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A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma: How to Wash Striped Shirts

Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

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I know the world isn't black and white, but most of my tops are. I understand washing lights (kind of) and I understand washing darks (kind of, but just go with me here) but I don't understand how to wash striped shirts. They're dark! They're light! They definitely have spills on them that could use bleach! They definitely shouldn't be bleached! Help! — Meredith Haggerty

I, too, am a devotee of striped shirts and I, too, have long fretted over how best to categorize them for laundering purposes. Are they lights? Are they darks? Are they just the single thing in this world that I can't figure out how to properly wash? Striped shirts are the chicken-and-the-egg of the washing world, I think.

Fortunately for those of us who love striped shirts (Meredith and I are solemnly fist-bumping rn), changes in laundry protocol from the days of yore have made it easier to figure out how to handle the laundering of these vexing, but oh so covetable, garments.

The Question of Separating By Color

I know that you're sitting on the edge of your seat, so excited are you to hear my discourse on changes in laundry protocol! Here's the deal: Until fairly recently, the accepted Way That One Laundered was to separate whites from darks, or lights from colors, depending on your preferred vernacular, and wash each type using a different water temperature (hot for whites, cold for darks). But times, my friend, they are a'changin' and these days, water temperature is no longer such a crucial aspect of wash day — most modern detergents are formulated to work equally well in both hot and cold water, and advances in stain removal also mean that water temperature is less important when it comes to getting out the salad oil that you dribbled down your shirt. That also means that we're no longer bound by the old ways, in which one separated lights from darks as if life itself depended on it.

These are definitely going to have to be washed. Photo: David De Lossy/Getty

So to sum this up: Say yes to washing striped shirts with either colors or whites, but say no to washing them with darks like indigo jeans or black sweatshirts and be extra careful with reds.

The Secret Weapon

There's still, of course, the issue of colors that may run, and of whites that may become dingy over time because of dye transfer from darker clothing. Which means that we can't just say, "Wash a striped shirt with any old thing, it'll be fine!" That's frustrating, as nuances often are, but there is a secret weapon: Shout Color Catchers and Carbona Color Grabbers. They do exactly what they sound like they do, trap loose dyes in the wash to prevent them from transferring onto other items. Using a color catcher in the wash will allow you to launder your striped shirts with either lights or with darks without fretting.

No Matter What Else Is in the Load, Here Are Your Washer Settings

Cold water. Always cold water. (The cold water will help to keep the colored stripes from fading.) If your machine provides you with the option, use the extra rinse cycle, which will help to keep the white stripes bright by wicking away any excess detergent or dingy water deposits. And, of course, use your color catcher to prevent dye transfer.

A Final Word On Stain Treatment

In her question, Meredith lamented that, when faced with stains on her beloved striped shirts, bleach is not an option. Worry not, because there are plenty of other great choices for treating stains or generalized dinginess on multicolored items. For stains, a laundry pre-treatment spray like Zout or a color-safe bleach will do the trick, while an oxygenated bleach can be used to brighten up a striped shirt that's gone a bit gray. And if the worst has happened and your red or navy or black stripes have bleed into the white, Carbona makes a product called Color Run Remover that can reverse that.

And now you may go forth and wash your striped shirts without fear or confusion, and get back to the important work of looking absolutely adorable in that French vacationer sort of way!

Watch: How Pink Became a Color for Girls

These are definitely going to have to be washed. Photo: David De Lossy/Getty