Why can't we use bleach on white cotton?
February 3, 2005 5:11 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I threw away all our multi-colored towels and replaced them with white ones. We did this so that we could throw them in the wash with some bleach and get them really really clean. The new towels are 100% cotton. When we looked at the tags, we were surprised to see a "DO NOT USE BLEACH" warning. Why can't we use bleach? That's the whole reason we bought them. I've never heard of that warning before on white cotton items. If it makes any difference, they come from The Company Store.
posted by grumblebee to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
According to the law, they're supposed to have a good basis for putting something like that on the label. Obviously, you should contact the company directly... but if they don't respond, you can always complain to the FTC and see if they'll help you.
posted by ph00dz at 5:25 AM on February 3, 2005

Heloise says (in a response about bleaching colored towels):

"Read the care label before you do anything. If it says No Chlorine Bleach, don't use it! (Even some white towels have a finish that should not be bleached.) ...and overbleaching with any kind of bleach may weaken the fibers and make towels less absorbent."
posted by FreezBoy at 5:27 AM on February 3, 2005

Bleach also tends to yellow white fabrics if used repeatedly.
posted by duck at 5:36 AM on February 3, 2005

Alternatively, the company may have had only one towel label made, and attaches the same label to all their towels.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:01 AM on February 3, 2005

(Even some white towels have a finish that should not be bleached.)

Does this bother anyone else? It's a towel, not an end table.
posted by LunaticFringe at 6:12 AM on February 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

I was thinking exactly the same thing - one label for all towels. I did the same thing, grumblebee, but for different reasons. I was sick of wasting time looking for the two blue towels that matched, or the 4 flowered towels in a set. I cut all of my towels up into strips to use for rags, and went out and bought about 16 really good white towels. Now every towel matches every other towel - love it!

I just looked on my towels and they also say not to bleach them, but I've been cloroxing them for months and they still look great. I understand that bleach eats material and eventually erodes the fabric, but I'd rather have white towels for 2 years than dingy towels for 5. I say try bleaching them and see what happens. Just don't use more than the recommended amount, because it yellows the fabric.
posted by iconomy at 6:22 AM on February 3, 2005

I'm not sure about the bleach thing, and I'm also not sure if your concern is with brightness or with the anti-microbial action of the bleach, but Oxyclean like products work great to keep whites white. They also don't eat up the fabric, so when you have to you can soak whatever you are cleaning in the Oxy stuff before washing.

Hot water and detergent does a great anti-microbial job anyway.
posted by OmieWise at 6:32 AM on February 3, 2005

You could always use a non-chlorine bleach, like a peroxide bleach like OxiClean. My mother gave us a raft of white towels as a wedding present, for the same bleachable reasons, and I think they (and our millions of white socks) get cleaner in peroxide than they do with Clorox. I don't worry much about a good long soak in OxiClean if necessary, where I think the elastic in our socks would be shot pretty fast with real bleach.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:33 AM on February 3, 2005

Hey Grumblebee, go with oxygen bleach! It works, and is easier on the environment. I never noticed any such thing, but I stick with front-loading, self-heating washing machines, with which liquid bleach is a real pain. Oxygen bleach + 95c water = WHITE!
posted by Goofyy at 6:37 AM on February 3, 2005

People really underestimate the strength, power, and toxicity of bleach. It destroys fabric -- after all, it is a corrosive. Prolonged use of bleach will cause whites to yellow and get threadbare.

I'm not one of those extremists who clean with only baking soda and vinegar, but people treat bleach much more casually than it deserves to be treated based on its chemical power. We don't go slinging lye or hydrochloric acid around - why bleach? Having suffered bleach burns in the past, I use the stuff sparingly.

Why not try the solution that worked for our grandmothers -- laundry bluing? It really does make whites super-bright.
posted by Miko at 6:50 AM on February 3, 2005

Oops- bluing.
posted by Miko at 6:51 AM on February 3, 2005

Thanks for that link, Miko - I've always wanted to try bluing.
posted by iconomy at 7:28 AM on February 3, 2005

Contarary to the advice above, chlorine bleach is you best environmental choice, it breaks down into harmless components very quickly once into the sewers.

