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Can you please advise me on the best way to keep new white sheets looking as white as the day I bought them?

By Dr. Laundry August 11, 2015

Q: Can you please advise me on the best way to keep new white sheets looking as white as the day I bought them, through the laundering process?  Recently I bought a set of Wamsuta (725 thread count) sheets from Bed Bath & Beyond. Good quality sheets.  Before I launder them for the first time, I want to be certain that my technique for washing them is proper and that I’m using the best detergent, softener and possibly bleach, if you recommend bleach.  Seems simple, I know, but I’m asking based on past experience of not being able to maintain other white clothing, looking as white as the day they were new.  My whites seem to turn an off-white color, rather than staying bright white.  
 
If it helps you to help me, I use Woolite (white bottle), Downy liquid softener and Downy fabric softener dryer sheets.  If I should be using bleach as well, can you give me specific advice on how to use it in a front-loader machine i.e. quantity, proper time to add it in the wash cycle, and any other tips/tricks. I watched your Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymb10MYlhn4 but hearing directly from you regarding my specific concerns will be helpful and appreciated.  Maybe I shouldn’t even be using bleach on a new set of sheets… I don’t know and I don’t want to mess them up.
A: Thank you for sending in your question, and especially for including the additional information about your detergent, softener, and clothes washer type.  That you have a front-loader definitely factors in to overall cleaning performance; let’s start with some background information that helps explain why. 
 
There are three types of energy that affect cleaning:  mechanical (machine agitation), chemical (laundry additives), and thermal (water temperature).  In a traditional deep-fill top loading washer, mechanical energy was high because central agitators pretty aggressively move the laundry through the wash solution.  Thermal energy was also higher because the clothes were completely immersed in the wash water all the time, helping a hot or warm wash temperature stay constant for most of the cycle.  Front loading washers are great because they save water (very important if you live in California like I do!) and energy, but the tumbling action that is much more gentle on clothes (good) also lowers the mechanical energy component of cleaning.  Tumbling the laundry in and out of a small amount of water also lowers thermal energy.  This makes the chemical energy component of cleaning all the more important because it can compensate for the changes to thermal and mechanical energy.
 
Now let’s look at the laundry additives you use (or are considering using) to see how they affect cleaning:
 
Detergent– First, be sure you choose a good detergent specifically formulated for a front loading washer (look for the “h-e” logo on the package).  The best detergents have cleaning agents (surfactants) that don’t cause visible foaming like traditional detergents; excessive suds in a front loader will actually lower cleaning performance because it cushions the load as it tumbles, lowering mechanical action. Also, check the ingredient list and make sure that in addition to cleaning ingredients and brighteners, the detergent also includes enzymes and anti-redeposition agents. And make sure you are using enough detergent!  Often people reduce the amount of detergent they add to a front loader to less than what the manufacturer actually recommends because there’s less water, but then they don’t have enough cleaning agents to handle the soil level, which is the same.  It’s a lot to ask of a detergent—remove the soil and keep it suspended in a very small amount of water without having it redeposit back onto the laundry—which is why using enough detergent so it can actually do its job is so important.
 
Bleach–  Yes, you can (and should!) definitely add Clorox Regular-Bleach along with the detergent to improve cleaning and whitening beyond what you’re getting with detergent by itself.  Clorox Regular-Bleach not only sanitizes laundry, it also breaks up body soil (always a problem on bed sheets) so it’s easier for the detergent to remove.  It adds extra chemical energy to make up for the loss in thermal and mechanical energy that is problematic for front loaders.  Use the dispenser on your front loader to add the bleach, making sure you fill the dispenser to the “max-fill” line.  The clothes washer should automatically add the bleach at the right time during the cycle for best results.
 
Fabric Softener–  This doesn’t actually contribute any chemical energy, but it’s a laundry additive so I’ll mention it here.  I’m not sure if you are using both a liquid softener in the wash cycle and a dryer sheet in the dryer for the same load, but if you are, you should be able to cut back to one product per load.  Liquid softeners reduce fabric absorbency (you should definitely not use liquid fabric softener on towels!) and can build up on fabric over time if the detergent doesn’t completely strip the softener off before new softener is added at the end of the cycle.  This can contribute to the grey appearance of whites! Dryer sheets may be a better option to help you have the benefit of some softening and maintain your white items.
 
Back to thermal and mechanical action—you can also maximize the performance of a front loading washer by selecting the “hot” wash temperature and “warm” rinses (or at least the hottest option possible) and the longest agitation time.  And also be sure you don’t overload the washer—the items need to be able to tumble easily through the wash solution.  The elastic on the corners of the fitted sheet can bunch up and trap other items and throw a load off balance if the washer is overloaded, which can also reduce cleaning performance.  Washing large items like sheets (flat, fitted, and pillowcases) from one bed at a time definitely helps improve cleaning.
 
I hope this information is useful–such a thoughtful question deserved a detailed response.  If you have any other questions please let me know, and thanks for writing!
 
–Dr. Laundry