Skip to content
Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Whitening Graphic T-Shirts

By Dr. Laundry October 13, 2009

Q. I have a bunch of 100% cotton white t-shirts that are getting gray in color, and a few have tough stains that detergent and stain removers (Shout/Spray n’ Wash, etc.) have exhausted their efforts on. The problem is, all of them have iron-on (not screen printed) type graphics on them. If I bleach these shirts, will it discolor or damage the graphics?

A. It is an important distinction between iron-on and screened prints. These can vary greatly depending on how effective the transfer was done. The short answer regarding liquid bleach usage is… it depends. If the stains have been previously treated and dried, they may be difficult/impossible to remove.

So here’s how I would proceed:


  • You need to know if it’s safe to use liquid bleach on the shirt. I recommend consumers do the quick Bleachability Test (2 tspn Clorox® Regular-Bleach in 1/4 cup water; apply a drop on a hidden area like inside seam, hemline or cuff of the shirt (you’ll need to do this also on each iron-on area, as well); wait 1 minute and then blot with towel). No color change means it is safe to use bleach on the item. (Check out the Laundry 101 video on my blog (http://www.drlaundryblog.com) for a demonstration of the Bleachability Test.) Now you have a couple of choices: On the stains, I would consider using Clorox® BleachPen Gel (apply; rub in with scrubber tip; wait 3-5 minutes) before adding to the washer. And for the graying, I would also do a quick liquid bleach soak (1/4 cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach in gallon of cool water for 5 minutes), then wash immediately in the hot water using detergent and 3/4 cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach. Check for success after washing and before drying, as more than one treatment may be needed if they’re really dirty. Also for greasy/oily stains, do a quick pretreat with liquid dishwasher or laundry detergent (apply, rub in, then wait 3-5 minutes before washing).

  • If the items are NOT bleachable, then your best bet is pretreating the stained areas as mentioned above. Then do an extended presoak with a good powdered detergent, which has special ingredients to help remove the dirt/grime. In a sink/bucket, start with warm water, add 1/2 to full dose of powdered detergent, and make sure all the powder is dissolved before adding the t-shirts. Leave them to sit overnight, and follow by washing them in hot water using detergent and Clorox2® Stain Fighter and Color Booster, our oxygen bleach based on hydrogen peroxide. Check for success after washing and before drying, as more than one treatment probably will be needed if they’re really dirty.