How to Whiten White Clothes That Yellowed Without Using Bleach

Yellowing of white clothes is a common problem that many of us face. While bleach is an effective way to whiten clothes, it can be harsh on fabrics. Fortunately, there are several methods to whiten yellowed white clothes without bleach.

Why White Clothes Turn Yellow

Before we get into the solutions, let’s first understand what causes white fabrics to turn yellow in the first place. Here are some common culprits:

  • Sweat and Body Oils – The sweat and natural body oils we secrete can get absorbed into clothing fibers over time. The proteins and fatty acids in these secretions can react with laundry detergents or even just air, leading to yellow discoloration.
  • Deodorant and Antiperspirant Residue – Aluminum compounds in deodorants and antiperspirants are notorious for staining clothing yellow. The compounds react with sweat and clothing dyes.
  • Improper Laundry – Using too much detergent, insufficient rinsing, overcrowding the machine, and washing in water that’s too hot can all contribute to a yellowish tinge.
  • Sunlight and Time – UV exposure from the sun and even just age causes white fabrics to gradually yellow over time. This is especially true for natural fibers like cotton and linen.
  • Hard Water – The minerals in hard water can deposit on fabric and react with detergents to create a yellowish-gray cast.

How to Whiten Yellowed Whites Without Bleach

Bleach may be the most powerful whitening agent, but it’s not the only option. Here are the top methods for restoring the brightness of white clothes without using harsh bleach:

1. Baking Soda

Baking soda is a natural cleaning and whitening powder. For yellowed whites, make a paste by mixing:

  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 1-2 tablespoons water

Apply the paste thoroughly to stained areas and let sit for at least one hour before washing as usual. The abrasive texture of baking soda helps scrub away discoloration, while the alkaline pH helps break down stains and lift them from the fabric.

For an even deeper clean, soak clothes overnight in a bucket or basin filled with warm water and 1/2 cup baking soda.

Tip: For best results, use baking soda in combination with sunshine. The UV rays activate the baking soda to boost its whitening power.

2. Lemon Juice

The citric acid in lemon juice acts as a natural bleaching agent and whitener. Try these methods:

  • Add 1 cup lemon juice to the washing machine dispenser during a regular cycle with detergent. Wash as normal.
  • For spot treatment, rub undiluted lemon juice directly onto stains and let sit in the sun for 1-2 hours before laundering.
  • Create a whitening soak by mixing 1 cup lemon juice with 1/2 gallon warm water in a bucket or tub. Soak yellowed clothes for 1-2 hours before washing.

The acid in the lemon juice helps break down and dissolve compounds that have bonded to the fabric and caused discoloration. Just take care when using lemon juice, as the acidity can degrade certain fabrics like wool or rayon over time. Test on an inconspicuous area first.

3. White Vinegar

Like lemon juice, white vinegar contains acetic acid that works to dissolve stains and brighten whites. Ways to use it:

  • In the washing machine, add 1/2 to 1 cup of vinegar to the detergent dispenser drawer and wash as usual.
  • For spot treatment, spray undiluted white vinegar directly on stained areas. Let sit for 15-30 minutes before laundering normally.
  • Make a vinegar soak by adding 1 cup vinegar to a sink or bucket full of warm water. Soak whites for 1-2 hours, then wash.

4. Hydrogen Peroxide

As an oxidizing bleaching agent, hydrogen peroxide can help restore the brightness of whites. However, it must be used carefully as high concentrations can damage fabric.

Make a safe whitening solution by mixing 1 part 3% hydrogen peroxide from the pharmacy with 2 parts water. Apply it directly to stains and yellowed areas of white clothes. Let sit in the sun for maximum brightness. Rinse thoroughly before washing as normal.

To use hydrogen peroxide in the washing machine, add 1/2 cup of the diluted solution (as mixed above) to the detergent dispenser. Wash on a hot cycle.

Note: Only use food-grade hydrogen peroxide for this method. Industrial concentrations are too harsh for laundry.

