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Can Fabric Softener Stain Clothes?

white fabric in a drawer

Have your white clothes become gray and dingy? It could be from using fabric softener. Find out more about fabric softener stains and what to do about them.

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I have a top loading HE clothes washer that I’ve been using for about 2 years now. Up until recently I have had white whites. For some reason, my whites are slowing getting this gray, dingy color. I have used the same detergent for years with no problem: Tide for the detergent, Clorox and Downy fabric softener in the rinse cycle. What do you believe is causing the dinginess?


Thanks for your question; this is intriguing. Usually the new HE washers do a pretty good cleaning job, but you do have to adjust some of your wash habits to maintain the performance you were used to with your previous washer.

My best guess would be that the continual use of liquid fabric softener is the part of the problem. The softener active deposits on the fabric and provides a soft “feel” after drying. Unfortunately, if what was deposited isn’t removed in the next wash, it can start to build up, especially if you add softener to every load. Additionally, this leftover residue can attract and hold dirt and body oils that are harder for the detergent to remove. You may want to try switching to dryer sheets and see if that helps with your results.

Washing in hot water will get the maximum cleaning, so if you were washing in warm or cold, I would expect to see the problem even more. If you can use hot water, your results will likely improve. You may also find with a low volume washer the water, even if you select hot, isn’t as hot as you think it is!

Washing smaller loads will also help improve results, especially if you have heavily soiled laundry. And be sure you use Clorox® Disinfecting Bleach and you always fill your dispenser to the max-fill line. You can check out additional tips for using bleach here.

Lastly, it could be a change in water quality has occurred. Sometimes hard water and liquid detergents can lead to poorer cleaning.