Bath sheets a little off colour? Here’s how to get towels white again 

Experts share why your white towels have turned yellow or grey, and the best quick fixes.

If we’re talking towel goals, a crisp and fluffy white towel that smells of roses is surely everyone’s ultimate aim? But even the best towels have the potential to turn the colour of day-old bath water, leaving you to wonder what’s gone wrong. 

As Jessica Hanley, Founder of Piglet in Ped, says:There’s nothing worse than white towels losing their sparkle.” But, thankfully, there are some ways to restore them to their former glory. We quizzed industry experts to learn their secrets on how to keep towels their brightest white, and how to get towels white again should the worst happen.

The White Company towels on stool and draped over bathCredit: The White Company

Why are my towels turning yellow?

There are a few causes

There are a few different reasons why towels get discoloured, and why white towels in particular turn that less-than-delightful yellow colour. 

Henry Paterson, a cleaning expert at Housekeep, shares three common causes of yellowing towels: 

  • sweat and body oils 
  • residual skincare products 
  • bleeding colours in the wash

There are two main ways to restore the whiteness in your towels: one is using a non-chlorine (oxygen) bleach and the other is to try an allnatural method using baking soda, white vinegar or even lemon juice (but not together).

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1. How to get towels white with oxygen bleach

It can be used as a pre-treatment and in your wash

senior woman loading washing machine at homeCredit: Alpa Prod/Shutterstock

“Oxygen bleach and other shop-bought laundry whitening products can restore white towels,” advises Paterson. “Oxygen bleach is a powdered product (sodium percarbonate) that can be used to remove stains and disinfect. It’s considered gentler and eco-friendlier than chlorine bleaches. Plus, it’s biodegradable,” he adds.  

Oxygen bleach seems more popular in the US, with good reviews for the likes of Nellie’s Oxygen Brightener, although there are a few different oxygen bleach products on the UK market, including an Ecover Laundry Bleach, £1.44, Amazon. Patterson shares a couple of his favourite products: “You can pick up a few laundry product versions of it. I’ve had good experiences with Sodasan Oxygen Bleach, £9.04, Amazon and M&S Laundry Bleach Powder, which contains oxygenbased bleaching agents.”  

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When it comes to using the product, methods can vary across brands. Paterson notes: “It is best to purchase oxygen bleach as a cleaning or laundry product as it’ll provide specific instructions – but usually it just needs to be added directly to the drum and/or drawer of the washing machine.

“You can also use it as a pre-soak. It’s an ingredient in lots of other removal products like Vanish Oxi Action – and if you have one of those to hand, they’ll normally do the trick just fine.”

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How much should I use?

Always read the instructions for the oxygen bleach you have purchased as the quantities needed will depend on the brand’s own formulation. Sodasan’s oxygen bleach, for example, needs 35g per washing machine load in the detergent drawer, whereas Ecover recommends 15g per 4-5kg load for brilliant whites, and for soaking.

For washing, M&S says to use one full scoop (30g) alongside your regular detergent, in the washing machine drawer. It recommends two scoops for heavily soiled garments. 

Similarly, Peace With The Wild recommends adding 25g to the drawer of the washing machine alongside your regular detergent.  

To pre-treat tricky stains, M&S says to dilute 10g of the product in one litre of water and to apply this directly onto the stain, letting it sit for a few moments before washing as normal. It highlights that you might need to repeat the process. Peace With The Wild also recommends mixing a little of the product with some water to form a paste to rub into the stain and then wash as normal.

You shouldn’t use oxygen bleach on wool or silk fabrics and we would recommend wearing washing-up gloves when using it. Keep it out of reach of children, avoid skin and eye contact and always follow the laundry care label.  

2. Add lemon juice or white vinegar to your wash for whiter towels

But not both at once!

Eco friendly tools and ingredients for DIY house cleaning. White vinegar, baking soda, mustard seeds, lemon, solid natural soap, aroma oil and luffa sponge on the kitchen white tableCredit: Andriana Syvanych/Shutterstock

Both Hanley and Paterson recommend some natural methods for getting towels white again such as adding lemon juice, white vinegar or baking soda to your wash. Mixing cleaning products is never advised and the same goes for these natural cleaning agents.