In terms of cost and effectiveness, a dilute chlorine solution will be the best option. For a load of white towels, a couple tablespoons will be more than sufficient.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:08 AM on February 3, 2005

Oxygen-based bleaches are WAY more environmentally friendly. They're non-toxic (although I wouldn't sit and eat a tub of it) and I'm pretty sure completely biodegradable.

OxyClean is da bomb.
posted by mkultra at 8:29 AM on February 3, 2005

Contarary to the advice above, chlorine bleach is you best environmental choice, it breaks down into harmless components very quickly once into the sewers.

This is certainly not my area of expertise, but that is not the impression I had -- what about the dioxin byproducts, for example?
posted by redfoxtail at 8:33 AM on February 3, 2005

I have this argumentdiscussion with my boyfriend on occasion because he's addicted to bleaching his whites, and I dislike the practice. I dislike the smell more than anything, but I get him not to bleach the towels by claiming that it irritates my skin (I have had allergic reactions to cheap detergent, so I have a plausible excuse there). But I like the white towels to be white, too, so I will use bleach every tenth (or whatever) washing and then run the towels through another full wash cycle without any detergent or bleach to get rid of the awful smell. They stay nice and white that way, and I don't have to live with my towels smelling like bleach.

I wouldn't especially worry about occasionally bleaching a towel that says not to bleach it. No one's going to put you in jail, and I don't know that I like the idea of them putting some sort of surface treatment on my towels, anyway. In any case, bleach is not nearly as bad for absorbency as fabric softener is.
posted by anapestic at 8:53 AM on February 3, 2005

alternately, just add plain hydrogen peroxide in with your regular detergent. that's what we do. cheap, biodegradable, and it works (on colors too...)
posted by dorian at 9:11 AM on February 3, 2005

I had no idea that chlorine bleach can actually yellow white towels. Thanks duck and Miko for the info. Years ago I bought a bunch of white towels for the same reasons as grumblebee. Within months of regular (over?)bleaching they'd yellowed, completely defeating the whole idea. Now I have black towels. They've faded a lot but that isn't as apparant as whites that have gone dingy.
posted by TimeFactor at 9:19 AM on February 3, 2005

don't know that I like the idea of them putting some sort of surface treatment on my towels, anyway

It's a bummer, but almost every fabric we use has been treated: with dyes, with sizing, with color fasteners, with softeners, etc. Fabric mills were historically one of the most polluting industries in the US. Now that most fabrics are made overseas, we don't deal with the environmental fallout ourselves, but it's still there.

Contarary to the advice above, chlorine bleach is you best environmental choice

I'm not able right now to examine the truth of this, but I wasn't objecting to bleach on environmental grounds. My cautions are just that it's very, very strong, causes skin burns and eye and lung irritation, is one of the household toxins that most commonly injures children, and that it just ruins fabrics over time.
posted by Miko at 9:23 AM on February 3, 2005

Just a note that the Company Store is really into their products, and I imagine a call to them would get all the info you need. I returned something to them recently (ordered too many pillowcases) and they called me all solicitous, wondering if they could give me a discount to bring me back as a customer.
posted by GaelFC at 10:29 AM on February 3, 2005

Use Borax. They'll be so white you'll need sunglasses to put 'em in the dryer.
posted by spilon at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2005

We've used the same collection of decent towels from The Bay for *counts on fingers* 15 years. They've been washed weekly in hot water, no bleach, and the red ones are still a very bright red, still pretty plush, while the green ones have faded noticeably and look a bit sad. We're finally replacing the green ones this year (we're moving to a house with a blue colour scheme, plus, as I said, the green ones are showing their age) but hell, we're keeping the red ones for another few years.

We haven't used bleach for years. We've got Grime-Eater for fresh and dried stains (works beautifully on all kinds of stains, even on coloured fabric), but otherwise it's cold water and detergent for darks, hot water and detergent for whites, underwear, towels, and our coloured percale sheets. They're all lasting pretty nicely.
posted by maudlin at 11:44 AM on February 3, 2005

Washing towels with detergent gets them clean. If you would like to be environmentally gentle, using white towels and bleach is not a great idea. Bleach is toxic, and you have to replace the towels much faster.

