How To Wash & Whiten White Undershirts

Ever wonder why your white undershirts lose their color or turn grey-ish over time? Curious as to how to wash white undershirts to maintain their whiteness?

So did this reader.

Hi, after about 4-5 washes my white undershirts start greying.

I’ve tried different brands (jockey, fruit of the loom, hanes, Kirkland), different detergents, bleach and different water temps.

I have a front loading unit.

Any suggestions on how to keep them white?

– Russ

Greige Goods

Before we get into the possible solutions for Russ, and share some helpful information on the best way to wash white undershirts, let’s first discuss how these garments get white in the first place.

Most fabric starts off as “greige goods”.

Greige goods is defined by Wiktionary as:

(textiles) Raw fabric before undergoing dying or bleaching.

More simply, the fabric in the majority of your white undershirts starts off as more grey-ish color fabric. Then, the fabric mill uses optical brighteners to bring the fabric to different shades of white.

I mentioned this fact in an article where a reader was wondering how to re-whiten his undershirts.

how to wash white undershirts
photo credit:

Why Do White Undershirts Lose Their Color?

Why would white undershirts would lose their color and turn greyish? Likely poor manufacturing, or more specifically, lack of quality color processing.

If you think about it, if the whiteness in your undershirt or shirt starts to fade, or become less white, then it would be practical to assume it’ll fade to it’s original color (grey-ish), right?

Secondarily, I would assume that maybe someone is over-bleaching them when laundering them.

That said, Russ identified 4 different brands in his email and also indicated that he tried different laundry products and different water temperatures.

It seems a little strange that all of his different white undershirts, from different brands, would be turning grey.

Statistically, that seemed unlikely — Which drove me to dig a bit further.

Jolie Kerr, Cleaning Expert

Jolie Kerr (twitter) is a well-known and respected cleaning expert. I contacted her to seek her advice.

She referred me to this article where a follower asked about her white towels turning off-white, and among other things, she made a couple suggestions that stood out to me:

(2) You have hard water.

(3) The washing machine you’re using needs a cleaning.

How To Keep Undershirts Their Whitest?

In Russ’ case, I have a suspicion that he has hard water — though there still is a remote possibility that his washing machine is dirty.

In the article, Jolie made some recommendations on how to minimize the hardness or “soften” the water that goes into the washing machine. Hopefully that will help prevent future white undershirts from going grey.

How to Wash White Undershirts to Ward off the Dullness?

In the same article, Jolie make some recommendations on how to re-whiten towels, so they could could be used equally as effectively on undershirts.

Keep in mind the following should only be done after the hard-water or dirty washing machine issue(s) have been fixed.

  1. Hot, hot water wash
  2. Cascade soak

Though, I’d like to add three more suggestions:

  1. Oxi-Clean soak (30 minutes to overnight)
  2. Rit Whitewash – My recommendation in this Re-Whiten Undershirts article
  3. Bluette Laundry Bluing — Bluette® functions as a laundry whitener because a trace of blue in the wash will enhance white and light-colored articles, making them appear whiter and brighter. Try Bluette® for whiter whites, it is safe and gentle even on delicate fabrics. (a fave product of Jolie’s too)

How Do You Re-Whiten Your Whites?

Have you tried washing your white undershirts using any of the techniques above? If so, how did it work for you?

Do you have any tricks of the trade you’d like to share?

If so, tell us about them in the comments section below.

6 thoughts on “How To Wash & Whiten White Undershirts”

  1. Response to Russ’s enquiry:

    Dear tug,
    As far as I can remember, I have never experienced any problems with ‘greying’ or ‘yellowing’ or ‘dulling’ of my T-shirts and tank undershirts.

    As already mentioned in a previous thread (‘wearing a tank undershirt under a T-shirt’), I have always worn a white rib-knit tank-style undershirt underneath a flat-knit T-shirt, which also is usually white.

