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

Did you know you can naturally whiten your whites with just the sun? No toxic chemicals needed! Here's how!

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.

colorful diapers drying upsdie down

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).

closeup of diaper drying outside

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?

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75 Comments

  1. Yup the sun works better on wet so if the sun dries it before the stain is gone, I run it under the tap & throw it on the line again. Works really great for those greying microfibre inserts in the pocket diapers too.

  2. My Grandmother grew up in Spain and she once told me that when they wanted to bleach their whites they would lay them out on the ground, as you mentioned, but they would do so with the laundry still being soapy! She said it worked wonders and that the sun took care of the soap residue. I’ve never tried it and I have a feeling the whatever soap was used it was probably somewhat different from our modern detergents.
    I had found the story interesting and just thought I would share.

    1. @monique, I would guess that they used a Castile soap, which is an olive oil based soap. It is a common natural soap used in southern Europe.

    2. Yes, sun bleaching works.
      Rub any type of soap (laundry or bath) on the wet laundry .
      Lay them on the grass out in the sun. The whites become whiter
      Even works on whites that hv yellowish stains after being kept for too long. I am in malaysia. My mum taught me abt 60 years ago. I do this natural way till now

  3. Oh, the pictures of the cloth diapers make me feel all nostalgic! When my kids were little, I was a hardcore cloth user and loved seeing them all hanging on the line. Thanks for the flashback!

  4. I, too, love sun bleaching! It is amazing what the sun can do, and how it can even make your clothes healthier! (Perhaps that can be the subject of another article!) πŸ™‚ After having my last child, my mother-in-law kindly did some laundry for me. Since it was the middle of the winter, all our “white” socks were extra dingy. She decided to bleach them. They came out whiter, but fell apart after two more washings. Why? The bleach destroyed them. Another reason NOT to bleach.

    I have a question for other everyone: how did our forebears get their clothes dry in the winter time? Does anyone have any details?

    1. @MrsWolf,
      My grandma still hangs laundry outside in the winter. Apparently it freezes, but still dries. I think she mostly does this with the sheets. I would guess they still hung stuff outside.

    2. @MrsWolf, I know that when I lived in Japan in the winter, where it gets fairly cold (occasional snow where I was) but we didn’t have a dryer, we simply turned out living room into the drying room. We set up our racks near the heater to help them dry faster. I imagine that women would have done the same thing, perhaps using the heat of the fire or stove to help them dry?

      1. When I was 19 I moved to England and we had no central heat and no clothes dryer – we could hang clothes out on the line or hang them on a ‘cage’ type thing that surrounded the electric fire place. If we weren’t careful the clothes could get burned though.

    3. @MrsWolf, Clothes hung out in the winter in cold climates will “freeze dry.” Stiff as boards, but they do dry over a period of time. We also had clothes lines in the basement when I was a child, and many people still do that. Takes a bit longer for things to dry but it does work. I use drying racks for some things (my T-shirts, undies and socks) year round, and when we had no dryer, I used to hang everything on them in winter, which also adds needed humidity to the air, and I know that my grandmother had drying racks inside. I’ve been trying to figure out where to put a clothes line outside again. Our yard is small, taken up largely by raised beds. The line we used to have was strung between our garage and the neighbor’s garage but they tore their garage down a few years ago. The one spot where there is not garden has a mulberry tree over it so during mulberry season, which it is now, it is not possible to hang a line there!

      1. @Susie,

        At our last house the line was under a Mulberry tree on the neighbour’s side of the fence. They never trimmed it (and we felt like we shouldn’t) so by the time we moved I had a number of items stained purple! Can’t find a way to get out those stains either – not even Oxyclean.

        1. @Kim M,
          Not sure if this works with set in mulberry stains but if we got mulberry on our shirts (as kids do), Mum used to rub a green, unripe mulberry over them and then wash them as normal. Always got the stain out!

        2. I have gotten even old, set-in fruit stains out by pouring boiling water through the stain. This does NOT work for protein stains.

