Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha. Her work has appeared in GQ, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times and Town & Country. A graduate of Barnard College, Jolie lives in a tiny Manhattan apartment with her five vacuum cleaners.
Over time, white bed sheets turn yellow; it is both a normal and unavoidable fact of the way sheets are used. When we sleep on them, naturally occurring body oils, sweat, and dead skin (the primary cause of yellow staining) become embedded in the fibers.
While yellowing is impossible to prevent completely, there are some ways to stave off the inevitable. Learn the reasons why white sheets turn yellow and what you can do to address those causes, plus washday tips that will leave white sheets as clean and bright-white as possible.
There are a number of reasons that white sheets go yellow, but most of the culpability rests with you—literally! The primary cause of yellowing in sheets is body soil buildup which, in human terms, means sweat, dead skin, and sebum, the natural oils that the body produces. While sweat bears the brunt of the blame for yellowing in sheets, it's actually sebum first, followed by dead skin then sweat, that is responsible for turning your bright white sheets into an unattractive shade of yellow.
In addition, the products we use on our face, body, and hair contribute to the yellowing of white sheets. Everything from lotion to deep conditioning treatments can leave behind buildup that creates yellow staining on white bedding.
Finally, there are functional mistakes, like improper washing and storage, that contribute to white sheets taking on a yellow or dingy cast. These include the overuse of laundry products, overstuffing the washing machine, and storing sheets in plastic.
Given that the causes of yellowing in white sheets mostly rest with us, it's worth considering a few changes to your bedtime routine. Employing these tips comes down to a matter of personal choice, so think of them more as suggestions rather than prescriptions.
A clean body transfers less body soil to white sheets than a dirty body. Showering before bed, even if it's a quick one-minute rinse, will help keep white sheets from taking on the yellow cast caused by body soils.
The less contact your body has with white sheets, the less dead skin and sebum buildup will occur. Wearing pajamas—the more coverage the better!—will protect your sheets by serving as a barrier between you and them.
Human body soils aren't the only ones that contribute to the yellowing of sheets: Fluffy and Fido bear some culpability too. If you have pets who sleep in the bed with you, consider banishing them from your white sheets and setting them up with their own bed instead.
The products we use on ourselves, such as moisturizers, hair treatments, and ointments, transfer onto white sheets while we sleep. Allowing products to dry completely on the body before slipping between your white sheets can help, as will cutting back on their use or opting to use them in the morning.
Some simple adjustments to washing and storing white sheets will keep them looking bright white for years to come. Here are eight tips to incorporate when washing and storing white sheets.
Experts recommend washing sheets every 1-2 weeks. If you have white bedding, you'll want to err on the more frequent side of that equation. Because buildup from body soils is the primary contributor to the yellowing of white sheets, washing them more frequently will keep staining from skin and sebum from becoming set in over time.
Just as with white clothing, treating stains on white sheets as they happen is an important part of keeping them white—and this rule doesn't just apply to stains that occur because of spills or accidents. It also applies to some specific places where staining from body soils is typically found: At the top edge of top sheets and/or duvet covers, in the center of the bottom sheet, and in the center of pillowcases. Giving these spots a light spritz with an enzymatic stain remover will help to remove staining. Using a whitening laundry booster, like oxygen bleach, in addition to regular detergent will also help to maintain the bright white appearance of sheets.
Because of their bulk, sheets need room to move in the washing machine in order for water and detergent to thoroughly penetrate the fibers and wick away the buildup that contributes to a dingy appearance. In order to achieve the best clean possible, do not overstuff the machine when washing sheets. Aim for a load that fills no more than ¾ of the drum to ensure the sheets have plenty of room to move.
When it comes to washing and storing white sheets, it's best to do so with like items, such as other white bedding or towels, to prevent dye transfer. If your washday routine doesn't allow for separating whites from darks, an in-wash dye catcher sheet can prevent colors from bleeding onto white sheets.
The overuse of products like laundry detergent, liquid fabric softener, scent beads, and even whiteners such as oxygen bleach leaves product buildup, creating a dingy appearance on sheets. Measure carefully and resist the urge to use more detergent and/or boosters than necessary.
The extra rinse cycle on the washer is one of the secret workhorses of your machine. Selecting the extra rinse cycle removes excess product from the overuse of detergent, fabric softeners, or stain treatments, leaving sheets cleaner.
If you have the option to line- or rack-dry white sheets outside, take it. Sunshine is a powerful whitener.
When it comes to putting away white sheets, avoid plastic storage bins and bags, especially for long-term storage. Plastic restricts airflow, causing yellowing over time. Instead, opt for storage bags or bins made of linen or cotton.
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