Keeping it crisp: how to care for white shirts

An old friend once described her style to me as, “like an apple, crisp and fresh”. The description was apt for that period of our lives (early 20s) and although a decade has passed, I still think of it every time I put on a white shirt.

The wardrobe classic looks best when it is exactly that: bright white, crisp and fresh. But keeping it that way is not always straightforward.

The life of the shirt will be partially determined by its composition. Jade Sarita Arnott, the creative director of slow fashion brand Arnsdorf, recommends choosing natural fibres such as organic cotton, linen, hemp or Tencel. She says, “steer away from synthetic fabrics or synthetic blends as these attract odours and trap bacteria”.

Steve Anderton, a laundry expert from the consultancy group LTC Worldwide, says this is because “polyester tends to cling tenaciously to oily contamination [including skin sebum]", and also to greasy food stains from “salad dressing, chicken fats and fish oils”.

Anderton warns the chemicals in deodorant stains makes them “virtually impossible to remove”. To avoid them, he suggests waiting for your deodorant to completely dry before putting your shirt on.

While they’re not particularly popular in a warm Australian climate, wearing an undershirt will also help with soaking up sweat before it hits your shirt.

Sarita Arnott and Anderton both suggest keeping white garments away from all other colours in the wash. Sarita Arnott explains that this prevents dyes from other clothes tinting whites.

An all-white wash will also allow you to pick a specialised detergent that may not be as kind to other colours. Anderton recommends choosing a premium detergent with a suspending agent like sodium silicate salts, so that once the dirt has been removed from your shirt in the machine, it will stay in the water, and off the fabric, for the rest of the wash. This prevents the shirt from turning grey.

He says your detergent should contain an emulsifier, such as citric acid, to solubilise greasy food stains (this will even help stained polyester). A mild oxidising agent such as sodium perborate will help de-colour any vegetable dye stains from things like coffee, tea, red wine, beetroot or grass.

The other thing to look out for is detergent containing enzymes like protease or proteinase, which will digest food and drink stains and work well at a low wash temperature. If this is all a bit technical, Choice has run lab tests to figure out which detergents are best.

Often collars and cuffs are the first places to go yellow. Anderton says this is because “grime tends to accumulate on fabric which gets rubbed repeatedly against the skin in normal wear”.

He suggests pre-treating collars and cuffs to keep these areas white by following these steps: “wet them out and scrub for a few seconds with a medium-hard, natural bristle brush dipped in a liquid detergent”.

If this doesn’t work, unfortunately the fabric might have been discoloured by skin oils from a previous wash, where they were not removed, “either with the heat of a previous drying, or ironing, or simply over time”. To avoid this, Anderton advises paying “special attention to pre-treating the yellowed areas, otherwise they will not wash out”.

Although sweat and skin oil can be more complicated, él dice, “most food and drink marks will wash out very easily, provided they have a cool pre-wash (below 40C) to prevent stain setting”.

Sarita Arnott recommends targeting stains by making a paste from baking soda and water, applying the paste directly to any oily stains and leaving it overnight before washing the garment. After this treatment, Sarita Arnott advises using “a cold or 30C gentle machine wash”. She says, “you can also add baking soda in your regular washing load to brighten whites and keep them looking fresh”.

To dry white shirts Sarita Arnott suggests hanging them outside in the fresh air because “sunlight can also brighten whites”.

This should be even more impactful if you have used a detergent with an optical brightening agent, says Anderton. It should “lock on to the cotton fibres and converts the invisible, ultraviolet portion of natural daylight into brilliant white light” which will make the shirt glow.

Sarita Arnott says you can avoid some ironing “if you hang the shirt on the line or on a coat hanger” to dry, because most of the creases will fall out in the process. But she warns, “if you are using a coat hanger make sure to use one with a light wood or metal or plastic rather than a dark wood that may transfer the colour”.

If you do need to iron, Anderton recommends doing so while the shirt is still slightly damp, using a medium temperature iron. Turn it inside out, start with the back of the collar, and the yoke across the shoulders, then progress to the sleeves and finally work around the body. He says to avoid pressing hard creases into the sleeves or any pleats, to maximise the fabric life.




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