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Life Skill #67: How to bleach clothes

By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers

3:37 PM EDT, April 2, 2013

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Chlorine bleach is easy to use, but mistakes can be fatal to your favorite clothes. So we asked Linda Cobb, author of "Talking Dirty With the Queen of Clean" (Pocket Books), to tell us everything we need to know about making our whites whiter and keeping our reds red.

Degree of difficulty: Medium: If you're a responsible adult who can follow the directions to Monopoly, you can do this.

First, be careful: People don't take chlorine bleach seriously, and they should, Cobb says. It's a hazardous chemical compound, and you need to keep it out of your eyes and away from your skin. (For motivation, read that imposing caution label on the bottle, and take it to heart.) You don't want to overuse this stuff; it will break down your fabrics. You should follow the directions and read all garment care labels. Never use bleach on spandex, wool, silk, acetates, noncolorfast clothes, leather or mohair.

How to use it: Bleach works great as a whitener and disinfectant for white cotton underwear and socks, but don't pour it directly onto your clothes. Use the automatic bleach dispenser in your washer, if you have one, or add properly measured bleach after the tub of your washer is filled with water. Though bleach whitens and disinfects, it is not a cleaner: you'll want to use detergent too. Use the hottest water possible, as indicated by care labels.

How often? Cobb bleaches her white underwear and socks every time she washes them, but some experts are less vigilant. Anne Marie Soto, co-author of "Stain Rescue! The A-Z Guide to Removing Smudges, Spots & Other Spills" (Hearst), says she bleaches her whites every two months or so.

Stain fighter: Chlorine bleach can remove stains such as coffee, chocolate, grass and tea on whites (again, be sure to read care labels), Cobb says. Add 1/4 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water and soak the clothes for only 5 to 10 minutes; any more, and you'll start to break down the fabric.

If you have stains on pastel, colorfast clothes, try soaking them in all-fabric bleach, which is gentler than chlorine bleach. Put 1/4 cup of all-fabric bleach in 1 gallon of water, add your clothes and soak for up to 30 minutes.

Take a pass: For darker colors such as blacks and reds, you're better off with a good stain remover, Cobb says.

For dinginess, you may want to try White Brite, which removes yellowing, rust stains and "fugitive color" — the red that ran from your new shirt onto the rest of your clothes. Cobb, who says she has no relationship with Summit Brands, the maker of White Brite, actually prefers the product to bleach.

An all-fabric bleach can improve results in regular washes, too, Cobb says, but check your detergent and make sure it doesn't already contain one. These days, many do, and there's no point in doubling up.

nschoenberg@tribune.com