Hard water, too much detergent, and overstuffed washers can leave residue behind on clean clothes. But there are better ways to address the problem.
CR test engineer Rich Handel soaked a mixed load of clothes in his bathtub to put laundry stripping to the test.
By Keith Flamer
Some people love airing their dirty laundry on social media. Especially when it comes to laundry stripping. On TikTok alone, #laundrystripping posts have racked up 141.1 million views.
That’s right, watching strangers soak their clothes—like olden times—has become a guilty pleasure for millions of laundry voyeurs. Picture a vlogger filling a bathtub with hot water, purge potions, and dirty work uniforms, sweaty caps, or doggy blankets (or even just a load of otherwise clean sheets or towels).
Cut to the neatnik gently stirring the elixir like a witches’ brew, with the back end of a broomstick. In the end, once the wet laundry is removed, what’s left in the tub? Murky water that seems to suggest those items were straight filthy. (FYI, that term is also slang for cool.)
“Doing or watching the physical task of cleaning can be satisfying in the same way putting a puzzle together can be satisfying and serene—we’re transforming chaos into order and tidiness,” says Caroline Given, LCSW, a therapist and CEO of Therapy for Busy People. “With laundry stripping, I think we’re also comforted by this idea that we are visually guaranteeing freshness and disinfection.”
Satisfying? Sure. Necessary? Not exactly. There are better options on the table.
What Is Laundry Stripping?
Laundry stripping is the process of soaking one’s washables in a bathtub to extract built-up soil, detergent, and fabric softener from clothes, bedding, or anything you launder.
“We’re not exactly sure how it started, but laundry stripping may have grown out of the need to clean large items, like carpets and comforters, that wouldn’t fit into the washing machine,” says a CR test engineer, Richard Handel, who oversees our laundry lab. “The process can help soak away leftover residue. But it also can remove dye and damage certain fabrics vulnerable to heat and high pH.”
Laundry strippers typically soak their laundry for hours in a mix of hot water, Borax, washing soda, and detergent until gunk and grime slowly separate from fabric. The high-pH washing soda (a sodium carbonate commonly known as soda ash), works as a cleaner and water softener. It’s potentially caustic, and Handel recommends wearing gloves and a mask to avoid touching and inhaling dispersed dust particles.
After you remove the laundry, leftover water might be murky gray, black, or the color of the fabric. But you’ll be left with cleaner clothes—and extensive cleanup duty. Transfer the wet clothes to dry, and wipe out the tub to prevent dye stains.
Where Does That Residue Come From?
Laundry stripping is a good solution for extremely soiled clothes that you may think twice about loading into your washing machine. But it can also remove residue you wouldn’t otherwise notice. A variety of things can cause residual buildup on clothes, bedding, and other laundry:
- Using too much concentrated detergent or fabric softener (especially combined with low water levels in today’s energy-efficient washers)
- Incomplete rinsing
- Overstuffing your washer (the garments moving around and agitating one another help get the load clean and help remove any leftover residue)
- Hard water (water that’s high in mineral content)
And here’s why it matters: Residue from detergents, when left behind on your clean clothes, could cause itching and rashes.
“For most people [clothes residue] isn’t an issue, and it may even give your garments a pleasant fragrance,” Handel says. “For others with allergies or skin sensitivities, it may present a problem.”
Do You Need to Do It in a Bathtub?
No. There’s a more efficient way, Handel says. You can easily use your washing machine’s customized settings to get better results.
“Laundry stripping in a bathtub is effective, but it is inconvenient, time consuming, and messy,” Handel says. “Who wants to drag sopping wet clothes from a bathtub through the house to their washing machine or dryer? Instead, you can easily do a rinse-and-spin cycle in a front-loader or a deep soak-and-spin in a top loader—without detergent. You won’t see the residue and dye drain off, but do you really need to?”
Here are three tips for guarding against residue buildup:
Minimize your use of concentrated detergent. Start by using the lowest recommended dosage on your detergent cup for a medium load. (See top-rated picks from our laundry detergent tests below.) If that’s not enough to get your clothes clean, increase the amount slightly.
Skimp on the fabric softener, too—or skip it entirely. While some fabric softener goes down the drain during the rinse cycle, a little remains embedded in fabrics, Handel says. So reducing detergent and fabric softener lessens the amount on your clothes as well as what gets flushed. And that’s better for the environment.
Finally, don’t overload your washing machine. This allows better agitation between the garments for a better clean. If necessary, wash smaller loads to lessen the odds residue gets embedded into your clothes. Modern washing machines are typically water- and-energy efficient, so you’ll ultimately use less water doing two loads compared with rewashing huge loads.
It’s true that all this might not be as visually satisfying as laundry stripping. But you can still peek at those viral videos to get your fix.
Top-Rated Laundry Detergents
Here are the three top-scoring detergents from our tests. For a rundown on more options we recommend—as well as some that bomb in the laundry lab—see Best and Worst Laundry Detergents From CR’s Tests.
Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release
Persil ProClean Stain Fighter
Tide Ultra Oxi
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