    Both garments are of pure cotton and of good quality, but not unduly expensive. The ribbed tank undershirts are of two different brands, one purchased locally in Germany, and the other ordered in a large quantity a long time ago from Sears in the United States.

    The latter have been worn over and over again and are still in very good condition! I wash the T-shirts and A-shirts regularly in the washing machine (also from Miele) with ordinary laundry detergent, at a temperature which is not too high (40 °C).

    I never use additives of any kind (such as bleaches, bluing, optical brighteners or whiteners, water softeners, fluffers, etc.).

    In the event of stubborn stains, I pretreat the garments with ox-gall soap and then wash them as usual in the machine, but this case is extremely rare. My ‘perspiration rate’ is average, that is, I sweat to about the same extent as most other people.

    Perhaps I should also mention that the water in my region contains very little calcium (very low hardness of 1 dH).

    After drying in air, I do not iron the garments. I simply fold them and always place them at the bottom of the stack in the cabinet, that is, first-in-first-out. I have had many of these T-shirts and ribbed tank undershirts for many years and have worn them again and again, but they still have not ‘greyed’ or ‘yellowed’.

    Thus, my conclusion is that no special treatment is necessary. Normal care is quite sufficient, provided that one buys good quality and takes good care of one’s clothes. At least, this has been my experience.

    Incidentally, a higher washing temperature may render some stains (coloring matter) more water-soluble and thus help to remove them in some cases. However, my mother used to warn that it may have precisely the opposite effect and make the stains ‘set’.

    The reason for this is that a higher temperature also increases chemical reactivity and can thus cause the coloring matter in the stain to become more firmly bonded to the textile fibres.

    Thus, the stains would then become even more stubborn and difficult to remove.
    Sincerely, ken

    • ken, i think you hit the nail on the head here — in that if you buy quality undershirts, they shouldn’t loose their color.

      i have a bunch of my regular daily-wear undershirts that have been in rotation for some time, and while the color is not as bright as they were when they were new, they don’t notably discolored.

      the other thing to keep in mind is that bright white undershirts will show through lighter colored clothes more easily. so, i don’t see a big issue with a slight dulling of color since my undershirts are generally never visible.

      of course, for those that show the undershirt, or wear them as t-shirts from time to time, a brighter white undershirt would likely be preferred by those folks.

      oh — and laundry care is a big factor here too. repeated hot wash/hot dry will definitely take its toll on undergarments. personally, that’s how we wash/dry our whites in our house hold (convenience), but i completely believe if we did a warm wash/hang dry, our whites would probably stay whiter, longer.

      • My wife air dries everything, so that is not our problem.

        I read on a Wiki page that the yellow discoloration is a chemical result from the reactions of sweat and aluminum in anti-perspirants. They recommended Fabric Rust remover treatment and luke warm water.

        Some other person talked about using the power of the Sun to bleach them back to white by laying out a sheet and then laying the shirts on it.

        Being as I am an apartment renter with no yard space, that is just silliness to me.

        As far as hard water goes, I’ve read you can soften it with baking soda. You can supposedly soak your clothes in baking soda, as well.

        I might try a baking soda and ACV soak. Only one of mine has turned grey-ish in color, the other just dingy yellow / off-white.

  2. We used to take a few of our favorite whites to my mother-in-law’s home in Germany.

    She has a Meile washing machine with a boiling heat element in it. One wash and the whites are brite white again.

    Then I found that Bosch makes a washer with a similar high temp heater and again, the whites were white without the costly airfair!

    • heya john! thanks for stopping by and sharing that info!

      i’m a bit perplexed a bit though. if a fabric has lost it’s color, i’d be surprised that hot water would make it white again.

      i suppose if the fabric is dull, not because it’s lost it’s color, but because that there is build-up in the fabric, then i could see how really hot water could help break up that build-up, and steam out the build-up.

      i really don’t know the chemistry behind all this, but it would be interesting to know whether or not scolding hot water would rewhiten fabric that has lost color or not. very interesting indeed…


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