5. Borax

Similar to baking soda, borax is an alkaline powder that can lift stains and whiten fabrics. Make a borax soak with:

  • 1/2 cup borax
  • 2 gallons warm water

Soak whites in the solution for 2-6 hours before washing as usual. For heavy discoloration, increase borax to 1 cup and soak overnight. The abrasive texture of borax combined with the alkaline pH does the work of removing yellow buildup.

Alternatively, add 1/2 cup borax right to the washing machine drum at the start of a cycle. Wash with detergent and hot water.

6. Activated Oxygen Bleach

While regular chlorine bleach is too harsh for some fabrics, oxygen bleach (sodium percarbonate) can whiten clothes without damage. It works by releasing hydrogen peroxide when dissolved in water.

Look for laundry boosters labeled as “oxygen bleach.” Use according to package directions in place of chlorine bleach in the washing machine or as a pre-soak. The key is that it doesn’t contain optical brighteners that simply mask stains unlike many color-safe bleaches.

7. Distilled White Vinegar Soak

For a powerful whitening boost, use distilled white vinegar, which is stronger than regular white vinegar.

Fill a bucket or basin with warm water and add 1 cup distilled white vinegar per 1 gallon of water. Soak whites for 6-12 hours before washing normally. This extended vinegar soak gives the acetic acid more time to breakdown yellowing discoloration.

8. Cream of Tartar

The abrasive texture of cream of tartar works with the acidic pH to scour away stains on white fabrics. Make a cleaning paste with:

  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon water

Rub it directly onto stained or yellowed areas of clothing. Let sit for 10-20 minutes before rinsing and washing normally. The paste is also safe for pretreatment before washing in the machine.

For an intensive boost, add 1/2 cup cream of tartar to the drum at the start of the wash cycle and launder as usual. The extended wash time allows its whitening action to work.

9. Mr. Clean Magic Eraser

These popular cleaning melamine foam blocks can also be used to remove yellow discoloration from white clothes and fabrics. Simply wet the Magic Eraser, wring out excess water, then gently rub on the stained area. Avoid vigorous scrubbing, which can damage delicate fabrics.

Magic Erasers lift stains through abrasion rather than harsh chemicals. When combined with water, the melamine foam expands slightly to remove residues from the fabric surface.

10. White Vinegar and Sunshine

For cotton and linen fabrics, one of the most powerful combinations is white vinegar and sunshine. The UV rays activate the acetic acid in the vinegar to maximize its whitening potency.

Pick a sunny day and soak cottons or linens in a solution of 1 part white vinegar to 2 parts water for 1-2 hours. Transfer the soaked items outside and let dry completely in the sunshine. The sun’s bleaching effects paired with the vinegar should help lift away any yellow discoloration.

Whitening Laundry Detergent

Using a laundry detergent specially formulated to keep whites bright can also help combat yellowing over time. Look for detergents containing these types of whitening agents:

  • Synthetic bluing agents – These tint clothes with a slight blue tone to optically make them appear brighter and whiter. However, bluing agents can sometimes create a blue-green cast on fabric.
  • Optical brighteners – These special fluorescent dyes attach to clothes during washing to reflect more blue light, resulting in enhanced whiteness. They don’t remove stains.
  • Activated oxygen bleach – As discussed earlier, this is an effective whitening agent that releases hydrogen peroxide. It’s gentler than chlorine bleach.
  • Enzymes– Detergents with enzymes like protease break down proteins and organic compounds that can bond to and discolor fabric over time.

Some popular whitening detergents to try are Persil, OxiClean White Revive, and Vitral.

