We’ve all experienced this or something like it: One new red sock accidentally goes into the washing machine with a load of whites, and for the next week everyone is wearing pink underwear and T-shirts. Some garments aren’t colorfast, which means the dye used to color the fabric will come off in the washing machine—and onto the rest of your clothes. Fortunately a laundry accident like this doesn’t have to ruin your wardrobe; there are several ways to get the stains out.
The best way to keep a garment with loose dye from contaminating your other clothes is to wash it separately. Test for colorfastness by wetting a small, inconspicuous area of the fabric (such as an inside seam or hem allowance), then ironing it through a paper towel. If color comes off on the paper towel, the item is not colorfast; wash it separately in cold water. If you do have dye bleed into a washing-machine load, empty the machine and run a cycle of hot soapy water to remove any remaining dye from the drum.
In the case of a red sock in a load of white clothes, you may be able to remove the stain by simply running the cycle again (minus the red sock) using hot water, detergent and chlorine bleach. Check the garment label if you’re not sure whether something can be bleached. This method works well with white shorts, T-shirts, towels, sheets and other cotton linens, though you may have to repeat the laundering two or three times to remove all traces of the dye.
If the stained clothing isn’t white, run it through a machine cycle using detergent and liquid color-safe bleach. The water should be as hot as the fabric will allow; check the label for temperature instructions. Check the clothing when it comes out of the washing machine; if the stain is still there, repeat the laundering. Don’t put the clothing in the dryer. Heat may cause the dye to set permanently.
If the stain is stubborn, use a dye remover. These are made to eradicate color from fabric before dying it, and they can also be used to remove accidental marks made by loose dye. It’s safe for any fabric that can be washed in hot water (check the garment label) and works on almost any fabric. It can be found wherever fabric dye supplies are sold as well as in the laundry aisle of your grocery store.
If all else fails, or if dye has rubbed off of one piece of clothing onto another that can’t be machine-laundered, take the stained clothing to a dry cleaner. If you know where the loose dye came from, bring that fabric along too—it may help the professionals know how to treat the stain. If they can’t remove the blemish from your favorite piece of clothing, you can always dye it black.