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I have a gross question, but it's timely for summer … sweat stains on white t-shirts — it’s the WORST. What do I do? — Marcy Franklin
If it makes you feel any better, this question isn't even all that gross! I mean, it happens to almost everyone and also, it's not even really your sweat causing those yellow stains: it's your deodorant. Thinking of them as deodorant stains on white t-shirts makes it feel so much less gross, right? Right.
Of course, knowing that your deodorant is to blame doesn't eliminate the existence of what are still really ugly stains on white shirts, so let's talk about what to do to get rid of them, and maybe even stop them from happening in the first place.
The Deodorant Problem
Not all deodorants will cause horrible yellow staining; the problem is specific to brands that include aluminum as one of the primary ingredients, because the aluminum has a chemical reaction to both your sweat and the fabric of your shirts that leads to the discoloring. One way to address that problem is to choose a deodorant that doesn't contain aluminum. Need some suggestions? Sure thing, we've got those!
Treating Pit Stains As They Happen
Another fun fact about pit stains is that they fall into the protein stain category, which is important to know because protein stains have a negative response to chlorine bleach. So tempting though it may be to bleach the hell out of your white shirts, don't do that, because it will only make the stains appear more yellow.
If chlorine bleach is out, then what? Well, an enzymatic stain remover like Zout is a great choice for regular treatment of pit stains — especially if you can bring yourself to spritz the pits of your shirts when you take them off. That way, you won't have to remember to pre-treat them on laundry day. The other thing that regularly treating your shirts will do is help to prevent the stains from building on themselves and becoming really set-in.
There are also some products you can use directly in the wash that will help to treat protein stains all of stripes. Borax is one, as are oxygenated bleaches like Biokleen Oxygen Bleach, both of which are used in concert with your regular detergent. For more options, check out our guide to keeping summer whites white.
What to do About Egregious Pit Stains
Of course, even the most diligent laundress is likely to find herself with shirts that have developed especially stubborn yellow stains. When that happens, it's time to treat those shirts to a nice long bath.
The idea is to soak the shirts in an oxygenated bleach solution for an extended period of time (say, an hour up to overnight, the longer the better!) in order to allow prolonged exposure to the stain remover. With time, the oxygenated bleach will break down the buildup of deodorant and sweat that causes those ugly yellow stains.
To perform this operation, dissolve a heaping scoop of oxygenated bleach in enough hot water to fully submerge the shirts, sort of swishing them about so that the water can fully penetrate the fibers. Then, just leave 'em be! That's really all, though from time to time you may want to go in and rub the stained section of the fabric against itself, which will help to loosen buildup; a laundry brush may also be helpful for scrubbing away particularly bad buildup.
Once you're satisfied that your shirts have soaked long enough, drain the water and squeeze the shirts so they're not sopping wet when you transfer them to the washing machine. Then just launder the shirts with your usual detergent and get SO EXCITED because when they come out of the wash you will be amazed at the fact that you just successfully eliminated all those ugly pit stains. It's okay if you want to do a little dance to celebrate, you earned it.