Forget the Bleach: How to Use the Sun to Whiten Your Whites

As we move into our fifth month of traveling around the world, one of the parts of my routine that has been simplified due to necessity is the laundry… I’m lucky to even have a regular washing machine to use before hanging the clothes to dry (and the rest of the time, I’m hand washing in the sink, shower, or tub– whatever is available!). One of the things that got us through Europe with dry clothes are these handy towel-warming racks I’ve found in most apartments, and I think they must be pretty much the best invention since dishwashers (another thing I’m missing on our trip!).

That said, now that we’ve hit Mediterranean Europe (Greece, Italy, and next is south France), I’m thrilled to be hanging my laundry out to dry in the sun. Not only does it dry faster, and smell fresher, but it also minimizes stains, and it keeps our whites whiter. Which is important when you’re trying really hard not to look or smell like dirty backpackers. I’m just saying.

All that to say, this post was originally published two years ago in June, but seemed just right to share with you again this week how to use the sun to whiten your whites.

Although I generally try to avoid buying white clothing for myself or my young children (because they look good for approximately one day until someone spills blueberry smoothie or spaghetti sauce on them), sometimes white is unavoidable. We’ve been given white items here and there, I fell in love with a white maternity shirt once, and then there’s the white insides of our stash of pocket diapers.

I have never been comfortable using bleach to get these stains out. It is harsh, toxic and corrosive, and I don’t want to flush it down the drain, either. For me, bleach is a no-go.

There are definitely more natural whitening and alternative bleach products out on the market. I have heard good things about many of them, and they are certainly less toxic than conventional bleach, by a long shot.

For me, the downside is that (like many other natural/green products) they don’t come cheaply and I still don’t really find that they are as effective as I want them to be. But do you know what I have found to be the cheapest, most widely available and most effective bleach alternative out there?

The sun.

That’s right. Somehow, someway, God has made the sun and its rays so that they are able to naturally bleach and whiten many things. Ever left a plastic child’s toy outside in the sun and forgotten about it for a couple of weeks? When you finally notice it in the corner of the yard, the colors are faded and it looks nothing like it did originally. Voila… the power of sun bleaching.

The Ultimate Test

Over the course of the winter, my cloth diapers had begun to get particularly stained and nasty. We live in a location (on the West Coast) that is gray, rainy and cloudy from about October to April, with few days of sunny respite. Even though I line dry my diapers, I kept them inside, cringing every time I looked at them.

Finally in late April, the sun began to shine its face enough that I ventured outside with a basket of wet diapers. I laid them outside with the white insides face up and then forgot about them for several hours.

When I came back, lo and behold, the orange/brown stains had great, greatly diminished. In fact, there were a couple of places where the wind had blown the edge of one diaper over another, and you could actually see the line on the diaper where half of it had been sun-bleached and the other half had been covered up and remained stained. The difference was obvious (and I’m only sorry that I didn’t grab a picture of it at the time).

How to Sun Bleach

Really, there’s little to it. This is simple stuff!

1. Start with wet clothes. I’m not sure why (perhaps someone knows the science behind this?), but I have found it to be much more effective when the clothes are wet rather than dry, although even dry items will still be sun-bleached to some degree. And note that although I keep saying clothes, you can do this with any white fabric- towels, tablecloths, etc.

2. Lay clothes out as flat as possible. It’s important to make sure that every part of the fabric is receiving direct sunshine. It is the ultra violet rays that are doing the bleaching, so if they can’t get through, the item won’t get bleached.

3. It may take 2-3 times for really dark stains. I have found that the darkest stains will lighten a little bit more each time you do it and may not be whitened to your satisfaction after only one sun bleaching.This was the case with my most-stained diapers. The first time made an obvious difference, but the second time took it just a bit further and got them closer to truly white again.

4. Try adding lemon juice for an extra boost. If you need extra bleaching power, try mixing up lemon juice in a spray bottle with water (about 1/4 cup lemon juice to 2 cups of water) and spray that onto the worst of the stains. The lemon juice reacts with the sun to whiten even more effectively. Another option for using lemon juice is to just add a 1/2 cup of lemon juice directly to the load of whites that you want to bleach, and then set them outside as soon as the machine has finished.

5. Don’t leave them out too long. Usually a few hours will do the job. If you want the item whiter, try a few hours again another day. Leaving things out for days at a time could weaken and damage the fabric.

Have you tried bleaching using the sun? How effective did you find it and do you have any tips to share with the rest of us?