How to Prevent White Clothes From Yellowing

While it may not always be possible to prevent yellowing altogether, here are some laundry habits that can slow discoloration:

  • Wash whites separately from colors using bleach-free detergent.
  • Wash and dry whites inside out to protect the outer fabric from picking up stains.
  • Use lower temperature water washes when possible to avoid yellowing from heat.
  • Avoid overloading the washing machine, which can lead to insufficient cleaning.
  • Check that detergent is fully dissolved and rinsed from clothes.
  • Increase water temperature gradually if whites start to look dull. Avoid sudden extreme heat.
  • Remove clothes from the washer promptly after the cycle ends to prevent mildew growth.
  • Clean the washing machine regularly with white vinegar or bleach to kill bacteria that create graying and yellowing.
  • Air dry laundry in the shade when possible, rather than drying in harsh sunlight.
  • Use an anti-residue laundry spray to help stop oil and deodorant stains from setting on clothes between washes.

Whiten White Clothes Without Bleach – Your Action Plan

Here is a quick summary of the best tips for whitening yellowed white clothes without bleach:

  • Make a baking soda paste and apply directly to stained areas before washing.
  • Add lemon juice or white vinegar to the detergent dispenser for a brightening laundry boost.
  • Create whitening soaks using hydrogen peroxide, borax, or distilled vinegar.
  • Use oxygen bleach powder for a gentle bleaching wash cycle.
  • Rub cream of tartar paste onto stained areas for a pre-treatment.
  • Dry in the sun whenever possible to activate natural bleaching.

With some persistence, you can restore the original brightness of white clothes without harsh chlorine bleach. Always start with gentle methods first and increase strength as needed. With the arsenal of whitening agents available in your pantry, bringing back whites is easy and inexpensive.

Frequently Asked Questions About Whitening Yellowed White Clothes Without Bleach

Can I use apple cider vinegar instead to whiten clothes?

Yes, apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid similar to white vinegar so it can be used interchangeably in whitening methods. Opt for undistilled apple cider vinegar, which is cloudy, as it provides more cleaning power.

Does hydrogen peroxide damage clothes?

In the proper diluted concentration, hydrogen peroxide is generally safe for white clothes. However, stronger concentrations or overuse can degrade fabric, so always dilute to no more than 3-5% strength before use. Test first for colorfastness.

How long should I soak clothes in whitening solutions?

For a basic whitening soak, aim for 1-2 hours. For heavy stains or discoloration, extended soaks of 6-12 hours give the ingredients more time to work at lifting stains and yellow buildup from the fabric.

Can I use lemon juice in the washing machine as a rinse?

Yes, lemon juice makes an effective brightening rinse in the washing machine. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of lemon juice to the fabric softener dispenser during the final rinse cycle. The heat activates the citric acid.

Why do my white clothes get yellow stains in the armpits?

Yellowing in the underarms of white shirts is caused by a reaction between sweat, body oils, and aluminum in deodorants/antiperspirants. Try swapping to an aluminum-free deodorant and pretreating stains with lemon juice or vinegar before washing.

What temperature should I wash white fabrics?

To avoid yellowing over time, use cool or warm water washes when possible. However, very hot water is more effective at removing existing stains and discoloration through increased chemical reactions. Avoid sudden extreme temperature jumps.

Can I add baking soda and vinegar together in the wash?

It’s best not to add baking soda and vinegar simultaneously since they neutralize each other. The laundry boost comes from their individual cleaning properties. Add either one alone to your detergent.

Why do my white sheets turn yellow?

Body oils, sweat, and dead skin cells naturally deposit onto sheets over time. The linens also rub against deodorants and any skin beauty products applied before bed. This causes a gradual yellow discoloration, especially if not washed frequently.

What laundry detergent is best for white clothes?

Look for a laundry detergent specifically formulated for whitening. Good options contain oxygen bleach, optical brighteners, enzymes, and synthetic bluing agents. Persil, OxiClean, and Vitral are examples of popular whitening detergents.


Yellowing need not be a fact of life for white clothes and linens. While chlorine bleach provides the most dramatic results, the fabric-safe methods in this guide can restore brightness without damage.

Remember to treat stains promptly before they set and become more difficult to remove. With the regular use of natural whiteners like lemon, vinegar, and baking soda, you can keep your whites looking like new for longer.