How to keep your summer whites white

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Summer whites: so crisp, so cool, so...impossible to keep clean, amiright?

See, I have a fraught relationship with this season's staple color. On the one hand, nothing looks quite so perfectly put together as head-to-toe whites when the weather warms up. On the other, nothing can make you feel like more of a hot mess than spilling food, wine, makeup or anything else for that matter and having to walk around in stained clothing for the rest of the day. And even if youdo manage to avoid getting hot sauce on your brand new Helmut Lang dress, there are still things like yellowing, greying and dulling to look out for over time. (And you wonder why New Yorkers wear so much black.)

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Personally, white clothes make up only a sliver of my wardrobe, precisely because I'm too afraid to invest in something that I'm reasonably certain I'm going to ruin (just last week I had to bid adieu to a month-old Aritzia pencil skirt after an unfortunate julep-sloshing incident.) Now that Memorial Day is finally here, however, I'm determined to pull it together and learn to keep my whites looking fresh—if only so I can channel Amal Clooney's flawless Venetian style or attempt to rock an ivory pantsuit à la Bianca Jagger. This meant calling in the big guns, namely Mary Johnson, fabric care principal scientist for Tide and Downy, and polling friends and colleagues for their very best tips that go way beyond the standard "separate your whites, brights and darks." Here's what we learned:

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1. Dirt attracts dirt. If an item isn't fully cleaned on the first go, it's liable to get dirtier and dingier over time. "People often think that dinginess or yellowing of their whites is caused by dye transfer from other clothes," says Johnson, "but actually it can be caused by a buildup of body soils (yuck!) that are not completely removed wash after wash by poor-performing laundry detergents." Find a detergent that gets the job done (she recommends Tide PODS plus Febreeze), remember not to overload your washer and don't let dirty clothes sit unwashed for too long, or else unwanted grime can set further into fabrics.

2. Bleach is often not your best bet. One person after another I talked to had horror stories involving well-intentioned attempts to get out stains on white clothing using household bleach. It seems like the obvious choice, after all, but in fact the chemical makeup of bleach can break down fabrics, especially synthetics, and even strip them of dye altogether, leaving a yellowed effect. "Bleach is very good for use as an antibacterial for clothes, but there are better alternatives for keeping your whites dazzling," says Johnson. "That is because bleach can be harsh on fabrics and shorten the life of your favorite whites. An additional down-side is that it can't be used on most colors or clothes with combination white plus colors."

3. Fight yellowing with specialized formulas. Rather than relying on your regular old detergent to get out months or even years of build-up, find a product designed specifically for cleaning and brightening whites. Johnson suggests adding Tide's Vivid White + Bright Booster to your regular wash for set-in dirt and soils (bonus: it's safe for colors, too, so that Breton striped tee won't get wrecked.) Bluing agents are another, somewhat old-fashioned alternative (Mrs. Stewart's is the two-century-old classic.) They work by adding microscopic particles of iron to fabrics to tint them slightly blue, counteracting the yellow hue that whites often take on over time. Be sure to follow the directions on the bottle carefully, however, especially when it comes to diluting the product, since the color can stain clothing when applied in excess.

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4. Be mindful of fabrication. Not all whites are created equal. Per Johnson: "Silks generally require special care as the natural fabric fibers are very fragile and prone to damage (think spider webs since natural silk fibers are spun by caterpillars!)" Hand washing is preferable, as is laying the garment flat to dry, and if you choose to machine wash, use the gentle cycle with like colors and fabrics. For linens, that perennial summer favorite, Johnson recommends washing with cold water to safeguard against shrinkage or distortion. It's generally ok to throw them in the dryer, as well, but use the low cycle, remove them before they're fully dry, and either hang them or lay them flat to maintain their original shape. As for your favorite white jeans (and any other denim), be sure to zip up the zippers, button up the buttons and turn everything inside out so there's no danger of damaging anything else in the wash. Especially delicate fabrics should be washed separately, since, as you'll know if you've ever had to swim in a pair of jeans, denim weighs a ton when its wet and can be abrasive against other materials.

5. When in doubt, protect yourself. If you're going to be devastated if your new white dress gets ruined, consider finding a cheaper alternative that won't break the bank (and your heart along with it.) Layer tank tops, camisoles or slips underneath white garments to prevent direct contact with skin (and thus dirt, sweat and oils), and throw on a sweater or scarf if you're wary of dinners with red wine. Pack a Tide To Go pen in your bag, a few garment shields for unexpectedly sweaty commutes and do your best to forgo any heavy makeup that might rub off on your collar. Beyond that, there's not much you can do beyond crossing your fingers, hoping for good luck and enjoying your pristine whites as long as you can. We'll be thinking our cleanest thoughts on your behalf!

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