    4. @MrsWolf, My mom told me that they hung it all year (and here it gets very cold like 20 to 30 below freezing). She said it froze stiff and then they brought it inside and draped it over things all over the house. She said that it dried faster than if you just hung it inside. In very inclement weather they would string it inside but they had a wood stove and that helped a lot. In today’s homes with central heat etc. its not as good of an idea with all that moisture (mold issues). Wood heat is very dry heat and so that is not as much of an issue.

      In the Little house books they also hung it outside and brought it in stiff.

      I have hung diapers outside in winter to make them bleached and got my fingers so cold and my skin so chapped. I know some older homes that have this little covered porch with a vertical slit in it so that they could hang the laundry while inside that porch (although it would still probably be unheated it would be out of the wind) and then they would send the items through the slit to the outside line. I’ve seen it in an older neighbourhood where I live a few times.

      1. I live in Alberta ( so long, cold winters) and know some ladies who line dry throughout the winter.

  5. When I was kid my mom used to dry our white Keds tennis shoes in the sun to whiten them. It worked like a charm. Unfortunately, my clothesline has had little use this spring We’re still having cold, wet weather in North Idaho. I’ve been using every space imaginable to dry our hanging clothes inside, but it takes our jeans a good 2 days to dry in this weather.

    To answer MrsWolf, I’m thinking clothes used to be dried by the fire.

  6. I live in a golf course community and I know that some of my neighbors will have a fit if I start drying outside- does anyone have any links for temporary lines or set ups for outdoor drying?

    1. @Annie Page, I don’t have a permanent line set up where we live, but I just use a portable rack that I move in and out. It works really well and looks fairly tidy. Another option is to just lay things on your deck furniture. Sometimes when I don’t have enough to warrant moving my rack, I just lay a few things across my patio chairs.

    2. @Annie Page, I use a retractable clothes line. I just hook one end to the fence on the move able end and the spool is bolted to the side of the house. It’s not even noticeable when wheeled up.

    3. @Annie Page, This makes me laugh…but I know its true since I’ve heard of communities like that. I just can’t imagine it at all myself though! Where I live they just passed a law last year that made it illegal for communities to say that they can’t have clotheslines. Where I live its common to see stuff hanging out, especially on weekends.

      You can get “umbrella” style things to hang your clothes that you attach clotheslines to. Or racks that fold into the wall like an accordian. Both can hide away when not in use. But with that said my clothesline isn’t noticeable really when its not in use either except the poles on either end. I think those other ideas were created more for space reasons. A drying rack can work but I’ve used this before and if its windy at all stuff blows off it. The wooden ones are worse for this since you can’t attach things with clothespins (too thick wood) but the wire ones are better for that since you can attach things with clothespins as the pieces are thinner.

  7. I love hanging my stained diapers out. It’s like magic. πŸ™‚

    Someone told me that you can sun bleach on a cloudy day too, since the UV rays are still there (kind of like you can still get sunburned on a cloudy day). I’ve done it, it seems to still work, although not quite as well as a sunny day I think.

    Funny, I’ve never thought to try my normal white clothes! Ha! I’ve only done diapers.

    1. @Milly B, I did this by accident with one of my toddlers (pink) shirts. I had hung only the one shirt out because it was stained from food and went out to run errands. It rained while we were out, and it seemed every time I remembered to go get the shirt. It was out there for a good two days, repeatedly getting wet and drying – the stains were nearly gone when I finally did bring it in!

  8. Yes this is what I found worked for diapers, too. For some reason I found that my second child’s poops do not stain diapers (prefolds) whereas my first one’s did…wierd…

    Just don’t leave dark colours on the line too long or the fabric will fade…I notice this particularly with greens. So much so that I actually don’t line dry outside some of my husband’s work clothes that are green. I do them inside, even in good weather. Or you can hang them/dryer rack them in the shade.

  9. Oh, and I also bleach mine through the window some days. Again, it’s not quite as effective as outdoors on a sunny day, but it still works pretty well.

    1. @Milly B,
      One spring, I bought some vintage linen hankies for my grandmother and actually stuck the washed, wet hankies to the inside of my window to see if they would bleach. When I peeled them off after a few hours, they were gorgeous!! πŸ™‚

      ~Lorrie

      1. @MrsWolf, I read that too quickly, and got a laugh at the idea of vintage linen “panties” hanging in the window… πŸ˜‰

        I’m going to try that with my cloth napkins… and it’ll help block the sun at the same time! πŸ™‚

  10. In time past people just didn’t wash clothes so often, aprons were worn to extend the wearable life of clothes. When things were washed they were dried outside or on wet days inside on a line strung across the room or a clothes horse or airer that was hung from the ceiling on a pulley.

