One of the reasons that pit stains are so tricky is that they’re not actually one single thing; they’re caused by your sweat, yes, but also by the ingredients in the antiperspirants we use to curb our sweat. A way to cut back on the trauma visited upon your shirts is to change the type of deodorantyou’re using—opting for a formula that doesn’t contain aluminum will help matters greatly. There’s a chemical reaction that happens between sweat, aluminum, and the fabric of your shirts that results in not only those ugly yellow stains, but also that sort of crusty stiffness that so often plagues the underarms of our shirts.
Another important thing to understand about the science behind pit stains is that the sweat itself is protein. Whenever you’re dealing with a protein stain of any kind, always avoid the use of bleach, which can make protein stains appear more yellow than they were to begin with.
Keeping Pit Stains at Bay with Better Laundering Practices
Our Letter Writer mentioned that he was using “sprays”—laundry pre-treatment products used to eliminate stains—on his shirts, which is a good thing to do. However, they weren’t working for him, which I suspect is happening for one of two reasons (or both!). The first possibility is that the product isn’t the right one for the job, and the other is that it’s not being used in a way that maximizes its efficacy.
In terms of your product choices, look for something enzymatic, which is going to be the ticket to combat protein stains. Two brands to look out for are Zout and Seventh Generation Stain Remover. When it comes to using pre-treatment sprays, they’ll be more effective if you apply them to the shirt right after you take it off. One thing I personally find helpful, that I share with you in the event you’re like, “Oh my God, I have to spray my shirts with stain remover every night??? What kind of monster are you?” is to leave the bottle right next to the hamper. That way it’s right there and you can grab, spritz, and toss the shirt in the laundry bin.
When it comes time to get those shirts into the washer, there are some add-ons you may want to consider using in addition to your regular detergent. The umbrella term for these types of products is “laundry boosters” and, in the case of pit stains, you want a booster that will help to remove stains (there are boosters for odors, for keeping darks dark, for whitening whites, and so on; eventually we’ll talk about those but we already have a TON to cover today). Borax is a great one, as are oxygenated bleaches like Clorox Oxi Magic, which have a different chemical structure from chlorine bleach and are highly effective when it comes to treating protein stains. Using a scoop of one of those products as part of your regular laundry routine is going to go a long way in keeping your shirts from getting to the point where they’re permanently stained and suffering from that cardboard-y stiffness.
Saving Wrecked Shirts
Of course, our Letter Writer’s shirts are well past the point where regular laundering, even with the inclusion of boosters, is going to make a dent in the problem. Which means it’s time for some serious triage efforts, in the form of soaking the shirts in oxygenated bleach for an extended period of time. Never fear, this is a fairly hands-off endeavor.
The idea here is to allow the shirts to experience prolonged exposure (anywhere from an hour to overnight) to laundry products that machine washing can’t offer. The soaking can take place in a number of places—the kitchen sink (bathroom sinks aren’t likely to be big enough for this operation), the bathtub, a utility sink or bucket, or even right in the washing machine, provided you don’t have a HE model (HE machines won’t fill with enough water for this purpose). The idea is to find a place that is roomy enough for your shirts to be fully submerged in water. For our purposes today, we’ll use the kitchen sink as the site of this theoretical soaking.
Before you begin, you’ll want to ensure that wherever you’re performing this operation is clean. This is especially true if you’re using the kitchen sink, which is a thing pretty much everyone should be cleaning more than they are. Again, that’s another post for another day. Just: Clean the sink. You don’t want to be soaking your shirts in salmonella.
We’re going to start with hot water, which will help the oxygenated bleach dissolve fully. The water will cool (duh) over the course of the soaking, so really the temperature thing is just to help the products get settled. In terms of how much to use, generally speaking, use the same measurements you’d use in a regular load of laundry (oxygenated bleaches tend to come with a scoop for measuring dosages).
Now it’s time to submerge the shirts, using your hands to swirl them about in order to work the solution of water and oxygenated bleach through the fibers. Then, just leave them be. For, like, a long time. An hour, at least, but honestly the longer the better—overnight is ideal. You can also help matters along by rubbing the fabric against itself from time to time while the shirt is enjoying its long soak. In the case of the Letter Writer’s shirts, that have gone stiff from his antiperspirant, using a laundry brush will help greatly to relieve the fabric of all that build-up.
When the shirts are done soaking, drain the water (though please do pause to admire the satisfyingly gross shade of gray it will have turned as all the sludge seeps out of your shirts!) and squeeze the shirts to extrude excess water, being careful not to wring the fibers to prevent stretching and/or fraying. Then launder the shirts as usual and prepare to rejoice because you, my friend, have just succeeded in saving your T-shirts from an ugly, pit-stained future.