Laundry Stripping: The Good, The Bad and The Gross

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Read time: 4 minutes

When the going gets tough, a certain type of person gets cleaning. Cleaning is something that you have control over, in the face of so many things you don’t. Perhaps that’s why, in these turbulent times, laundry stripping has hit a deep nerve.

Woman Smelling Laundry Fresh Out of the Dryer After Laundry Stripping | Vitacost.com/Blog

In case you haven’t heard about it before on a social media stream near you, laundry stripping is an aggressive cleaning method designed to remove built-up soil, laundry detergent and fabric softener from “clean” laundry with a chemical solution and overnight hot water soak. While some people question its necessity or efficacy, others swear by its ability to revive softness and absorbency in textiles such as towels, T-shirts and sheets.

The benefits of cleaning

Research suggests that cleaning can have several positive effects (accomplishment and satisfaction, anyone?) on your mental health. It helps you have a sense of agency over your environment and engage your mind in a repetitive activity that can have a calming effect. So with a few caveats, go forth and strip. Be warned, however, that laundry stripping is not safe for all fabrics and shouldn’t be overdone.

During the pandemic, the deep-cleaning phenomenon spread to social media, especially on TikTok, and became a curious mix of amazement and disgust. Users post videos revealing vile filth, as this popular technique is often done in a bathtub, allowing you to watch the soaking water slowly become dark and murky as substances are stripped out of fabric (although this can also be just dye or natural oils in the fabric leaching out).

How laundry stripping works

Laundry stripping is effective because of its chemical solution of Borax, powdered detergent and washing soda along with extra hot water. In a laundry strip, the following things happen:

  • The hot, alkaline water opens up the fibers of the fabric and loosens any soil or scum.
  • The chemical solution penetrates deep into the fabric of the textiles, where the water softeners can react with minerals that have become trapped.
  • The surfactants and enzymes in the detergent help break down, bind, and lift away soils.
  • When you stir or agitate the clothes, the movement helps the surfactants lift away soils and allows new “pockets” of buildup to become exposed so they can be thoroughly cleaned.

Laundry stripping benefits

Laundry stripping is a form of deep cleaning, so a few times a year is plenty. You can tell if fabrics need stripping mostly by feeling them. Do they feel sticky? Have your towels lost their softness and absorbency? Color and odor can also provide critical data. Do your white sheets look dingy or smell stale? If you’ve washed a textile, but still can’t get an odor out, that would be good opportunity to laundry strip it. Make sure you’re only stripping items that actually need it.

Laundry stripping is at its most effective on light-colored towels and sheets. Because they’re larger and bulkier, towels and sheets are more likely to have detergent build-up that didn’t rinse out fully in the washing machine.

Laundry stripping drawbacks

This method will indeed break down build-up on clothes, but it could also leach out dye and naturally occurring oils in fabric. Always check your item’s care tag before using this method to ensure it can handle a hot water soak.

  • Dark fabrics: The hot water in this method may cause dyes to run.
  • Delicates: Don’t try this technique on delicate or fragile items, as it can break down the structure of the fabric.
  • Workout clothes: Spandex is sensitive to the PH in the laundry stripping solution and the elasticity may degrade faster with laundry stripping.
  • Wool: Wool contains lanolin, a natural oil that’s necessary to protect the clothing’s fibers. This method strips wool of that essential oil.
  • Cold-water clothes: Check your item’s care tag for water temperature requirements and don’t use this method on anything that can’t be washed in hot water.

Laundry stripping tutorial

Step 1: Fill bathtub or a large bucket with very hot water.
Step 2: Mix in 1/4 cup borax, 1/4 cup washing soda and 1 cup powdered laundry detergent.
Step 3: Place clean clothes in soaking solution and stir (a broom handle is the perfect stirrer).
Step 4: Leave clothes to soak overnight, stirring them occasionally.
Step 5: Drain tub or bucket and wring excess water from clothes. Rinse clothes in washing machine on rinse-only cycle or by hand until water runs clear.
Step 6: Dry clothes as usual.

Laundry stripping with natural ingredients

If you don’t like the idea of using borax and traditional detergent on your clothes and towels, we feel you. Borax is also an irritant that can cause skin irritations, rashes and respiratory issues. But there’s still a way to laundry strip your textiles going the all-natural route.

Instead of conventional detergents, opt for one that’s free of phthalates and sulfates, such as Molly’s Suds Laundry Powder. In place of borax, try baking soda, which is almost as on tough on dirt, grime, and residuals, but much easier and safer on the skin and environment.

Alternatives to laundry stripping

As a general preventative to buildup, use less detergent and fabric softener. It’s a rookie error to use too much laundry product. It sounds counterintuitive, but more detergent does not make your laundry cleaner. Soap residue that doesn’t wash away becomes a dirt magnet. You can also try using a couple of cups of baking soda in a load of laundry to remove the build-up on your clothes and towels.

Elizabeth Marglin

Elizabeth Marglin is a journalist/content creator whose favorite subjects are healthy living, sustainability, natural beauty, integrative therapies, mindfulness practices and parenting. She has been a regular contributor to the magazines Natural Solutions, Natural Health, FitPregnancy, Backpacker, and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles as well as the websites gaiam.com, deliciousliving.com, smartwatt.com, and the Huffington Post. She is also the coauthor of The Mother’s Wisdom Deck, a gorgeous inspiration deck designed for mothers. When she’s not perusing labels or creating new smoothie recipes in her Vitamix, Elizabeth can be found scheming up strategies to get her kids to eat their vegetables.