  11. Sun bleaching works for other things as well!

    This happened before I was interested in natural living:
    I hadnt clean my fridge in a while (months) and went I got around to it, I found a pyrex dish with a plastic lid that had about 3 inches of mold in it. What it was prior to the mold, I have no idea. After washing it, the lid still smelled like mold, I soaked it in bleach, vinegar, sprayed 409 all over it, nothing helped. I was about to throw it away when my mom asked me if I had tried sun bleaching it. So, I propped it in a south facing window for about 2 weeks, and the smell was completely gone.

      1. @Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home,
        I used to buy a lot of old Tupperware when I was first setting up my kitchen (30 years ago). Much of it was yellowed, stained and smelly. I just put it all out in the yard on the lawn for a day and then washed it. Practically looked brand new! I’ve done it with yellowed sheer curtains, too.

  12. I love hanging diapers on the line! Oh and blankets!! I hate washing blankets in the winter time, only to have to run them through the drier multiple times. Plus my bed smells like summer πŸ™‚

  13. A friend of mine loved antique linens, but often there were stains on them when she purchased them at the thrift store. Because they were old or antique, bleaching was out of the question. She would drape them over her shrubs at night before she went to bed. In the morning, the dew had collected on them to dampen them just enough to let the sun do its work. Of course, we live in South Carolina where the sun is especially strong. But at the end of the day, she had nice white linens.

  14. Yes! Also — on a hot sunny day, you can lay whites on the grass (“clean” grass — not if you have free-range chickens in your yard! ;D) to help bleach them. The grass works somewhat like an oxygen bleach! πŸ™‚

  15. new to this all… do you have a beginer laundry post? wud love to learn more where to start, and also to keep bird from pooping on our nicely cleaned laundry and our doxie from trying to tear it all down(my 2 biggest fears)…lol

    1. @kristen marie,
      I’ve hung my laundry on and off for 45 years, both in rural areas and suburban. I can’t say that I have ever had bird droppings on my clean laundry… I don’t know why because it would seem birds are usually indiscriminate.

      And as for the doxie, maybe you can just hang it high enough to keep it out of reach. Or, if you are going to use a rack, see the rack on a picnic table or something to raise it out of harms way. In my experience, once a dog gets used to seeing something like laundry regularly, it looses interest. YMMV.

    2. @kristen marie, LOL I have occasionally got the odd bit of bird poop on my clothes. However I am talking 6 years of hanging stuff out its maybe happened 8 times? We do feed birds in our yard and I have a garden and lots of trees so they are around but not much bird poop for the amount of birds around.

      1. @Nola,
        Nola,Thanks so much for the tips! We also have an attempt at a garden, and several large trees…. but I willtry to take those into consideration. Thanks a bunch!

    3. @kristen marie,
      I’ve had a bird poop on my laundry once, and in the bird’s defense, I had forgotten I had laundry on the line, and left it there over the weekend while I was out of town.

    4. I heard if you put a fake snake on the roof of your car birds won’t poop on it, I don’t see why that wouldn’t work for laundry too.

  16. In addition to out cloth diapers, I also bring our white duvet cover and down insert to get bleached by the sun. The warmth helps fluff up the down feathers naturally.

  17. I *love* using the clothesline my Dad made for me years ago. Our neighbors have asked if “we don’t have a dryer” or “had our electricity cut off”, but I persevere. My grandmother taught me also to hang any white linens out and thus have kept my ancient, inherited things bright (and useable) for 36 years now. Most people don’t realize how destructive the dryer can be to sturdy textiles.
    My grandmother also told me stories of using the lavender shrubs for draping smaller tablecloths and napkins; leaving them overnight with the dew that forms by morning the new sun will naturally bleach out those hated wine and juice stains from dinner. And the fragrance? When you fold them or iron them you are transported to another time.

    1. LOL about the electricity thing. I’ve had comments like that about cable or about our reel mower. People think its since we can’t afford having what everyone else has.

