How to Tell If Clothes Are Safe to Bleach

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to these helpful little tags.

Until recently bleaching laundry seemed pretty straightforward: white towels, bed linens, and cotton clothing were a no-brainer. As for anything else, well, that's what garment care labels are for. And while you can definitely continue with this approach, if you're looking to maximize the benefits of bleach where it relates to laundry, you might want to pay attention to more than just those tiny wash icons on your clothing tags.

close up of person doing laundry loading white sheet into washer
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Which Fabrics Can Be Bleached?

The first place you should turn to when debating whether to bleach clothes is the garment care label. Here are the three symbols associated with bleach care and what they mean:

  • Triangle: The garment can be washed with any type of bleach.
  • Triangle with two parallel lines inside: Treat the garment with non-chlorine bleach only.
  • Solid triangle with an X through it: Do not bleach.

However, according to Clorox laundry scientist Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, sometimes what's printed on a care label has more to do with the financial bottom line rather than the best laundering practice for that particular garment. For that reason, she suggests reviewing the fabric's fiber content prior to determining your laundering game plan. "Any item that includes wool, silk, mohair, leather, or spandex is not safe for chlorine bleach, regardless of the color of the item," she says. Even items with a mix of materials (for example, 97% cotton and 3% spandex) are still a no-go, says Gagliardi. However, she notes that white graphic T-shirts can in many cases be safely bleached.

How to Choose the Right Bleach for Laundry

Mark Vlaskamp, cofounder and managing partner at The Folde, an Austin, Texas-based laundry delivery service, says determining whether or not to use bleach is only the first step. "Choosing which type of bleach is just as important as choosing whether to use bleach or not. The available bleach types can be divided into three main groups: oxygen-containing, chlorine-containing, and optical with a luminescent dye," says Vlaskamp.

  • Chlorine-Containing Bleach: This is the most potent of the bunch, says Vlaskamp. It's also touted for its affordability and top-notch disinfecting abilities.
  • Oxygen Bleach: Vlaskamp recommends using oxygen bleach in a warm-water pre-soak. Soak time varies by manufacturer so, as with any laundry or cleaning product, be sure to consult the label's instructions before proceeding.
  • Optical Brighteners: "Optical brighteners are often found in white laundry detergents," says Vlaskamp. "[They] make things lighter and fresher, and laundry even glows in the ultraviolet range after washing." However, he does not recommend the use of optical brighteners, as they can cause skin irritation and product buildup on clothes, which can't easily be washed out.

When to Override Garment Care Labels

If you're at all questioning whether or not to use bleach, it's best to skew safe than sorry. "Laundry is personal! You'll tend to be more careful if the stain is on your favorite shirt versus a random set of sheets," says Vlaskamp. Choose your treatment method accordingly and, when in doubt, opt for milder options to start. "If you are going to deviate from the garment care tag, start by using a whitener—not a bleach option. This allows you to treat the garment with a lower risk of damage."

How to Test Clothes for Colorfastness

If all signs point to your garment being safe for chlorine bleach, next consider a colorfastness test. Here's what Gagliardi recommends:

Add 2 tsp. Clorox disinfecting bleachto ¼ cup water. Apply a drop of this solution to a hidden part of the item (be sure to test all colors) and wait 1 minute, then rinse and blot dry. No color change means the item is bleach-safe. Remember to check the fiber content on the care label and only test garments made from fibers you know are bleach-safe, such as cotton, polyester, acrylic, nylon, and rayon.

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