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How do I get my towels and bed linens really bright white?

By Dr. Laundry December 2, 2015

Q:  How do I get my towels and bed linens really bright white? I recently stayed at a luxury hotel where the towels and linens seemed so white they were giving off light. How can I get my towels and linens that white?     A: Thanks for sending in your question—I’m sorry for the delay in my reply! I took a little time off before Thanksgiving and am just now getting caught up with the questions that have come in.  I’m not surprised that the towels in your hotel appeared to be giving off light.  A common ingredient in most detergent formulations is optical whitener (also called a fluorescent whitening agent), a colorless dye that deposits onto fabric during washing.  These dyes absorb light from the ultra-violet part of the spectrum that you can’t see, and reflect it in the visible part of the spectrum (typically a blue wavelength) that you can see, increasing brightness.  One benefit of the increase in brightness is that it makes up for light that gets trapped in fabric that isn’t getting clean.  In other words, light can’t reflect off fabric if it interacts with dirt first, so brighteners can be helpful. Hopefully the hotel also uses Clorox® Regular-Bleach–at least I hope they are, because I like to think when I stay at a hotel that the sheets and towels are sanitized!   Of course it would be great if your towels and sheets also looked bright and white just because they were super clean!  Good news—here’s how Clorox® Regular-Bleach and some basic laundry tips can help:  
  • Select a hot water wash temperature.  The hotter the water, the better the cleaning.  This makes a difference not just after one cycle, but also over time.  The hot water you get in your clothes washer is only as hot as whatever temperature you set your hot water heater to, so if you have turned the heater down a lot to save energy that will impact cleaning performance.  Also, how far away your clothes washer is from the water heater matters.  If your washer uses a small amount of water and is far away from the water heater, you may effectively be washing in warm water even if you select hot just because the washer first fills with whatever cold water is in the pipes between the heater and your washer.
  • Use the right amount of a good detergent.  If you have an HE washer, make sure you are using an HE detergent.  Check the ingredient list and make sure it has enzymes and an optical whitener in addition to the cleaning agents.  Make sure you add the right amount:  using too much can cause over-sudsing, which cushions the load and reduces cleaning performance.  It also makes it harder for the detergent to be completely rinsed.  That means more tiny particles on the surface of the fabric that prevents light from reflecting off.  Using too little detergent means you won’t have enough cleaning agents to remove dirt and soil.  Follow the directions and make sure you use the right amount!
  • Don’t overload the washer.  It’s very important that the laundry can rotate or tumble through the wash water freely; laundry packed in too tightly doesn’t agitate properly and doesn’t get as clean.
  • Add ½ cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach along with the detergent.  The cleaner the sheets, the whiter they will look, and by using Clorox Regular-Bleach, your sheets will be cleaner than they would with detergent alone.  For best results in a standard washer, dilute the bleach with 1 quart of water and add it 5 minutes after the machine has begun agitating.  If you have an HE washer, use the bleach dispenser and fill it to the “max-fill” line.
  • Skip the fabric softener, especially for the towels.  Fabric softener leaves a coating on the fabric that may be great for controlling static cling, but it also reduces absorbency.  Plus it’s one more thing to keep light from reflecting off the fabric, further reducing whiteness.
  I hope this helps—let me know if you have any other questions, and thanks again for writing.   –Dr. Laundry