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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Comments

  1. I think it is funny how the knowledge of former times comes back as something new and sensational! I (60 years old) remember vaguely how the coloured clothes were hung on the clothes line but the whites were spread on the grass to get white again. At this time, only very few people in Germany had a washing machine, and dryers were totally unknown.

  2. I love sun bleaching my cloth diapers too! I was so skeptical in the beginning that the sun could actually get out those nasty stains. It almost seem foolish that I had been using bleach for so long. Now I don’t even keep a bottle in the house. I also like to add some white vinegar to my white loads if they seem extra dirty. Works like a charm!

  3. I’m so glad you posted this! I promised myself that this last bottle of bleach would be my last one! I have a few other questions for you, though! What do you use to sanitize? The sun also? Also, do you find that your pocket diapers repel or don’t last as long? I love the idea of pockets, but they don’t seem to work well for me. (Also, I’m a cloth diaper consultant hosting a sale/fundraiser this week. I’d love for you to come check it out and share with your readers this week! We’re offering a complete diaper kit with everything needed to get started for just $400!)

  4. For really tough stains, wash and hang in sun while wet and leave overnight. The night air just makes whites truly white!

  5. Hi, I resently got rust stain on a precious little linen jacket that I loved…stain right in front.
    I used lemon juice on the stain and put it in direct sun for 2 hours and WOW, it was gone!!
    I was so thrilled. The sun has great power to clean!

  6. Love the picture of the Fuzzi Bunz! We have been out of them for 2 years already, but it took me back. I also “bleached” them in the sun and it worked fantastically! I just put a white shirt outside today to “bleach” it. Love that God made his own bleaching agent-the sun! :) http://www.countercultureliving.com

  7. Stephanie says:

    My grandma is from Germany. She said that the soldiers and visitors passing through the country would always say “We know we are in Germany, They always have the whites whites (clothes)”. She said they would lay the whites out on the grass (tall), and keep sprinkling them with water, until they were really white. All I could think, is it must be some some reaction with the water and gasses ( O2) coming off the combination.

  8. I live in the north east of England where if you leave washing out in the rain it needs doing
    Over again.however if you hang whites out on a frosty morning they dry whiter than ever.
    Just remember to put a warm coat on!!!

  9. Nathan Webb says:

    If this is correct, rather than trying to hang my whites outside which will result in them becoming wet, or hanging them in the window with not a lot of direct sunlight (winter for ya)…. Could I not purchase a black light and leave that lit on my clothes for a few hours?

    My ju-jitsu gear is meant to be white but its’ become very dingy and dirty over the months and nothing seems to remove it.

    if a black light would sort it, it would be ideal!?

    Any thoughts on this? maybe black light is the wrong type of UV light, but hopefully.. not!

  10. Hi–I have two questions! First, whenever I air-dry items (not sun, just indoors on a drying rack) they become very stiff. Is there any way to air-dry clothes & diapers without resulting in a cardboard-stiff shirt or a crunchy burp cloth? Second, I live in a third-ctory condo and our balcony is fully shaded. But we have windows that let lots of direct sunlight into the bedrooms. How effective is sun-bleaching through a window?

    • When clothes are stiff after line/air drying- you may have used too much soap that didn’t get completely rinsed. Another option may be to use vinegar as a rinse aid. Works every time for me!

  11. If allergies are high in the spring I like to whiten whites indoors. You can try Bac-out or oxygen bleach. Not as natural as the sun but still pretty natural.
    http://www.mommyser.com/myblog/our-30-day-cleaning-challenge-officially-over-here’s-what-we-found

Trackbacks

  1. [...] of your stuff getting dingy? The sun will brighten those things right up! It gets stains out. It might take a few sunning days, but the sun does a great job of getting stains out–especially [...]

  2. [...] bleach is something I try to do for our health and for the environment. Here are some tips on using the sun to whiten your whites instead of using bleach. (via Keeper of the [...]

  3. [...] Forget the Bleach: How to Use the Sun to Whiten Your Whites [...]

  4. [...] Forget the Bleach: How to Use the Sun to Whiten Your Whites [...]

  5. [...] The drying happens on the line outside. This way no energy is used to run the dryer and the sun does wonders for the diapers. The sun’s UV rays act as a natural bleach, which both disinfects and whitens the diapers. Three cheers for the power of nature! Here is a blog that offers some good tips on sun bleaching : Keeper of the Home [...]

  6. [...] I read about using the sun to naturally bleach your whites. This idea was right up my alley! It seems cloth diapering mamas find that drying the diapers in [...]

  7. [...] that next load sooner than later. Use a good wet bag to keep your diaper bag free of stink. Also, drying diapers out in the sun helps to keep the stink away, [...]