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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Towel discoloration

By Dr. Laundry November 26, 2012

I just bought new dark towels and they turned blotchy and orange after the first wash. I only used detergent and fabric softener. What could have happened?

What an unfortunate situation! I can’t be sure what went wrong, but I’d like to address a few possibilities and tips about washing towels to make sure this does not happen in the future.

First, it’s important to note that towels should not be washed with fabric softener. The thin coating that softener leaves behind to impart a softer hand feel also makes the yarn loops on towels less absorbent.  It’s hard to say whether or not softener would also negatively interact with the dye on the towels—I actually wouldn’t expect that, but it is always possible.

Second, I am curious about your clothes washer. Does your machine use dispensers to add the laundry products? And does it use a spray rinse? The splotches you describe could make sense if softener was sprayed onto the fabric. You could always test a little softener on the undamaged section of the towels to see if it causes discoloration. You may also want to test the detergent, especially if it is a powdered formulation that includes a bleach activator (check the label) and the clothes washer has a spray wash feature.

One other possibility is that the bleach dispenser on the clothes washer could have malfunctioned and dispensed left over bleach from the previous cycle into your dark load. You can check this too by applying a drop of a solution of 2 teaspoons bleach added to 1/4 cup water and see what type of color change you get. If that’s the case, you may need to have a technician look at the clothes washer to be sure it is functioning properly.

I wouldn’t let the towel manufacturer off the hook, either—it could be the towels were actually mistakes—that is, the original production color was not what the manufacturer wanted—and they were subsequently overdyed a darker color that is not very color fast. Since the towels are brand new, hopefully you can return them or exchange them.