“You can try washing the towels with some baking soda or white vinegar directly in the drum – but not together,” says Paterson.   

“Before loading your towels, add a ½ cup of lemon juice or white vinegar directly into the drum, followed by a small amount of detergent (my current favourite is Smol),” says Hanley. “The acids will help break down soapy residue.” Smol laundry detergent tablets are eco-friendly, cruelty-free and come in plastic-free packaging.  

Paterson similarly recommends using 200ml of white vinegar directly in the drum with your towels.  

3. Whiten towels with baking soda

It will make your white towels brighter

“Baking soda is another great natural detergent as it acts as a brightener and helps to deodorise fabrics, too,” adds Hanley. 

Paterson is also an advocate for white vinegar or baking soda, stressing how you should not use them together. No one wants to recreate the volcano school experiment after all. “Vinegar and baking soda together will cause a reaction, froth up and release gases. This is helpful for some cleaning tasks, but not in this context,” he says.

Paterson recommends adding 200 ml of white vinegar or 100g of baking soda directly in the drum with your towels.”

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How can you stop white towels going yellow in the first place? 

There are lots of ways to prevent discolouration

If you’ve restored your towels to their former glory, bravo. And to keep them that way? Here’s what to do:

Towel draped over blue rolltop bathCredit: The White Company

1. Keep them away from yellowing products

According to Emily Attwood of Scooms, skincare products containing ingredients like benzoyl can lead to towel discolouration so avoid putting these on and then using white towels.

2. Wash white towels separately

It is advised to wash towels separately to the rest of your laundry, for hygiene reasons. Furthermore, Paterson says washing white towels separately from coloured towels can help stop them turning yellow. Washing similar colours and fabrics together will give you best success when doing laundry.

3. Use mild and bleach-free detergent

As tempting as it might be to use regular laundry bleach, Chrissie Rucker, owner and founder of The White Company, notes how a mild detergent with no added bleach is best for towels as bleach can cause the yellowing of fabrics, cotton in particular.

Similarly, Attwood shares that both bleach and optical brighteners in detergent and stain removers should be avoided since these can mark towels furthermore.

4. Follow the laundry and care instructions

Paterson reminds us to follow the care label. Some fabrics may not react well to particular detergents, which can cause discolouration, so make sure you know what you’re dealing with. 

5. Use good quality detergent, and the right amount

Just as you may want to go easy on the fabric softener when washing towels to stop them going stiff, you will not want to go overboard with the detergent either. And make sure you’re using a good quality product, too, Paterson advises Saga Exceptional. “Go easy on the detergent and fabric softeners,” he adds.

“These can leave residues which yellow towels (and lead to stiffness once they’re dry).”

6. Wash them regularly

Another tip from our experts is to stay on top of that laundry pile to catch potential stains and stop any yellowing in their tracks. Hanley tells us: “Wash your towels regularly to keep them fresh and prevent any stains from settling in.” 

7. Air dry them in the sun

Air drying towels is another good way to keep them soft. Plus, if it’s a sunny day, you’ve a better chance of keeping yours nice and bright, too, even in comparison to using the tumble dryer.  

“Opt for sun-drying white towels rather than the tumble-dryer as sunlight has natural bleaching properties to help keep your whites stay white,” says Hanley. 

When is it game over for a yellow towel?

Know when it’s literally time to throw in the towel

Happy yorkshire terrier dog after bathCredit: Kasefoto/Shutterstock

“If your towel has been dyed by other items of clothes or has been stained, it could be difficult to remove the yellowness,” says Paterson.

If stains and yellowing are not budging, you might need to replace your towels with a fresh set. Rather than throwing the discoloured towels away, consider demoting them to household rags to use for cleaning or to collect paint splashes when decorating. Alternatively, if they are still ticking the boxes for softness and absorbency, use them to line a dog bed or dry a soggy pup. 

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Camille Dubuis-Welch

Written by Camille Dubuis-Welch she/her

Updated:

Camille is a freelance writer based in north London with her cat and two friends. Cam has been in love with everything interior design and garden-related since before she can remember and is the former deputy editor of realhomes.com, where she got to collaborate with some very inspiring DIYers and focus on small-space improvements.