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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Removing Tough Stains from Dish Towels

By Dr. Laundry April 20, 2017

Q. My dish towels and cloths can become quite stained from cooking, etc. What can I use to get them really clean? I have been using other detergents, but they do not come spot-free.

—Romain

A. Hi Romain;

Dish towels definitely are a cleaning and whitening challenge given all the different ways they are used in a kitchen. Multiple factors play into how clean they get, too. It’s not just what products you use (although that is important!); how you wash them also matters. Here are some considerations to help you get better results.

  1. Pretreat any stains. Cooking stains often have an oily component, so pretreating first with liquid dishwashing detergent (the kind you use for handwashing dishes is really helpful at breaking up the oil. It is also very important to do this while the fabric is dry [that is, don’t rinse the stain first]). All you have to do is apply a little detergent to the stain and thoroughly massage it in. Wait 5 minutes, and then rinse the treated area with warm water. Dish detergent doesn’t belong in a clothes washer because of its high sudsing qualities, so rinsing is important.
  2. Combinations stains (both an oily and a colored component) can be pretreated again, this time with a product that will help with the color. On your white cotton dishtowels, use Clorox® Bleach Pen Gel; apply a little gel directly to the stain and then machine wash immediately. For this step, it doesn’t matter that the fabric is wet after rinsing away the liquid dish detergent. If you have dish towels with color, then use Clorox 2® Stain Remover & Color Booster for the second pretreatment step. Clorox 2® benefits from a longer pretreatment time, so wait 5–10 minutes before machine washing. Use a timer if it helps you keep track of the time so the product doesn’t dry out on the fabric.
  3. Select the hot water cycle. The hotter the water the better the cleaning.
  4. Machine wash using detergent and ½ cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 for white cotton dish towels or detergent and more Clorox 2® for towels with color. Also, make sure you are using an HE detergent if you have an HE washer!

You can air dry your towels if the stains were really bad so you can check to see if they got all the way out. Once you get comfortable with the results you may end up just throwing them in the dryer.

I also wanted to share some thoughts on water temperature. What type of clothes washer you have can have an impact on this. Traditional clothes washers that use a lot of water generally maintain a hotter wash temperature. A high efficiency clothes washer that saves energy and uses less water (both good and important goals) typically also controls the hot water temperature by mixing the cold and hot lines to hit an energy-efficient lower hot temperature, typically 120°F.

But if your clothes washer is far away from your hot water heater, and if it uses only a small amount of water, it may add all the water it needs before very much hot water gets into the machine, resulting in warm or even luke-warm wash even if hot was selected.

Since hot water is very important for cleaning and whitening, this definitely matters, and the lower cleaning you get adds up over time.

One thing I do at home to offset the low temperature I would get even when I select the “hot” wash temperature is to warm up the hot water line before starting the cycle; usually I collect about 2 gallons before the water is warm, and I use it to water plants so it’s not wasted. It helps that I have a laundry sink by my clothes washer!

I also wanted to mention that if you have towels that are mostly white but have some color, you may be able to safely bleach them with Clorox® Regular-Bleach1, but you should test first.

To do this, add 1½ teaspoons Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 to ¼ cup water and apply a drop to a discreet part of the towel (the underside of the hem is a good spot). Wait 1 minute and then rinse and blot dry. No color change means you can safely launder the towel with Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 as directed.

Many dish towels actually are made with bleach-safe dyes because dish towel manufacturers understand that kitchen towels really benefit from the cleaning and sanitizing you get from Clorox® Regular-Bleach1.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know how it goes, and thanks for writing!

—Dr. Laundry