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Laundry School: Know Your Detergents, Bleaches, and Boosters

Last week in Laundry School, we talked about the machines in which we do our washing. We got to better know our washers and our dryers, and talked quite a bit about hand washing and how that gets done. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the products we use in those washers: The detergents, bleaches, and boosters.

It turns out that there were so many product questions that I’ve had to further refine our syllabus. This is great! I loved school and always thought I would have made a fine teacher, so I’m happy to extend our coursework. Next week, I’ll take on the questions pertaining to the products we use in our dryers. This is mostly because, as you’ll see, today’s post got real involved, real fast.


Please do feel free to keep asking questions of me. In addition to next week’s post on dryer products, there will be a post about stain and smell removal, and then we’ll wrap up with a grab-bag of sorts to address all the outliers. Please email your questions to using the subject line LAUNDRY SCHOOL.

Onward to your very good questions!

Any brand advice? I couldn’t tell if you were consulted on the Sweethome’s review of detergent.

I didn’t serve as a source on that particular piece, no, but I would trust the Sweethome with my life. I’ve worked with other reviewers and with the site’s founder, Brian Lam, and so I’ve seen firsthand how much thought, research, and testing goes into their recommendations, and will always point people to the Sweethome for purchasing guidance; two other good sources for product comparisons are Good Housekeeping and Consumer Reports.

Tide is a brand that gets high marks from the Sweethome, as well as from GH and CR. In my own life, I like the Arm & Hammer products—I’m currently mad for their Twilight Sky scent, which is apparently meant to evoke the fresh air of Acadia National Park, and I’m a sucker for Maine, so. There’s also a tremendously inexpensive liquid detergent called Xtra that I’ve enjoyed and that the literature tells us is quite good.

Is there a difference between the cheap and expensive laundry detergent?

There sure is—the price!


Okay now that I’m done being a wiseass, yeah, there’s some difference, but it’s not like your clothes won’t get clean if you use a less expensive brand. Generally speaking, and this is putting it in very broad strokes, the lower-priced liquid options contain a higher ratio of water to soap, while lower-priced powdered detergents may suffer a bit when it comes to dissolving fully, leaving deposits on your clothes. On the other side of things, oftentimes the products with the heftier price tags are charging more for things like fancy packaging and scents (think brands like Mrs. Meyer’s and Caldrea).

What about making your own laundry detergent? I keep seeing that everywhere: “Make your own detergent.” Does the homebrew work? I am pretty lazy, and the balance the time/effort of making my own vs. just buying it tips pretty heavily towards the pre-made stuff. Is it worth it to make my own?


DIY detergents are just fine, yes! They work, and they will certainly save you a pretty penny. I can’t, however, tell you if it’s worth it to make your own, because that’s a thing you need to decide for yourself. But I can offer you this perspective, from reader subliminalism:

I’ve been making my own for a few years now. It takes about 15-20 minutes to make a batch that lasts me six to 9 months, so to me the effort is worth it! I use it on cloth diapers, cop uniforms, and everything else. Works great! Hubs actually prefers it to the store-bought detergents we had tried in the past as far as getting his stinky uniforms clean. I use the recipe found on Raising Colorado.


That recipe is here, should you want it.

I only use cold water. Can I just toss stuff in without regard to color?

You can. Just be aware that you still run the risk of color transfer if you don’t separate light clothes from darker ones. Reds are particularly deadly, so be careful about mixing red items with lighter-colored clothing. If you’re going to go the non-sorting route, you may also want to use a product like Carbona Color Grabber or Shout Color Catcher to prevent dye transfer.

I am 37 years old. I understand bleach is a thing, and maybe even a good thing. That said, the stuff terrifies me. I’ve never used it, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I think there are people out there who actually use it, on clothes, and it makes whites really bright? And this interests me! I’d like to have really bright whites, too! However, I’m not kidding when I say I think I may find a way to accidentally kill myself and/or loved ones with bleach if I try using it. Or at the very least, I’d ruin any clothes that come into contact with it, and any clothes that are not 100 percent white fabric would end up 100 percent white by the time I was done.

