This cleaning technique strips fabrics of detergent buildup and other residues. Here's what you need to know before you try it.

By Jessica Bennett
May 20, 2020
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How clean is your clean laundry, really? A washing technique recently circulating on social media calls that into question. Laundry stripping, also called strip-washing, has gained renewed popularity in recent weeks, with TikTok videos tagged with #laundrystripping amassing nearly 11 million views. The clips show users soaking sheets, towels, and clothes in a solution of borax and detergent for several hours, often resulting in a tub full of brown, filthy-looking water as dirt and residue releases from the items.

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The goal of laundry stripping is to revive linens and clothing items with a deep clean that lifts grime and buildup. "It helps to remove all residues from laundry soap, fabric softener, minerals from hard water, and body oils," Rosa Nogales-Hernandez, head home cleaning valet for Valet Living, a Florida-based residential amenities provider. "Essentially, it gives your laundry a second chance to be as fresh and crisp like it's the very first wash."

The simple technique involves very hot water and a mixture of borax, laundry detergent, and washing soda, a chemical compound similar to (though not the same as) baking soda that's often used in homemade laundry detergents. However, not all laundry requires this treatment, and you could actually damage clothing. Here's what you need to know before you get started.

When to Strip Wash Laundry

Buildup on clothes and linens is a common reason for laundry stripping. But before you try it, consider modifying your regular laundry routine first. Make sure you're only using the recommended amount of detergent for your load size, as excess soap residue can linger on the fabric after washing. When washing towels, only use fabric softener every three to four washes to prevent waxy buildup that can reduce their absorbency and diminish their fluffy feel.

Laundry stripping involves powerful cleaning agents and very hot water, so the process isn't ideal for everyday clothes washing. "We do not recommend doing this frequently as it can prematurely age and damage clothes," says Mary Begovic Johnson, a principal scientist for Tide. She notes that individuals with sensitive skin, for example, might want to strip wash their clothes before wearing to remove any lingering chemicals from the manufacturing process. Check care labels to make sure items are safe to wash in hot water, and don't use the technique on delicate items that can easily get damaged.

This technique is best for heavily used items, such as bed sheets or towels. Nogales-Hernandez recommends strip-washing these items about once a month, if desired. Laundry stripping is also a good option if you notice an odor that won't go away or discoloration on your fabric items, says Becky Rapinchuk, the cleaning expert behind the blog Clean Mama.

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How to Strip Wash Your Laundry

For best results, use very hot water and a powdered detergent that contains enzymes, Rapinchuk suggests.  "You'll get better results with an enzyme detergent because it will go deeper into the fibers," she says. Choose a detergent without fragrances or dyes for the most effective strip-wash. Avoid mixing colors when laundry stripping as hot water can cause dyes to bleed more easily, resulting in accidental stains if you mix white sheets with red T-shirts, for example. Because it requires hot water and chemicals, laundry stripping should be done away from kids or pets to avoid accidents.

Before strip washing, items should be freshly laundered (either wet or dry). Then follow these instructions:

  1. Fill your bathtub (or a large bucket) with enough hot water to completely submerge the items.
  2. Add 1/4 cup borax, 1/4 cup washing soda, and 1/2 cup detergent to the hot water. (If using a smaller vessel like a bucket, adjust the amounts based on how much water you're using. For a 5-gallon bucket, start with 1/2 tablespoon each of borax and washing soda and 1 tablespoon of detergent.) Stir the water with a large spoon until the mixture has dissolved.
  3. Place your laundry into the tub and let it soak, stirring occasionally, for about four hours or until the water has completely cooled. The dirt and residue should release into the water, offering that gross-yet-satisfying visual.
  4. Drain the water and wring out excess liquid from the items. Then give them a final rinse in the washing machine using a water-only cycle.

Your bathtub might now have a gross ring of grime around it that you'll need to scrub, but your clothes and linens should be clean and residue-free.

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