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Washing Machines

How to make your stained dress shirts dapper again

Here’s how to salvage soiled shirts with a little TLC.

Brian Bennett/CNET

This dress shirt's collar has seen better days.

Brian Bennett/CNET

It's hard to say goodbye to good dress shirts that have served you well. It's also tough to ignore any unsightly stains the garments may have gathered. Don't despair. There are ways to bring your once proud button-downs back from the brink. You don't have to spend tons of money to attempt to fix them either. All it takes is a little time, elbow grease and using the right washer cycle.

So whether it's sweat, food and drink, or a plain old ring-around-the collar that put a damper on your shirt style, there's hope. This guide will help you breathe new life into your old fancy clothing.

Step 1: Figure out your fabric

Traditional dress shirts of the buttoned variety are usually spun from 100 percent cotton. Thankfully cotton plant fibers are hardy and can withstand high heat levels, either during laundry cycles, in the dryer, or when under a hot iron. Cotton is sturdy enough to take the agitation washing machines and dryers dish out too.

Synthetic textiles are less forgiving and should be treated gently, either washed in warm or cold (not hot) water, dried under low heat, and with low spin cycles. Always double check your shirt's fabric care label though, just to be on the safe side.  

Nasty pit stains are this shirt's problem.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 2: Examine the damage

First make a note of the location and color of the stain. If you see discoloration around the armpits or inside the collar, these blemishes were likely caused by sweat. While mostly water, perspiration is actually a complex soup of organic compounds, salts and minerals, even urea. Yuck.

Residue from antiperspirants and deodorants can gather in these spots too along with airborne dust and dirt. The resulting mix can play havoc with clothing fibers and their dyes, creating yellow stains, white splotches or dark patches over time. Marks of grime in other locations such as down your shirt front could be from a wide range of materials. Common culprits are food and drink spills or grease splatter.

Step 3: Use the right cleaner

Your best chances of removing ugly shirt stains hinge on choosing the right cleaning agent. Oxygen bleach is quite effective for treating fabric soiled by sweat, blood and other bodily substances.

Sold under many brand names including OxiClean and Oxi Max, these products work by breaking up organic compounds within stains into smaller pieces. Detergents can then more effectively lift the stain from fabric, then dissolve everything in wash water that your washing machine flushes away during its rinse cycle.   

Standard laundry detergents can also destroy shirt stains, particularly those caused by food. Many of these soaps contain enzymes that essentially digest stain ingredients, dicing their molecules into bits. In this way proteins (eggs, dairy, grass) and starches are attacked and disposed of.

Step 4: Target and pretreat trouble spots

When dealing with areas of heavy staining, it's a good idea to target them for special treatment. Depending on the type of stain, dab the section with detergent or stain remover solution then give it some time to work. Budget anywhere from five minutes to a few hours for your shirts to sit.

After a sufficient time has elapsed, toss your pretreated items into the wash and launder as you normally would. Examine the garment again closely before drying. If you still see visible staining then repeat the process or try something different.

Mix up a cleaning solution in a spare sink.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 5: Soak your shirts

Sometimes you have to take drastic steps to get results. For shirts with hardcore grime, it's hard to beat a long soak in an oxygen bleach solution. Locate a sink deep enough to submerge your troubled threads, one you don't mind cleaning thoroughly after. If you're fortunate to have a laundry room utility sink use that.

Fill the sink three quarters of the way full with hot water, add a good amount of oxygen bleach (as indicated on the label) and stir to fully dissolve. In my case I used OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover powder. Oxygen bleach is gentle in terms of cleaning power compared to standard chlorinated bleach and takes longer to act. The upside is the chemical is relatively safe to use on colored fabric, isn't deadly poisonous, and way better for the environment. Anticipating this, I let my shirts sit overnight in the sink for more than 12 hours.

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Soak soiled shirts overnight for a deep clean.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 6: Run everything through the washer

If all works out then the last step, besides drying, is to run your shirts through the washing machine. Process them as you normally would, though adding some oxygen bleach along with regular detergent will also increase your washer's stain removing muscle.

Another tactic I recommend is activating any specialty stain cycles or settings if your washing machine has one. In my case I engaged the "Stain Removal Guide" function on the GE top load washer (model GTW685BSLWS) I had on hand. The machine offers five targeted stain removal options (blood, tomato, wine, dirt and grass). For the record I chose the modified cycle for "Tomato" stains.

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If your washer has special settings to tackle stains use them.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Finally take your shirts out of the wash and look them over. Right away I noticed big improvements in my once horribly stained shirts. After a trip through the dryer plus a fast ironing, they were close to spotless. Not bad for items that were destined for the trash.

Dingy shirts before (above) and after treatment (below). Wow, that's an improvement! 

Brian Bennett/CNET

Of course if you're not satisfied with your results, repeat the process. Just hold off on tossing items in the dryer unless nothing seems to help. Some stains become irreversible when exposed to high heat.