Dye bleed on clothing is a common problem that can happen for a few different reasons. When dye from one fabric transfers onto another, it leaves behind spots, stains, or dye “bleeding”. While it may seem permanent, there are a number of methods you can try to remove dye that has bled onto clothing or other textiles.
What causes dye bleed in clothes?
There are a few key things that can lead to dye bleed in laundry:
- Using hot water – Hot water makes dye molecules more soluble and likely to run. Lukewarm or cold water is best for items prone to bleeding.
- Overloading – Overcrowding your washing machine can lead to excess rubbing and friction that pushes dye out.
- Mixing fabrics – Washing fabrics with contrasting colors in the same load can transfer dye if it’s loose or unstable.
- Age or wear – Older fabrics or clothes that are worn out can have weakened dye bonds more likely to bleed.
- Cheap dyes – Lower quality dyes may not have strong chemical bonds to the fabric, leading to easy bleeding.
How to remove dye bleed from clothes
If you’ve discovered a dye bleed problem in your laundry, there are several good techniques you can try to remove the dye:
Rinse with cold water
Rinsing the stained clothing in cold water can help limit further bleeding. Hot water can make the situation worse. Run cool water through the back of the stain until the water runs clear.
Wash with salt
Washing dye bleed stains in a salt solution can help draw out and absorb excess dye. Dissolve 1/2 cup of table salt into a basin or sink full of cold water. Soak the clothing for 30 minutes, then launder as usual.
White vinegar is acidic enough to help remove unstable dyes. Fill a bucket with cold water and 1 cup white vinegar. Let the stained clothing soak for an hour, then wash normally.
Try lemon juice
Like vinegar, lemon juice can also dissolve and lift dye due to the citric acid. Mix 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice into cold water in a sink or tub. Let garments soak for 1 hour before washing as usual.
Glycerin has dye dissolving properties that can help pull color out of fabric. Add 1/2 cup glycerin to a sink or bucket full of cold water. Soak clothing for at least 30 minutes, then rinse and launder as normal.
Rub with bar soap
For small stains, gently rubbing a bar of soap into the dye bleed before washing can help lift color. The soap molecules bond to loose dye and wash it away more effectively.
Bleach white items
On white fabrics, a diluted bleach solution may remove stubborn dye stains that other methods can’t tackle. Make a 10:1 ratio of cold water to bleach in a bucket. Soak whites only for 10-30 minutes maximum.
Use a stain remover
Laundry stain remover sprays and sticks can be used to pre-treat dye bleed stains according to package directions before washing. Check that they are safe for the particular fabric.
Try a color grabber
Washing with a color grabber or dye magnet sheet can attract loose dyes through absorption technology. They can be useful additions if dye continues to bleed after pre-treating.
Tips to prevent dye bleed
Stopping dye bleed before it happens will save you the effort of trying to remove it later. Here are handy laundry tips to avoid dye transfer and bleeding:
- Wash new colored items separately the first few times.
- Sort clothes by color and wash lights and darks separately.
- Use cold or warm water instead of hot water that can loosen dyes.
- Don’t overload the washing machine to reduce friction.
- Add salt or vinegar to help set unstable dyes in new fabrics.
- Turn clothing with prints and graphics inside-out before washing.
- Check clothing tags for washing instructions related to dye bleed.
What fabrics and colors most often bleed?
Certain fabrics, dye types, and colors tend to bleed and transfer more easily in the wash. Being aware can help you take precautions:
Synthetic and direct dyes have weaker bonds compared to natural dyes like indigo. Exercise caution when washing items labeled dry-clean only as home laundering can loosen dyes not set for wet cleaning.
Will hair dye bleed onto clothes?
Freshly dyed hair can absolutely rub off onto clothing if you aren’t careful. The first few washes after coloring hair are when most transfer occurs. Here are some tips to avoid hair dye bleeding onto clothes:
- Drape an old towel around shoulders when styling newly dyed hair.
- Wear a shower cap for bathing the first couple weeks after coloring.
- Avoid light fabrics that will readily show dye stains.
- Wash darks and lights separately.
- Use color catcher sheets in early washes.
- Pre-treat any stains that do happen right away.
Will laundry sanitizer stop dye bleed?
Using a laundry sanitizing product is not guaranteed to prevent dye bleed since it works by killing bacteria rather than binding with dye molecules. However, sanitize cycles do use higher wash temperatures that can better set dyes. It is still best to launder new colored fabrics separately at first.
Dye bleed can be frustrating, but a little extra care and the right techniques can help remove it from clothing and prevent future transfers. Washing susceptible items in cold water is key, along with pre-treating stains immediately with things like salt, vinegar or glycerin. Remembering to separate lights, darks, and new items will also keep your laundry colors from running into each other. With some diligence, dye bleed doesn’t have to ruin your favorite garments.