I use solid colors and stick to a limited mix of colors so there's no worry about things matching, though I don't actually care if my towels match. If you want your whites a little whiter with no bleach, sunshine works really well. 5 minutes in the dryer gets rid of the stiffness, but they still smell like fresh air.
posted by theora55 at 12:13 PM on February 3, 2005

Chlorine bleach breaks down very quickly into salt water. Sodium hypchlorite is NaOCl, which gives up its oxygen readily (which is why it's a powerful bleach) leaving NaCl, table salt. Chlorine bleach can produce extremely small quantities of halogenated hydrocarbons but in infintesimally small amouts compared to natural process (there's quite a bit of chlorine in the ocean). It is very poisonous and corrosive right out of the bottle (although you can drink water with a little bleach added to it as a disinfectant. I've done it many times) and that may be reason enough for you not to use it. I don't think enviromental concerns should be though.
posted by TimeFactor at 2:42 PM on February 3, 2005

throw a new pair of blue jeans in with your whites. It works just like bluing, in that blue negates yellow (its a color wheel thang)
posted by Fupped Duck at 3:29 PM on February 3, 2005

Fupped Duck,

Have you ever tried that? It sounds like you're making that up, and with my long history of laundry mishaps, I've never had new pairs of blue jeans make the accidentally co-washed socks whiter.

Besides blue and yellow make green on the color-wheel.

But I have no idea how bluing works, so maybe my skepticism is misplaced.
posted by dness2 at 4:52 PM on February 3, 2005

Bluing is easy. I do it with every white wash -- even items not completely white. You have use it like bleach; don't pour it in raw, which risks staining the clothes -- just dilute it with water and throw it in the wash. You need so little of it to do the job that the bottle of Mrs. Stewart's I bought early last year is still half-full. (Also, unlike bleach, you can take a mistake back. I once over-blued a wash so that everything was light blue, so I simply washed it again, and everything returned to bright white.)

Bleach is destructive to fibers, and oxygen cleaners are spendy and don't get stuff white when you do cold water washing, which is easier on shrink-happy materials. Give it a whirl; it's really not hard to do.
posted by melissa may at 5:43 PM on February 3, 2005

Can I just be picky and mention that you're talking about things getting "really really clean" by basically replacing the "dirt" (since you use towels to dry you off after you're clean) with toxic chemicals? Then, in the process of using the towel again, you're wetting it and passing the chemical residue onto your body?

Ok, maybe the appearance of dirt is more hazadous to your state of mind, but really, if you wash them, they're clean. If you're still concerned, buy a reasonably dark towel (I wanted black but ended up with gray).
posted by scazza at 8:51 PM on February 3, 2005

Bleach also tends to yellow white fabrics if used repeatedly.

WHAT?!? All these years on planet Earth and no one told me about this until NOW? All along I've been thinking I didn't use ENOUGH bleach! @$%&%*%^!
Civilization owes me some towels and t-shirts.

This has been a very informative thread. Thank you all.
posted by Tubes at 10:31 PM on February 3, 2005

Bluing is florescent dye. The whites get "white than white" because they floresce. Hold a bottle of bluing up to a black light, and go 'Oooo!'.

This is not to say its not useful! But it also is why bluing is not just for whites. It helps enliven all the colors.

Fupped Duck is fupped kup. Jeans indeed. Do you own stock in the white towel company?
posted by Goofyy at 3:03 AM on February 4, 2005

You might want to hold your brain for this one Tubes: Too much detergent will leave a residue that will turn your whites grey/dingy. Bleaching won't help.
posted by Mitheral at 1:17 PM on February 4, 2005

Can I just be picky and mention that you're talking about things getting "really really clean"

Only if I can be picky and clarify that we're actually talking about getting things really really white.
posted by Miko at 11:16 AM on February 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

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