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How to wash colored clothes and keep them from fading.

Last Updated: September 20, 2021

Running colors in your laundry got you down? Stop the bleeding, slow the fading, and keep your colors bright — here’s how to wash colored clothes the right way.

The very best way to keep your colored clothes from fading is to wash them less frequently. And that’s a great way to conserve water, energy, and laundry supplies, too! Did you expect us to pitch you with specialty laundry detergents right away? Guess again!

We’re starting this guide on how to wash colored clothes by suggesting you ask yourself:

”Does this garment really need washing?”

Grove laundry expert Angela Bell likes to keep a good enzyme-based stain remover on hand to spot-clean her clothes so she doesn’t have to wash them as often. “This allows me to embrace my mess-prone life yet still look fresh without washing the entire garment. I just spray it onto the stain, allow it to sit for a few, and blot clean with a wet cloth,” she says.

Now, if you’re holding a pair of worn socks or underpants and wondering if you should wash them, the answer is a resounding yes! But everything else? If it ain’t soiled, and it don’t stink — don’t wash it!

But when your colored clothes are soiled or do stink, here’s how to wash them to keep them colorful and bright — without harsh chemicals!

First, how does colored clothing fade?

Dyed clothing fades in three main ways:


When dyed fabrics rub against each other, color can transfer from one to the other.

That’s called crocking — and it can happen in the washing machine and the dryer.

Color bleeding

When dyed fabrics get wet, the dye leaches out of the fibers and into the water.

Some bleed a lot and stain other fabrics in the water. Some bleed very little and don’t affect other clothes.

Exposure to bleach or sunlight

Bleach chemically strips color from your clothes. The UV rays from sunlight degrade chromophores, which are chemical bonds present in dyes that absorb light at different wavelengths.

The Library of Congress explains this process simply and briefly.

Grove Tip

How to reduce color bleeding

Many garments will stop bleeding dye after a few washes. Others will bleed every time. Here’s what to do to help prevent it:

  • Set the dye: In some cases — but not all — you can set the dye by adding a half-cup of vinegar to the wash water.
  • Wash solo: When you buy new clothes, wash them alone to determine whether the colors bleed. If they do, always wash them with clothes of a very similar color.
  • Turn bleeders inside out: Turn new clothes inside-out for the first few washes, and always turn your denim jeans inside-out — unless you prefer the faded look.

How to sort laundry by color

Image of a woman doing laundry with two children

The first step to washing colored clothes is to properly sort your laundry. In general, you should wash dark, brightly colored, light-colored, and white clothing in separate loads.

If you want to get more specific with your sorting, put your clothes into these categories:

  • White clothes that don’t have any colors on them
  • Lighter, pastel-colored clothes, including whites that have patches of color
  • Reds and pinks
  • Bright purples, oranges, and yellows
  • Bright blues and greens
  • Dark items, including black, dark gray, and dark blue
  • Denim, which tends to bleed more heavily, especially when it’s new

Here’s how to prepare your sorted clothes for washing:

Read the care label

The labels sewn into your clothing items aren’t just there to scratch your neck. They tell you whether the garment can be machine-washed and dried — and if so, what cycle and temperature to use.

If you’re not familiar with the care symbols used on clothing labels, .our super-helpful, illustrated laundry symbol guide will clear it all up for you.

Pre-treat stains

Pre-treat stains on colored clothes with a natural stain remover. If you’ve never treated a particular garment, test it on an inconspicuous spot first.

Let the stain remover soak in for a few minutes, then wash as usual. Before you toss it in the dryer, check to make sure the stain is completely gone. If not, retreat and rewash.

Learn how to get all sorts of stains (poop, blood, wine) out of nearly anything (carpet, clothes, upholstery) with our helpful, how-to Stain Busters articles.

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How to wash colored clothes

You’ve sorted the clothes, checked the labels, and pre-treated the stains. Time to wash!

Here are the basics for washing colored clothes.

Thermometer illustration

What temperature?

Wash dark clothes in cold water, since warm water and hot water open up the fibers and let dye escape more readily, causing some colors to fade faster or bleed more easily.

These days, most detergents are formulated for cold water washing to save energy, so you can — and should — wash pretty much everything in your closet in cold water.

Bunny with ears forming a heart illustration

Which cycle?

Unless your colored clothes are caked in dried mud or otherwise heavily soiled, wash them on a gentle (or delicate) cycle.

It agitates the clothes less vigorously than the permanent press and normal cycles, and it has a slower spin cycle, so your clothes — and their colors — will last longer.

Green bottle illustration

What detergent?

Liquid laundry detergent is better than powder, which may leave residue on your clothes and dull their colors. Natural laundry detergents are better than conventional ones, which usually have toxic ingredients that can do a number on your clothes.

Some detergents are formulated specifically for colored or dark clothes, but any quality natural detergent will do.

Illustration with laundry items on blue background

Bonus tips for washing colored clothes

  • Add the laundry detergent to the water before you add the clothes to prevent spots and residue.
  • Add a half-cup of vinegar to your rinse water to help brighten colors.
  • Remove colored clothes from the washing machine right away so colors don’t leach.

Grove Tip

Can you use bleach on colored clothes?

Chlorine bleach? No, never.

But non-chlorine bleach — more commonly known as oxygen bleach or color-safe bleach — is hydrogen peroxide-based, so it’s safe to use on all colors and most fabrics.

Drying colored clothes

Dry flat or line-dry any clothes that can’t be machine-dried according to the care label. Even if they can be machine-dried, your clothes will stay brighter if you line-dry them — but keep them out of direct sunlight, which will fade some colors faster than a high-heat dryer.

To machine-dry your colored clothes, follow these general guidelines:

Thermometer illustration

What temperature?

Dry your colored clothes on low heat. High heat fades colors faster, and it sets stains, making them virtually impossible to remove.

Bunny with ears forming a heart illustration

Which cycle?

For all of your colored clothes, choose the gentle (delicate) cycle on your dryer, which reduces color-fading friction and general wear and tear.

Yellow checkmarked box illustration

What else?

Check for stains before you put colored clothes in the dryer so you don’t unwittingly set them. Pre-treat lingering stains again, and rewash the garment before you tumble it dry.

Want more sweet laundry-day tips? You’ll find all of them in our Ultimate Guide to Doing Laundry.

Grove Tip

How to get pink out of white clothes

If your red bled, and now your whites are pink, act right away — if you let the garments dry, you’ll have a much harder time getting the red out.

  1. Run cold water in your machine, and add an all-temperature non-chlorine bleach, according to the directions on the label. (Want more info about non-chlorine bleach? Grove expert Clem Choy, Ph.D, explains it all.)
  2. Toss in the clothes, let them soak for 30 minutes, then wash as usual.
  3. Still pink? Give them a deep-cleaning soak in your oxygen bleach, like Grove writer Kristen Bailey did with some really stained items.
  4. Still pink?! You may need to bite the bullet, concoct a weak chlorine bleach solution (1/4 cup of bleach to one gallon of cold water), soak for 15 minutes, then wash.

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