  18. I heard a hint once that the moonlight also does wonders… I tried leaving mine out overnight and it really did seem to make a difference too! So sometimes I hang them out late afternoon, leave them for all the next day and hey presto! White nappies! πŸ™‚

  19. I regularly use Snowy or Chlorox II on my whites. I’ve done it for years and they wear well. When I was a child my mother strung lines in the living areas of the house to dry clothes in the winter. We didn’t have a basement. She also had 1 or 2 drying racks. It was not unusual if going to someone’s home unexpectedly to find clothes drying all over the house. I line dry outside a lot of things today. I think the clothes dryer invention revolutionized wash day more than the automatic washer. I am in my mid seventies and remember well what a project wash day was. First there was the wringer washer to bring into the kitchen and fill with teakettles of hot water heated on the stove and then 1 or 2 rinse tubs to be filled in a similar manner. After washing and rinsing in the winter they had to be dried inside. Of course then on Tuesday (washday was Monday) there was ironing and lots of it to do. Of course the routine varied from home to home depending on their circumstances.

    1. @Liz, Wow this is really interesting. Us younger people don’t really have any clue about all that do we? My Grandma told me (she’s in her 90’s) that they wore a lot of aprons and also the kids had “play clothes” “school clothes” and “church clothes” and that the play clothes and school clothes were for all week.

      She told me that when she had twins that was in the 50s and she finally got a washing machine. It was a ringer washer.

    2. Thanks for jumping online and sharing your years of clothes drying wisdom with us! I feel honored to read a comment from a commenter in her mid-seventies!

    3. @Liz, I do remember how wringer washer and put rubber diapers through that wringer diapers and explodes and I ruined a couple of shirts
      Did you ever get anything caught in a wringer?or ruined a couple of shirts?
      an article of the wash may
      wrap several times around a roller before it is noticed; unwinding such a
      piece is often difficult, sometimes impossible without removing a roller.

  20. Would laying a plastic shower curtain in the sun get rid of mold? I usually just buy a new one when they get too bad. Maybe I should try it.

  21. I’m also on the damp West Coast. After watching my diapers get stained all winter I recently read that you could “sun” them even on cloudy days. I gave it a try and it worked really well!! It took longer (most of the day honestly) but the UV rays are less so it is easier on the diapers.

    Apparently rainy days work best, as it keeps the diapers nice and wet!

  22. Here’s my sun bleach story: I live in the sunny-almost-all-the-time (except when we *want* it to be sunny) part of the West Coast & I discovered you can actually sun your diapers *too much*, believe it or not. My diapers started getting little holes in the organic cotton, so I had them replaced (BumGenius has an awesome 1 year warranty!). I repeated this same cycle of new diapers & little holes & replacement diapers two more times before I moved to an apt that doesn’t have proper laundry facilities. So I started putting my diapers in the dryer on my twice monthly laundry day & lo & behold my diapers stopped getting holes in them! All that to say, the winter might be a good time to toss your diapers in the dryer (on low) & give them a little break from the sun. πŸ™‚

  23. I love to “bleach” my diapers in the sun when necessary, and also my kids cups and the high chair tray as it tends to get stained with tomato sauce and the like. With the tray and cups, etc I add lemon juice. My mom was lamenting a particularly tough food stain on some bowls once and I suggested she use lemon and sun – she said, “I don’t have that” thinking I meant some specialty product πŸ™‚

  24. Here in Australia we are blessed with lovely sunny weather most of the year, and no snow (in our area at least). I only ever use a dryer when we have a prolonged rainy season or occasionally in winter to finish drying clothes completely on a not-so-sunny day. I’ve never had a problem with anything developing holes, or bird droppings. Occasionally there is a yellow spot from a bug but that’s all. The sun is a wonderful natural resource and it is a shame that in some areas the use of clotheslines is prohibited. We put everything out in the sun that we can, must remember to put our pillows in the sun one day soon …

  25. 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?

    1. 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!

  26. 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!

  27. 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!!!

  28. 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.

  29. 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! πŸ™‚ http://www.countercultureliving.com

  30. 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!

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

  32. 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!)

  33. 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!

  34. 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.

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