Dear Home-Ec 101,
Why do my black shirts come out of the laundry with red/reddish patches?
Spotty in Spartanburg
Laundry mysteries are always fun.
Not too long ago we had an issue where one of my children’s s t-shirts were always ripping under one of the arms. We checked the inside of the washer for a rough edge—despite knowing it wouldn’t target only one person’s laundry out of six. No one has ever accused me of being completely rational all of the time.
Well, it was a mystery until I happened to see him take his shirt off at the pool. There was a lot of pulling, tugging, and elbows and flailing. A lightbulb went off, so that’s how it happens! A quick demonstration of Hey, take a breath and carefully remove your shirt, no more holes. Neat.
The red spots on your black t-shirts have a chemical cause. The dye that makes your t-shirts black has been partially removed by an agent leaving behind only the more colorfast (permanent) reddish color. If you continued to expose the fabric to bleaching agents the color would fade to near white.
Now it’s your turn to laundry detective to determine where the bleach that ruins your clothing lurks.
Bleach and whitening agents can be found in a lot of household products which leaves quite a few possibilities:
- Whitening toothpaste
- Whitening mouthwash
- Acne medication with benzoyl peroxide
- Disinfecting wipes or sprays
- Bleach from previous use incompletely rinsed or left on a surface in the laundry room
Figuring out which item is responsible is usually dependent on where the stain is. Toothpaste? Look for spatters similar to what shows up on the bathroom mirror (then clean the mirror). Mouth wash? Slightly larger drops, similar to food stains. Acne medication, think about how you remove your shirt and look for patches of discoloration where your face may be touched. Generally these areas are incompletely bleached as not much transfers. A recently bleached counter will often leave a line right at counter height from leaning in to the mirror to get a good look. Anything else a little splotchy is likely bleach left on a surface or incorrectly added to the washing machine.
And don’t feel badly, you aren’t the only one to wonder what causes red spots on clothing.
*Always be careful if you use a shared laundry machine and wash your laundry from lights to darks to prevent someone else’s bleach from ruining your clothing.* More public laundromat advice can be found here.
Submit your household mysteries to firstname.lastname@example.org.