It’s usually hard to say goodbye to good dress shirts that have served you well. It’s also tough to ignore any unsightly stains the garments may have gathered. But don’t despair. There are ways to bring your once proud button-down shirts back from the brink and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to fix them. All it takes is a little time, elbow grease and the right washer cycle.
So whether it’s sweat, food and drink, or a plain old ring-around-the collar that put a damper on your shirt, there’s hope. This guide will help you breathe new life into your old fancy clothes.
Step 1: Figure out the fabric
Traditional dress shirts of the buttoned variety are usually spun from 100 per cent cotton. Thankfully, cotton plant fibres are hardy and can withstand high heat levels, either during laundry cycles, in the dryer, or when under a hot iron.
Cotton is sturdy enough to take the agitation washing machines and dryers dish out too. Synthetic textiles are less forgiving and should be treated gently, either washed in warm or cold (not hot) water, dried under low heat, and with low spin cycles. Always double-check your shirt’s fabric care label though, just to be on the safe side.
Step 2: Examine the damage
First make a note of the location and colour of the stain. If you see discolouration around the armpits or inside the collar, these blemishes were likely caused by sweat.
While mostly water, perspiration is actually a complex soup of organic compounds, salts and minerals, even urea. Residue from antiperspirants and deodorants can gather in these spots too along with airborne dust and dirt.
The resulting mix can play havoc with clothing fibres and their dyes, creating yellow stains, white splotches or dark patches over time. Marks of grime in other locations such as down your shirt front could be from a wide range of materials. Common culprits are food and drink spills or grease splatter.
Step 3: Use the right cleaner
Your best chances of removing ugly shirt stains hinge on choosing the right cleaning agent. Oxygen bleach is quite effective for treating fabric soiled by sweat, blood and other bodily substances.
Sold under many brand names, oxygen bleach works by breaking up organic compounds within stains into smaller pieces. Detergents can then more effectively lift the stain from fabric, then dissolve everything in wash water that your washing machine flushes away during its rinse cycle.
Standard laundry detergents can also destroy shirt stains, particularly those caused by food. Many of these soaps contain enzymes that essentially digest stain ingredients, dicing their molecules into bits. In this way, proteins (eggs, dairy, grass) and starches are attacked and disposed of.
Step 4: Target and pretreat trouble spots
When dealing with areas of heavy staining, it’s a good idea to target them for special treatment. Depending on the type of stain, dab the section with detergent or stain remover solution, then give it some time to work.
Give your shirts between five minutes and a few hours to sit; after a sufficient time has elapsed, toss your pretreated items into the wash and launder as you normally would. Examine the garment again closely before drying. If you still see visible staining, then repeat the process or try something different.
Step 5: Soak your shirts
Sometimes you have to take drastic steps to get results. For shirts with hardcore grime, it’s hard to beat a long soak in an oxygen bleach solution. Locate a sink deep enough to submerge your troubled threads, once you don’t mind cleaning thoroughly after. If you’re fortunate to have a laundry room utility sink, use that.
Fill the sink three quarters of the way full with hot water, add a good amount of oxygen bleach (as indicated on the label) and stir to fully dissolve. Oxygen bleach is gentle in terms of cleaning power compared to standard chlorinated bleach and takes longer to act.
The advantage is that the chemical is relatively safe to use on coloured fabric, isn’t deadly poisonous, and way better for the environment. Anticipating this, let your shirts sit overnight in the sink for more than 12 hours.
Step 6: Run everything through the washer
If all works out, then the last step, apart from drying, is to run your shirts through the washing machine. Process them as you normally would, though adding some oxygen bleach along with regular detergent will also increase your washer’s stain removing muscle.
Another tactic is activating any specialty stain cycles or settings if your washing machine has one. You can engage the “Stain Removal Guide” function on the washing machine. Finally, take your shirts out and look them over. You would notice big improvements in your once horribly stained shirts.
After a trip through the dryer plus fast ironing, they would be close to spotless. Not bad for items that were destined for the trash. Of course, if you’re not satisfied with your results, repeat the process. Just hold off on tossing items in the dryer unless nothing seems to help. Some stains become irreversible when exposed to high heat.
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