clothes. But particularly if they have any polyester or nylon content. Even polycotton will turn yellow if exposed to bleach.

If you have a well and your washing turns yellow, add iron remover to your washing machine. Iron Out is a great product for neutralizing the irritating color tinge caused by iron. You should also add a water softener to your well as this will reduce the level of hardness in your water.

Drying your clothing outside is a great way to keep white clothes from turning yellow. Not only will they come back inside smelling fresh and clean, but the sunlight will also bleach out any hint of yellowing from stains or detergent.

Conclusion

It can be annoying to see your favorite white shirt turn yellow. But, fear not, you can reverse the damage. Using laundry additives like oxygen bleach or borax can rejuvenate your yellowed clothing. Returning them to their original pristine whiteness.