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What is Laundry Stripping and How Does It Work?

Deep-clean your laundry with a tried-and-true treatment that deep cleans by removing dirt and residue trapped within your clothes, towels, and bedding. Read this guide to learn more about laundry stripping and how to do it safely and effectively.

Freshly cleaned sheets hanging outside to dry. iStock

Here’s a dirty little secret: Despite your best washday efforts, some of your clothes and linens may not be as clean as they could be. Indeed, the way you wash can contribute to this less-than-fresh condition.

That’s where laundry stripping might help. An old-school practice that’s gotten renewed attention lately, laundry stripping refers to a soaking treatment that can banish hidden gunk and grime that regular machine washing may not rinse out entirely. Stripping isn’t appropriate for all fabrics, nor should you be overly gung-ho about doing it.

Read on to learn the pros and cons of the process, plus a formula for safely bringing a brighter, cleaner, better-feeling quality to your sheets, towels, and garments.

The Lowdown on Laundry Stripping

Call it a cleaning Catch-22. While today’s quality detergents are effective at removing most dirt and stains, liquid laundry products can leave residue behind—to which soils and oils can tenaciously cling. Laundry stripping works to get rid of this buildup via very hot water and a combination of three ingredients:

  • laundry soda (sodium carbonate), which softens water to help lift oils, soils, and residue
  • borax washing soda (a borate-mineral concentrate), which functions as a bleaching agent to brighten
  • powdered detergent, which cleans without depositing the residue that liquid products can

It’s pretty powerful stuff! No wonder images of dark, murky water from stripped laundry had their social media moment—folks were horrified that newly washed clothes would release so much icky-looking muck. But hold on, that doesn’t mean you should start stripping all your washables as part of your regular routine.

What Clothes are Safe to Strip?

Stripping isn’t recommended for everything in your laundry hamper. The ideal candidates are sheets and towels—items more prone to harboring product residue because their big, bulky size makes them less likely to rinse completely. If cotton or cotton-blend bed and bath linens have started to look dingy, feel a bit sticky, or smell slightly off, they may benefit from the process. Towels that have lost their absorbency may even bounce back after stripping.

Other everyday fabrics can be damaged if stripped, however. Obviously, anything that requires a cold-water wash is a no-no. Wool is out, too, since lanolin—a natural waxy substance that helps maintain the fiber—would be removed by the treatment.

Synthetics used for athletic wear, particularly spandex, will likely lose elasticity and shine if stripped (sorry, stinky workout gear!). It’s also important to avoid stripping dark colors, as well, as the process can fade them.

Also be advised that borax, though “natural,” is considered a low toxicity material by the National Institutes for Health that can irritate skin and eyes, and be harmful if swallowed. It should be used with caution, as you would any other chemical substance. Not to mention that buying extra cleaning products can get pricey, and storing them a challenge.

But if you chose to invest in stripping substances, what can you use them on beyond those sheets and towels? Rugged items that get a lot of use and are washed often (but may not rinse clean) ought to stand up to the treatment. Think: a hard-working canvas tote, the faded jeans you wear while gardening, even those tighty-whities. As a general rule, err on the side of caution and if in doubt, skip the strip!

How to Strip Laundry Successfully

Should your light-colored items begin to turn dingy, funky, or tacky, giving them the strip a few times a year could restore their clean, bright look, smell, and feel. Try the method below to strip a 12- to 15-pound load of already-clean laundry (items may be wet or dry).

  1. Assemble supplies. Use a ratio of one part borax, one part washing soda, and two parts powdered laundry detergent. For an average-sized load, ¼ cup borax, ¼ cup washing soda, and ½ cup detergent will suffice. Wearing rubber gloves and long sleeves is important to keep chemicals off your skin, and use a long-handled spoon for stirring to steer clear of any splashing.
  2. Choose a vessel. The benefit of stripping in a sink or bathtub is that the water source is right there at the tap. The upside of stripping in a washtub or extra-large bucket is that the vessel can be set up near your laundry appliances for more convenient rinsing and drying. The ultimate convenience may be to strip in a top-loading washing machine, but your appliance manufacturer (Maytag, for one) may not recommend this.
  3. Add scalding water. Fill the vessel about halfway with very hot water and add the ingredients, stirring well until fully dissolved.
  4. Start stripping. Immediately submerge laundry using the spoon and stir again. Let the items sit for approximately four hours, stirring occasionally. The water may have darkened considerably.
  5. Rinse thoroughly. Remove stripped items from the bucket or washtub into the washing machine and run a rinse-only cycle. If stripping in a sink or bathtub and it’s challenging to move the load to your machine, drain the dirty water and rinse items by hand until the water runs clear. Then squeeze and wring well to remove as much water as possible.
  6. Dry as usual. Hang stripped laundry to air dry or transfer to the dryer as you normally would. Thoroughly rinse the drained stripping vessel with ample hot water.

Tips to Avoid Laundry-Stripping in the Future

Remember that laundry stripping isn’t essential—and with some know-how, you may never need to do it again. Remember that detergent and fabric softener residue is the prime culprit here, so if you follow a few basic rules, product buildup shouldn’t be a problem:

  • Choose laundry supplies with a simple ingredients list. The more fragrances, boosters, and other additives, the more the likelihood of residue. Also, avoid low-quality and homemade detergents, which tend not to clean or rinse very well.
  • Measure products carefully to use the least recommended amount of detergent and softener. If adding product manually, put softener in the final rinse cycle; tossing products in together at the beginning of a wash can create the kind of stubborn sludge that stays in fibers. Or consider forgoing fabric softener entirely!
  • Avoid overcrowding the machine. Doing so can prevent items from rinsing thoroughly.
  • Consider adding an additional final rinse cycle if you must wash extra-large loads.
  • Keep your machine clean! Laundry products can cling to the drum of the washer and be re-deposited on clothing. Since cleaning the appliance is easy, doing so every month or so can make laundry stripping a non-issue.