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Bleaching Colored Items


How do you bleach colored clothing completely white?


We never recommend letting undiluted bleach contact any fabrics or hard surfaces—it should always be diluted first. Depending on the fabric and dye that was used to color an item, soaking in a bleach and water solution can produce several outcomes:

  1. No change in color. It often surprises people that some dyes can be safely bleached without losing color. Screen prints also can usually be safely laundered with bleach. As well as synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic can often be safely bleached when fibers were dyed in polymer form, before the fiber was extruded.
  2. Color lightens. This often happens with denim—the blue color lightens when washed with bleach but it isn’t removed.
  3. Color shifts. Some fabrics change color when exposed to a bleach solution. For example, royal blue can turn bright pink. One situation where this can happen is when multiple dyes were used to produce the final shade, and only some of the dyes react to the bleach.
  4. Color is stripped. Note that the new color will typically be off-white or cream colored, not white.  This isn’t obvious with accidental bleach damage—the spot looks white because it is in contrast to the original color. However, a white item held next to the discolored area will reveal the cream color.

Bleach is extremely useful for the DIYer, not to mention fun to work with, because of all the interesting affects that can be achieved with it. The recommended bleach soaking solution for bleachable fabrics (always avoid bleaching wool, silk, mohair, leather, and spandex) is 3 tablespoons Clorox® Regular Bleach2 added to 1 gallon water. Items should be fully submerged, and soak time limited to 5 minutes before rinsing thoroughly. How a colored item responds to this solution depends on the fiber content of the item, how it was dyed, and what class of dye was used for the color. If one bleach soak doesn’t completely strip the color off an item as you would like, you could try repeating the bleach soak multiple times to gradually remove the color safely. You could also try working with a stronger bleach solution to speed things up—I wouldn’t go any stronger than 1 part bleach to 12 parts water (1 cup bleach added to 3 quarts water). Just don’t lengthen the soak time—prolonged exposure to bleach and water solutions can cause irreversible yellowing.  Something else to consider is the thread used to construct the garment—if it is polyester, then it will not change color, and you will end up with contrasting stitching if the fabric color does lighten.  Who knows—that could be a desired effect!

Advice From Our Experts