A clean white duvet before and after a laundry strip wash in a bath tub.
Laundry day makes your home feel fresh and clean. But maybe not quite as clean as you think.
Laundry stripping is a deep-cleaning trend that has been sweeping the internet for the past several months. The method claims to clean the built-up residues from the fibres of textiles.
The TikTok user who started the trend soaked her freshly-laundered towels in warm water with a regular laundry detergent, washing soda, and borax – and the water turned dark brown.
The video prompted many of us to wonder whether we’ve been unwittingly nestling into dirty linens our entire lives. Home cleaning enthusiasts have since tried the technique on everything from clothes to rugs and second-hand couch covers.
What laundry stripping does is soak out any leftover detergent, fabric softener, minerals and natural body oils that have collected on the fabric over time. But some cleaning experts say it’s unnecessary and brings out more dye than dirt.
So, I decided to test it out on a white duvet cover.
I clean my sheets weekly and duvet cover once every couple of months. As a general rule, someone who sleeps in make-up and eats in bed as frequently as I do, shouldn’t have white linens. But as a basic white woman in her mid-20s, fashion dictates I must.
Before the laundry strip, my duvet cover appeared pretty white:
The duvet appeared pretty white before going into the laundry strip.
The strip wash recipe called for a 1:1:2 ratio mixture of borax, washing soda (sodium carbonate) and laundry detergent.
Borax is available at hardware stores and pharmacists, and the other ingredients you can find in the supermarket.
What I used
Greenwoods Washing Soda Crystals: ($4.99 from Countdown)
Fab laundry liquid Frangipani 1L ($6.00 from Countdown)
Borax ($10.99 from Bunnings)
To strip laundry, combine borax, washing soda and a regular laundry detergent in a 1:1:2 ratio in hot water.
Fill your bathtub, sink or a large bucket with hot water.
Add borax, washing soda (sodium carbonate) and laundry detergent in a 1:1:2 ratio. For a bathtub, add 1/4 cup borax, 1/4 cup washing soda and 1/2 cup laundry detergent. Stir until it dissolves completely.
Submerge laundry in the mixture and leave to soak until the water has cooled (at least four hours). Stir occasionally.
Drain the murky water and toss the fabrics through a rinse-only cycle in the washing machine.
Borax is already in many washing detergents, mainly dry powders (and has been since the 19th century), according to Dr David Warren, coordinator of the chemistry outreach programme at Otago University.
It is an ‘active oxygen’ producing ingredient that can bleach and decolourise many stains but isn’t strong enough to bleach the dye in the fabric. That also gives it some anti-bacterial properties.
“It has a high (alkaline) pH so it is good at working on stains like tomato juice.
“It acts as a water softener in areas where there is a lot of dissolved calcium and/or magnesium in the water which can interfere with the detergent or soap in the laundry liquid,” explains Warren.
The bath water had turned a dark grey by the end of its four-hour soak.
There are large parts of the US and UK with hard water, mainly in areas with limestone rocks which are made from calcium and magnesium minerals. “These minerals create a scum when they react with the soap which may contribute to some of that ‘dirty’ water in the videos.”
Sodium carbonate is also mainly in the wash for its water ‘softening’ qualities, removing that calcium and magnesium, Warren continues.
“Detergents and soaps work better in soft water so again many of the dry laundry powders have washing soda in them already.
“The alkaline pH from the borax and washing soda will also help break up fats, oils, and grease on the fabric which can then be removed by the detergents in the laundry liquid.”
Within about two minutes of soaking, my bubbly blue bathtub water had turned a cringe-inducing grey.
The four-five-hour process was lengthy but needed minimal effort. I walked away to watch some Netflix, and other than stirring occasionally with the end of a broom, that was it.
Once it was all over, the duvet cover came out softer, and a much crisper shade of white. Any faint marks and makeup stains had all lifted out.
The duvet cover came out a much crisper white and any light marks had lifted out.
Should you strip your laundry?
At the time of writing, the hashtag #laundrystripping had 70 million views on TikTok.
Warren says the technique might look dramatic, but it’s basically “just giving the sheets or towels a really good wash”.
“Most people won’t be aware of how much dirt actually comes out of a washing machine, so there is a good chance that this dirt is normal.”
You can strip wash just about any fabric. The chemicals shouldn’t do any damage because they are already present in many washing products, he adds.
The chemicals used in a strip wash shouldn’t do any damage to your fabrics because they are already present in many washing products.
But it is probably still best to avoid stripping delicate items because of the high temperature, or mixing colours with whites, in case any dyes run.
While it may be satisfying to watch the videos, you don’t need to make laundry stripping part of your regular routine.
“Laundry stripping is just an old-fashioned long soak in some good cleaning products, each of them with a specific job, and already widely used in commercial products,” said Warren, who believes a lot of the fabrics in the popular videos are deliberately dirty to make it look more effective.
So, if you have sheets or towels that are really in trouble, and you’re trying to revive them, a strip wash makes sense. But if you’re using an effective laundry detergent on a regular basis, and you’re using the right amount, you shouldn’t need to strip your laundry.
“My guess is that you’d get the same result if you used a good quality dry laundry powder and left it in hot water for the same time,” said Warren.
Thanks to Mikaela Wilkes from Stuff for this research.