Sun Bleaching Really, Really Works

Line drying in the sun is a time honored means of brightening whites. But I had never guessed how effective it can be.

I have a pair of white bath towels which developed mysterious, spreading yellow stains all over them, stains which I could not remove no matter what I tried (Borax, oxygen bleaches, stain removers), and which I may have actually worsened by a final, desperate flirtation with chlorine bleach a few years ago.

The towels were in good condition otherwise, but I wouldn’t hang them in the bathroom because– seriously–they made us look incontinent. I downgraded them to “slop towel” status, and didn’t think about them much again, until lately, when I was considering getting rid of them, to save room. But how to do that? I have too many rags, Goodwill wouldn’t want them, and throwing them in a landfill would be beyond the pale. I pondered composting them as an experiment, but figured they’d need to be shredded.

Finally, I decided to hang them off the side of our porch for a couple weeks (in good weather, of course!), just to see what happened. Day and night, I just left them there. Turned them whenever I thought about it, then forgot about them entirely.

Today I pulled them off the porch, and they look a whole lot better. I’m shocked they’re not counter-stained by diesel particulate. There are a few intractable stains from their days as slop towels, but 95% of that nasty yellow splotching is gone. They will be rotated back into bathroom use.

Mr. Sun, I’m impressed.

Max Liebermann, The Bleaching Ground, 1882, Wallraff-Richartz Museum

Sun was once the primary way women used to keep their whites white–urine and lye were other less pleasant alternatives, as well applying bluing to counteract yellow. All of these may have been combined with sun exposure. Villages had designated, communal areas for spreading out laundry. Do an image search for “bleaching ground” and you’ll find lots of old paintings on the subject. Linen manufacturers also used to bleach linen in the sun, so you might find pics of huge operations as well as ordinary laundresses.

• Some nice factoids on old fashioned laundry techniques can be found here, at Old and Interesting.

• I’ve read that to rid yourself of perspiration stains on white shirts you can mix lemon juice and water–maybe at a 50/50 ratio? Soak perspiration stains in that and then lay shirts out in the sun to bleach. I’ve not tried that myself, since Erik and I have totally given up on wearing white.

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20 Comments

  1. When it comes time to get rid of them or any other towels, please consider donating them to the local dog/cat rescue. They use them for bedding.

    The sun is a marvel. I’ve left some musty things outside and between the fresh air and sun, they became fresh smelling again!

  2. When you want to get rid of old towels, instead of composting or landfilling them please consider donating them to an animal hospital or your local shelter. We can always use towels, and we don’t mind if they’re stained!

  3. I actually keep my folding clothesline out of the sun here in the desert southwest because I *don’t* want the sun to bleach the color out of our clothes, but when my daughter was in cloth diapers, I had an extra clothesline in a sunny spot just for diapers. I hear sunlight also kills mold and bacteria, so it’s good for drying diapers to kill bacteria that causes rashes.

  4. The sun works well for “bleaching” whites. I had rust stains on kitchen towels that nothing would remove, then remembered my Grandma’s remedy. I spread the towels out flat on the concrete in the sun and poured full strength lemon juice over the rust stains, enough to saturate the stained area, you could see the rust fading before your eyes. After being in the sun for about 20 minuets they had dried completely rust free.

  5. Ah! Animal shelters. I’ll remember that.

    Fer: I don’t know if it can remove chocolate, which is a heavy duty protein stain, but it might remove spots which has been left behind after the battle with the stain. I know that soaking the various oxygen (peroxide) bleaches, like the one by ecover, does a good job with blood stains. I think washing soda is good with protein stains, too.

    Craig @ Winnetka: Yes! Lemon juice is the classic antidote to rust. Grandma knows best.

  6. This is interesting because I am reading a historical biography right now – A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The subject of the biography is a diarist in late 18th century Maine. In her diary, she keeps mentioning that she bleaches linen by the mill pond. I was curious about it – I had no idea that there was so much information about “bleaching grounds” out there! Coolness! (Plus, I have a line, and I use it to dry cloth diapers, so I am VERY familiar with the bleaching powers of the sun. They are not nearly as white in the winter.)

  7. Interesting and a great solution for your climate. BTW, I enjoyed your use of the expression “beyond the pale.”

  8. I can’t hang anything out here. The ants are just horrible. They are just black ants but they make a complete line down my clothesline. And then there is the smell, people are always burning something here, the winter is the worst when the woodstove are going but the summer seems to be just as bad, someone is always burning trash or brush.

  9. I learned this year about the growing, preparation, spinning, and weaving of flax into linen. What surprised me is how brown the original spun fibers are. The Egyptians turned it that pure white seen in paintings by keeping the cloth damp and spreading it in the sun for a few weeks. It’s nice to know that works for cotton as well.

  10. I had old doll clothes I made, never used by stained by water leak and musty. A few days in the sun worked miracles on the stains and musty odor. Even a wash with vinegar did not remove the odor, but the days in the sun followed the washing. Since I have hens all over the yard, I discarded the idea of laying anything on the green grass. Either I would lay it in poop or they would worry the cloth to death and they scratched and pecked at it. I can see the value in dedicated ground.

  11. I’ve been told by folks who work in Textiles & Apparel Management that many of the items that are donated to Goodwill and other places like that are further donated to textile recycling organizations. Apparently it’s a normal part of their process of sifting through which items should be sold and which should be recycled.

    The TAM folks said to donate any and all fabrics to Goodwill or others, and they would make sure the fabrics found a good home.

  12. When I was 16 I spent a month hiking in Zimbabwe at the height of summer. The combination of heat, humidity and the particularly rank chemical sweat that is a side-effect of the anti-malarial drugs we were all on did gross things to my clothes. I had one white shirt that had turned a particularly repellent shade of yellow. I did my best to wash it out in sinks, to no avail, then hung it up on a line base-camp hostel and forgot about it before setting off for a week up the mountains. On return from the mountains, a week of ferocious rain & equally ferocious sun had turned it back to a pure snowy white- not a hint of the manky staining was left. It was accidental, but I was very pleased. Have never underestimated the bleaching power of the sun since.

  13. What I love best about sun drying my clothes is that it means I don’t have to use a detergent with any kind of whitening agent in order to keep my clothes from getting dull looking. Just some soap nut tea and a splash of vinegar works fine. Also turn my cashmere sweaters inside out and hang in the sun for a day instead of dry cleaning.

  14. If you spray a stained garment with white vinegar before leaving it out in the sun, the stain will bleach out faster. I found that a few hours outside (even on cloudy days) did wonders for my son’s stained onesies. Add lemon juice to the mix if the stain is a bit stubborn.

  15. Fantastic tips! We likewise have a pile of disgusting looking towels that are otherwise thick and useful. Tried everything (except sun, which really is in short supply in the winter in the NW). Defeated, I went and bought boring beige towels. But will try this on the formerly-white ones before they go to an animal shelter.

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