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The Complete Guide to Keeping Summer Whites White

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There's a tiny little part of my brain that still whispers, "You're not to wear white before Memorial Day," each May when I'm taking my shorts and sundresses out of winter storage. It's a silly rule, but it speaks to the siren song that those summer whites—crisp, bright, startling against a suntan—sing to us.

Except, man, are those whites ever a burden to keep clean. It's enough to make you reach for a loudly printed muumuu and be done with it. The good news, though, is that there are actually a lot of easy ways to up your laundry game so your summer whites can stay looking, well, white. And that's what we're going to get into today, along with a few ways to treat two common, yet tricky, summertime stains: sweat and sunscreen.


Bluing

We're all friends here, so let me level with you right at the beginning and tell you that I mostly wanted to tackle the subject of how to keep your summer whites white so I could talk to you about bluing. I know that moms aren't supposed to have favorites, but truly, of all my cleaning product children, bluing is my favorite. It thrills me to my core.

It does exactly what the name implies: It turns things blue. Which may sound like an odd thing to want to do to your laundry, but in the case of whites that have taken on a yellow cast due to staining or age, it's just the ticket. (I like Bluette, by the way.) The blue cast the product leaves behind will counteract the yellowing, giving the overall appearance of bright white. It's thrilling. I can tell you don't quite believe me, but just you wait until you try it. You'll be a convert too.

Oxygenated Bleach

Oxygenated bleach—like OxiClean or Clorox Oxi Magic—is another old favorite of mine. Adding a half to a full scoop to your laundry, alongside your regular detergent, will help do away with dinginess. For more serious staining, dissolve a heaping scoop of it in hot, hot water and allow stained items (like white T-shirts that have gone yellow under the arms) to soak in the mixture for 30 minutes up to overnight before laundering as usual. It's the long, hot soak that will give you the best results in terms of reviving clothing and household items to an almost-pristine state. Bonus: Despite the name, it doesn't bleach clothing in the traditional sense, so it can be used on non-whites too.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Remember hydrogen peroxide? The stuff you used to keep your newly pierced ears clean and uninfected is also a great stain remover. The only thing to be aware (and very careful!) of is the fact that it can have a bleaching effect, so if you're using it on anything other than an entirely white garment, make sure you test it on an inconspicuous spot to avoid color loss.

For spot treatment, dab a small amount onto the stain prior to laundering; as an overall brightening agent, allow dingy whites to soak in a cup of hydrogen peroxide that you've diluted enough with water to fully submerge the fabric.

Household Remedies

As much fun as dedicated laundry products like bluing and oxygenated bleach are, there are plenty of common household items that work just as well to get and keep your whites looking their best. Lemon juice and salt in particular love to chill together; pour or spritz the juice on stains, then sprinkle with salt and let that combination do its thing for 30 or so minutes before laundering. Crushed-up aspirin can be mixed with a small amount of water to make a stain-removing paste.

Adding sunshine to the mix—by treating stains and then lying or hanging the garment out in the sun for a spell—will also help to brighten up whites. Even just on its own, sun will have a bleaching effect. And it's totally free!

Chlorine Bleach

It may seem curious that I've left traditional bleach for last, but there's a very good reason for that! While, yes, bleach is great for bleaching whites, it's not that great for use on certain stains, like sweat. That's because sweat is a protein stain, and will actually react to bleach by becoming more yellow in appearance. This is no good! In sum, be sparing with your use of chlorine bleach when it comes to laundry.

Bonus: Pit Stains & Sunscreen!

The two most common summertime stains I hear about are those dreaded yellow underarm stains and discoloration due to the use of sunscreen.

The thing you need to know about pit stains is that the yellowing is caused more by the ingredients in your deodorant than by your actual sweat; the aluminum commonly found in underarm products cause a reaction when mixed with perspiration that leads to those ugly yellow stains. Switching to a product that doesn't contain aluminum will help to cut back on them. For already stained shirts, try soaking them in oxygenated bleach that's been dissolved in hot water.

Ingredient issues also come into play when we talk about sunscreen stains. Avobenzone is an active ingredient in many sunscreens, which is unfortunate because it doesn't play nicely with iron particles, which are often found in water (especially hard water). It's important to know that because when avobenzone comes into contact with iron, it oxidizes and what you'll end up with are, essentially, rust stains. Stick with me. Rust stains should never, ever (ever, ever!) be treated with any kind of bleach, chlorine or oxygenated.

The lemon juice and salt method is one that will counteract rust stains (the same goes for a combination of white vinegar and salt), as will a product called White Brite, a laundry booster that should be used in addition to your regular detergent.