Fashion & Beauty

Keeping White Shirts White

From left to right, bright white shirts from Cos Stores, Ganni at Farfetch and Everlane.

HERE AT MyLittleBird, we’ve been talking about great white T-shirts for a while now.  And no doubt we’ll revisit the subject this spring. But in the meantime we’ve zeroed in on another staple —white button-downs. It so happens that this classic has also been on the radar of another site—Get in the Groove. And they brought up a good question: How do you care for these white sparklers so they stay that way?

We just hate it when our favorite white shirts start to yellow, go gray, get oily stains around the cuffs or perspiration stains around the collar. So, we asked the experts: Lorraine Muir from the textile testing and research services of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI) and Brian Sansoni, vice president of the American Cleaning Institute (ACI). Here are their tips on how to wash and dry your shirts and the dos and don’ts of bleach.


We Asked, They Answered

MLB: Should you wash your white cotton shirts rather than dry clean them? Why?

LM: White cotton shirts stay whiter when washed.  Cotton absorbs impurities and soils from other garments that are in the drycleaning load, and this can cause the white to dull.


MLB: Can you wash them with other white laundry or by themselves?

LM: They can be washed with other white clothes. It’s just not a good idea to wash white cotton shirts with towels because lint might transfer to the shirts.  Also, towels get washed and dried on higher temperatures than shirts.


MLB: How much detergent should you use and what temperature should you wash them at? Should you use a detergent with a whitening agent — any one you recommend?

LM: Use the amount of detergent recommended by the equipment manufacturer.  Most detergents have some sort of whitening agent in them.

BS: Just about any detergent will get your shirts clean. There are detergents available that have optical brighteners, which attach to fabrics to create a whitening or brightening effect when exposed to daylight. Follow the directions on the container for the proper amount of detergent and the directions on the garment for recommended water temperature to launder your shirt.


MLB: Should you use bleach, too?

LM: Optical brighteners used in most white fabrics can be destroyed by using bleach.

BS: This is where you really need to pay attention to the garment label to see if it’s safe to add bleach when laundering this item. This symbol guide can help you along.


MLB: Does lycra or any kind of stretch in a shirt affect the way it is cleaned? Does an all-cotton shirt come out in the wash better?

LM: Shrinkage is a big problem when cotton is blended with a stretch fiber.  The lower the heat  the better when it comes to washing and tumble drying.  It is difficult to achieve a smooth wrinkle-free finish in the stretch blends.


MLB:  My biggest problem with white shirts is that they get brown around the collar, neckline. How do you get those stains out?

LM: That stain around the collar is a combination of oils and perspiration, hair and skin solutions.  If you see discoloration before laundering, pretreat with a stain removal agent. If you notice a stain after  laundering, do not tumble dry as the heat will set the stain, making it more difficult to remove.  Mild bleaches, such as sodium perborate or hydrogen peroxide, may help remove stains on the collar but improper use of bleach can lead to dulling or yellowing and cause fabric degradation. A good white cotton shirt or blouse can benefit from professional care. The dry cleaner has solutions unavailable to the consumer that remove collar stains without damaging the color or fabric.

BS: ACI’s stain guide has some useful tips, including for attacking collar stains: 1. Pretreat with prewash stain remover, liquid laundry detergent or paste of powder detergent and water. 2. Let soak in. 3. Launder as normal.


MLB:  Finally, how should you dry them? Hang them rather than using the dryer?

LM: Dry on the lowest temperature possible or hang them to dry.  Heat can also damage the optical brightener in white fabric and cause dinginess or yellowing.

BS: It’s perfectly fine to line-dry the shirts. If you put them in the dryer, make sure you don’t over-dry them or use excessive heat. You don’t want that beautiful shirt to shrink!


Seven Shirt Picks


LEFT: LittleBird Nancy had this to say about Foxcroft’s Paityn Non-Iron Cotton Shirt: “I toss mine in the dryer. If I pull it out immediately after, it’s pretty wrinkle-free. And the finish is nicer than when it’s just hung to dry.” $49, Nordstrom. RIGHT: As advertised, Brooks Brothers’ Non Iron Tailored Fit Dress Shirt looks crisp and ready for action after a wash-dry cycle.  Two for $165, Brooks Brothers.


LEFT: This extra-long oxford Boyfriend Shirt pairs perfectly with skinny pants or jeans. I have the same style in linen, and it’s constantly in rotation. $175, Ann Mashburn. RIGHT: I’m a Theory fan. Yeah, I know it’s expensive, but the clothing lasts and the fit doesn’t ever fail. Compare it to Prada, and you’ve got a bargain. This Tenia Cotton Blend Blouse is $245 at Nordstrom.

Danish design brand Ganni tweaks the button-down style with its Scallop Trim Shirt. Verdict: Cute, whether worn tucked in or out. $136, Farfetch.

LEFT: For more of a flirty take on the classic, three-quarter sleeves, neckline and curved hemline add a femme touch to this Cos Stores’ Buttoned Blouse. $89. RIGHT: You can’t beat the price point or the feel and durability of the fabric on Everlane’s Relaxed Poplin Shirt. $55, Everlane.

—Janet Kelly


MyLittleBird often includes links to products we write about. Our editorial choices are made independently; nonetheless, a purchase made through such a link can sometimes result in MyLittleBird receiving a commission on the sale, whether through a retailer, an online store or

One thought on “Keeping White Shirts White

  1. Ann M says:

    So interesting. I have a new white blouse with a bit of stretch that I wore just a few times last winter. Washed it by hand in a basin with cool water and mild detergent, hung to dry, then pressed for a crisp look. Pulled it out to wear recently and it’s no longer bright white. I suspect the heat of an iron can do the same as tossing it in the dryer.

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