It comes as no surprise that doing laundry the right way isn’t an easy task and can quickly turn into a never-ending one, especially with multiple people in the household. But if your best bed sheets, softest towels and favorite clothing items, despite your best efforts, are looking dingy and feeling scratchy, you know you need to take action. And that’s the appeal of laundry stripping and the reason it has become such an internet phenomenon. Dramatic viral photos show how the process removes detergent build-up and hard water residues, turning colors bright and making fabrics soft again.
The concept of laundry stripping isn’t new. Long before it became a TikTok sensation, it was a method used by cleaning professionals. In fact, the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab experts still use a version of this technique to remove residue and restore the test bath towels we use when evaluating fabric softeners. But laundry stripping really became a household phenomenon after MrsLaurenElms posted a before-and-after TikTok in early 2020 — and since then, TikToks about laundry stripping have racked up hundreds of millions of views.
It’s understandable why this soaking method has gone viral — the TikToks show tubs filled with murky brown water after letting supposedly clean laundry soak for a few hours. Not only is the transformation incredibly satisfying to watch, but it has also made many people question just how clean their sheets and towels really are. But with all the fascination around laundry stripping comes many questions about it, too. What is it? Is it worth doing? How safe is it for clothing and linens? And does it really work?
Before you grab a box of borax and get to work, read this guide where Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab Executive Director Carolyn Forté details the ins and outs of laundry stripping, including if it’s actually the most effective way to clean your bed linens, no matter how often you launder them.
What is laundry stripping?
Laundry stripping requires several hours of soaking to get rid of leftover detergent, fabric softener, minerals from hard water and natural body oils that have collected on textiles over a period of time. The process itself is rather lengthy: Towels and sheets sit in a tub of hot water, borax, washing soda (sodium carbonate) and laundry detergent until the water has cooled completely, about four to five hours in total. But while it’s satisfying to see, laundry stripping isn’t necessary, especially if you’re doing laundry correctly.
Is laundry stripping safe — and does it fade fabrics?
Laundry stripping is usually safe for sturdy white and off-white fabrics, but over time, the water’s heat during the stripping process can cause the dyes in colored fabrics to run, which partly explains why the water turns dark brown or gray in some of the online videos. It works best on whites, lights and colorfast bath towels and bed sheets that can be cleaned in hot water without fading. If you decide to soak colored textiles, don’t combine them with whites to avoid accidentally transferring dye.
While laundry stripping is suitable for clothing or bedding items that can withstand high temperatures, avoid placing delicate items and fabrics prone to shrinking into the bath. Instead, follow good hand-washing techniques to clean them completely and safely.
How to effectively strip sheets and towels
If you want to give laundry stripping a try, follow these steps.
What You’ll Need
- Fill your bathtub, sink or a large bucket with hot water. The laundry stripping recipe involves adding borax, washing soda (sodium carbonate — not baking soda) 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 all three dissolve completely.
- Submerge your “clean” towels or sheets in the mixture and soak until the water has cooled, which usually takes at least four hours. Stir them occasionally to help dissolve and release the buildup from the fabrics into the water.
- Drain the murky water, wring your items and run them through a full wash cycle without detergent or softener. If not a full wash cycle, put them through at least a rinse and spin cycle in your washing machine. Tumble dry the items without dryer sheets.
Is laundry stripping worth the trouble?
We don’t think so. While laundry stripping can be effective, you shouldn’t have to strip towels and sheets on a regular basis if you’re washing them correctly to begin with. Plus, it’s a time-consuming and troublesome thing to do.
There are some instances where laundry stripping may be necessary, especially if you notice buildup after washing with homemade detergent, frequent use or over-use of dryer sheets or liquid fabric softener or you live in a hard water area and don’t have a water softener installed in your home.
As a general rule, following smart laundry practices with each load is the best way to avoid build-up in your fabrics and the best way to avoid having to strip laundry. Here’s how to get great results every time you do a load of laundry:
- Use a deep-cleaning detergent, like GH Seal star Tide.
- Don’t overload the washing machine. Items need room to move and circulate.
- Don’t use too much detergent or fabric softener. Always measure and follow label recommendations based on the size of your load and how dirty it is. Skip adding fabric softener or using dryer sheets every few loads.
- If you see suds left in the washer tub, run a second rinse cycle.
- Use proper laundry sorting techniques to avoid depositing soil from one item to another. Wash very dirty items separately from less soiled ones.
- If you notice residue or want to prevent buildup, add borax, washing soda or a rinse, like Downy Rinse & Refresh, to a regular load during the wash cycle following the label directions for your size load and type of machine.
The bottom line, according to Forte: “If you have a lot of towels or sheets that need help, this is a good way to tackle them quickly. Then make sure to follow good laundering habits afterward, so you don’t have to do it again!”
Amanda Garrity is a lifestyle writer and editor with over seven years of experience, including five years on staff at Good Housekeeping, where she covered all things home and holiday, including the latest interior design trends, inspiring DIY ideas and gift guides for any (and every) occasion. She also has a soft spot for feel-good TV, so you can catch her writing about popular shows like Virgin River, Sweet Magnolias, Hallmark Channel’s When Calls the Heart and more.