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How to Wash Dress Shirts the Right Way

If you have ever favored a quality dress shirt in your closet, you’ve certainly learned the hard way that maintaining it is every bit as important to your wear as it’s fit.  Life has so many colorful add-ons just dying to throw themselves on your treasured attire from foods, to ink, to sweat, to grease, that it’s a wonder why all men don’t just wear aprons every day.  So, it goes without saying that eventually, we all must learn the proper methods of how to wash dress shirts.  Here is some time-honored instruction to keep you looking clean and sharp.

Firstly, the nature of a stain is important to identify in order to understand what is needed to take it out.   This is the reason why you may have experienced a dry-cleaning service not quite able to remove a stubborn stain from your favorite dress shirt in the past.  Dry cleaners do a decent job overall, but simply put, taking the same approach to every stain isn’t totally effective.  So, we can’t discuss how to wash dress shirts without addressing specific stains.  Generally, the most persistent stains will fall into 3 categories: 

  • An organic enzyme-based stain, for example, blood or grass.
  • A grease or oil-based stain which includes fats or petroleum products like inks and lubricants.

  • An oxidizable color stain, which means most consumables like coffee, juice, wine, tomato sauce, and tea.

Before Cleaning, Always Test Your Stain First

It may be tempting to just throw a stained shirt in the wash or in a soak, but it’s important to test if there is a danger of the stain bleeding first.  Accidentally discoloring a whole dress shirt, especially white cotton is a frustrating lesson to learn. Tamping a stained area with a very damp cloth will tell you if you are dealing with something that readily breaks down with water alone.  If it does, simply pre-treat that area with regular detergent and run it through a machine or manual wash and soak cycle.  If it was reactive to water the stain should come up from most dress shirts.  Mind your labels because not all dress shirt materials wash the same and remember that when in doubt, always use a cold or low warmth wash.

What to Use on Stubborn Stains

Try vinegar on mud, juice, grass, coffee, and any stain that is plant-based first.  The science behind it is vinegar’s high acidity which can dissolve most sticky compounds, even glue.  So, what’s the preferred technique in how to wash dress shirts using vinegar?    A cold soak for 30 minutes prior to the wash should loosen the stain.  For more stubborn stains like wine don’t be afraid to combine vinegar with detergent or baking soda for a rub directly on the stain prior to the soak.

Acidity isn’t the only way that stains react.  Some stains like tea, coffee, red wine, or even collar sweat stains may need more chemical help to remove their lingering colors from your fabric with hydrogen peroxide or bleach.  These agents break down chromophores which are the color holding agents in a chemical structure.  Start with tamping a mix of water and peroxide directly on the stain and manually rub fabric on fabric. Move on to bleach and water mixes cautiously with your colored dress shirts.

Alcohol as a solvent shares chemical structures similar to ballpoint pen ink. Like acetone (nail polish remover), like-solvents mix well with ink and other oil-based compounds, making them the ideal dissolvers of it.  This is a similar concept found in degreasers.  Once acetone, degreaser, or alcohol are introduced to your fabric, the hydrogen and oxygen of water readily wash it right out.  Be careful when working ink and oil stains out.  Because you are adding to a like-compound, rubbing it on fabric can potentially make a colored ink stain spread.  The idea is to loosen the stain, then wash it out. Try tamping the solution on with a damped cloth first, then add more as necessary directly to the stain.  Rinse with water and repeat. 

A final word on technique as we discuss how to wash dress shirts; not all fabrics are the same. While some can withstand a light brushing without showing much wear, others may show pitting or stranding following too much abrasion. Always use careful discretion and let your shirt fabric determine how forcefully a stain should be removed.

No matter how many blemishes your dress shirt should encounter in a day, remember there are proper methods to get just about anything out.  So be calm. Wear your dress shirt confidently and wash it the right way.

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