So, um, how do you do bleach?

I really promise that bleach is nothing to be scared of, but do understand your concerns—and I want to give you permission to skip it if it all just feels like too much. In part, because there are other options that are just as good, if not better. We’ll get to those in a sec, but first let’s talk about bleach.


When people talk about “bleach,” they’re using shorthand for chlorine bleach, which is the stuff you use on your whites that you feel so scared will come in contact with your non-whites—or, like, your eyes—and cause major problems. That fear is somewhat founded: Bleach is caustic, so you do want to take care when using it. For household use (which means, like, cleaning), definitely use gloves; when it comes to laundry use, you probably don’t need the gloves, since you’ll be measuring and pouring it and it’s unlikely to come in contact with your skin. If it does, eh, a small amount on your skin isn’t something to worry too much about. I don’t mean to be cavalier, but it would be dishonest of me to tell you that bleach is something to get worked up over.

For use in laundry, it should be reserved for whites only. It’s not absolutely going to cause color loss in non-whites, but that’s also not a risk worth taking. You’ll add it to the machine after the detergent and clothes have gone in; use a ½-cup to a full cup per load, depending on the size. Many washing machines have a bleach dispenser that will add the stuff to the wash at the right point in the cycle, but if your machine doesn’t have one, add the bleach about five minutes into the proceedings.


Here are two things to know about bleach: It doesn’t play well with protein stains and can actually render those stains more yellow-looking. That means that when laundering sweat- or sex-stained items, you’ll be better off opting for an oxygenated bleach over a chlorine bleach.

The other thing to know is that you must be very careful about mixing it with other chemicals. Laundry detergent is fine, but never mix chlorine bleach with other common household and laundry products like white vinegar or ammonia.

Chlorine bleach, non-chlorine bleach … what’s the difference?!

Non-chlorine bleach, which is more commonly known as color-safe bleach, is the stuff you can use on non-whites. It has a different chemical makeup from chlorine bleach—there’s a more thorough/more scientific explanation of the difference on the Clorox website if you want to check that out. I did … and I gotta level with you, I didn’t find it all that interesting. One more category of bleaches that you’ll often hear about, especially if you lurk around these parts on the regular, is oxygenated bleach, which is also safe for use on colors.

Is it acceptable to use color-safe bleach with loads besides towels? Besides, weirdly, I actually like the smell?


It is absolutely acceptable! If you like the product, by all means use it.

What is the real deal about keeping whites white and not dingy, grey, and sad? Bleach? OxiClean? Human sacrifice? Is there any rescuing my stuff that is already dingy-fied, or do I just have to buy new T-shirts?


I’m tempted to lie and tell you that human sacrifice is the secret to bright white whites. I just really want that to be the case! I’d even offer up, like, Barry Petchesky for use in our whitening rituals.

Fortunately for Barry, human sacrifice is not the answer. Oh, well!

A laundry booster like bleach, bluing, Borax, or OxiClean (which is an oxygenated bleach) is going to be the thing that will help to keep your whites from becoming dingy. Those products are used in addition to your regular laundry detergent—there are also detergents, such as Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, that are formulated to help keep whites from becoming dingy over time. Separating whites and lights is another good way to help keep them bright, to prevent color transfer from darker items.


Even with regular use of boosters, you may notice that your whites become yellowed or dingy over time. All is not lost! Just treat those clothes to a good, long soak in a solution of water and one of the boosters (I really enjoy OxiClean for this purpose). I mention the “long soak” because, in my experience, the longer you can leave the garment to soak, the better the results are going to be. A few hours up to overnight is ideal, then launder as usual. For a lot (a lot a lot a lot) more on reviving grungy old white tees, check out my monster pit-stain post from way back in the day.

Until next week ... class dismissed!

Jolie Kerr is Deadspin’s resident cleaning expert and the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume). Follow her onTwitter, or email her:


Illustration by Sam Woolley.

Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.


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