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How to Whiten Sheets

Written by Brad Nehring

How to Whiten Sheets

White sheets have a classic look that will complement any bedroom decor. However, keeping your bedding clean and pristine can be a challenge, especially after you’ve used the items for a year or longer. White sheets and pillowcases gradually turn yellow over time as the fabric is exposed to your body oil and sweat. Lotions and cosmetics can also alter the color to a noticeable degree. In this guide, we’ll share some helpful tips for cleaning and whitening white bedding items.

Tip #1: Always Wash Bedding in Hot Water

The water in most modern washing machines can reach a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius). This setting is recommended for sheets and pillowcases because the water is hot enough to kill dust mites and other allergens. Hot water can cause bedding items to shrink if they are made of cotton or other natural fibers, and the temperature can cause the material to wear out more quickly. However, hot washer settings are essential for keeping these items fresh and hygienic.

Tip #2: Use Baking Soda and Vinegar

Many rely on chlorine bleach to brighten their sheets (more on that later), but there are actually more effective ways to keep your sheets looking white and fresh. One common method involves adding about half a cup of baking soda to your laundry detergent before each load. Baking soda strengthens the detergent and also helps control and eliminate odor.

You can also add white vinegar, which has natural whitening capabilities. About half a cup at the beginning of the cycle should do the trick. Vinegar is also an effective fabric softener. Alternatively, you can soak the sheets and pillowcases in vinegar and warm water prior to placing them in your washing machine. In either case, the vinegar smell will wash out, leaving the items smelling fresh. Use baking soda and white vinegar together for maximum whitening.

Tip #3: Try Lemon Juice

Like vinegar and baking soda, lemon juice has whitening and odor controlling properties that make it very effective for cleaning sheets and pillowcases. One to two cups of lemon juice is recommended for best results. You can either pour the lemon juice directly in your washing machine at the beginning of the cycle or soak your linens overnight in hot water with half a cup of lemon juice.

Tip #4: Take Caution with Bleach

Chlorine bleach is an inexpensive option for whitening sheets and pillowcases, but it is not particularly effective. If the bedding items have traces of body oil on them, the chlorine may react with these substances and cause yellow stains to appear. For best results with bleach, we recommend first washing the items without bleach to wash away the oil, sweat, and other contaminants. If the sheets and pillowcases still need whitening, then you can clean them a second time using bleach.

A good alternative to bleach is borax, or sodium borate, a powder detergent you can use to pre-soak sheets and bedding items prior to washing in a machine. The borax won’t react with body oils and sweat like chlorine will, but its whitening ability is comparable to that of bleach.

Tip #5: Wash Regularly

Maintaining pristine white sheets and pillowcases is a balancing act. You want to clean these items regularly in order to keep them fresh, but washing them too frequently will lead to increased wear and tear as the materials break down. We recommend washing your white sheets at least once per week. You may want to purchase multiple sheet sets, which allows you to swap out sheets and pillowcases easily when laundry day arrives.

Tip #6: Line Dry Sheets

Rather than tumble-drying your sheets and pillowcases in a machine, we recommend letting them dry on a clothesline if this option is available to you. One to two hours under the open sun can whiten and freshen bedding items as well – if not more effectively – than a household dryer. Just make sure each sheet and pillowcase is securely fastened to the line; otherwise the items can blow away and you’ll need to start the process all over again. Also, take down the items after a couple of hours to avoid sun and heat damage.

Additional Tips

In addition to the steps listed above, these suggestions can help you maintain fresh white sheets for years.

  • No Eating in Bed: Food stains can be hard to clean out of white sheets. Spills can also permanently damage your mattress.
  • Wash Bedding with Other White Items: Even items with neutral shades and lighter hues can bleed their colors onto white bedding in the laundry, which in turn can permanently discolor your sheets and pillowcases.
  • Get into Bed Clean: A shower before bed can wash off body oil and perspiration, two leading causes of yellowing in white sheets. This may be overkill for some, but at the very least you should wash your face – especially if you use moisturizer, face cream, or cosmetics.
  • Replace Sheets Every Week: Even the most durable bedding items need a break, so be sure to swap them out regularly to preserve their structure and minimize wear and tear.
  • Retire Sheets as Needed: The average sheet set will need to be replaced after two to three years of regular use. In addition to yellowing, sheets and pillowcases often show their age through pilling, little balls of fluff that appear on the surface of the fabric and make it feel uneven. Tears and rips are also common as bedding items near the end of their lifespan.