Help! Sunscreen's destroying my clothes

The idea of using sunscreen has been drilled in to our heads for so many years, it's hardly an option to skip using it when heading out to the beach or going to a pool for the day.

But does keeping you and your children and your children safe from the sun have to mean being sorry that swimsuits and clothes you wear will be ruined? Complaints about losing clothes to sunscreen litter the Web.

In small print, the major sunscreen companies warn this could happen and aren't very apologetic about it. (At the bottom, we offer a series of tips for how to try to save your sunscreen-stained clothes and swimsuits.)Heidi Parthena White of Charlton, Mass., who owns an advertising and design firm, said she has become accepting of the trade-off. With a fair-skinned family and a loved one who already has had skin cancer, she said not using sunscreen isn't an option. So, she said her family will wear darker clothing when she knows they will be outside and wearing sunscreen throughout the day. Sunscreen stains don't tend to show on darker clothing.

White said she lost a light-colored suit last year to sunscreen. "I've never been able to clean sunscreen stains," she said.

Jennifer Samolewicz, a spokeswoman for Coppertone's parent company, Schering-Plough, said the blame lies with avobenzone -- a key ingredient in many sunscreens. When avobenzone mixes in the wash with minerals found in the water in certain parts of the country, it could lead to stains.

"We are aware of this issue, since we place the warning on the back of the bottles," said Jamie Hector, a spokesperson for Playtex Products, which owns the Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic brands. "As happens with many ingredients in various products from cosmetics to food, some tend to stain some fabrics."

Neither company would specifically discuss how they handle calls from consumers angry that their clothes have been ruined. Both said they handle the situations case by case. In other words, you can't get something if you don't ask.

You can reach Banana Boat at (800) 723-3786, Hawaiian Tropic at (800) 668-8729, and Coppertone at (866) 288-3330.

To help avoid getting the stains in the first place, the companies suggest not getting the sunscreen on clothes. "We recommend that consumers allow enough time for sunscreen to absorb into the skin and dry before applying clothing," Playtex's spokesperson said.

Since that isn't always possible, here is Coppertone's advice (the Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic folks offered none):

  • Wash clothing with a heavy-duty detergent.
  • If the water has a high iron content, use water softener (not to be confused with fabric softener). Be sure to wash and rinse clothing in water with water softener.
  • Waterless hand cleaners are sometimes effective.
  • Heat and chlorine bleach make the problem worse if problem is from iron content. If stain is still present, launder with a commercial rust remover. Commercial rust removers are for use only on white or colorfast fabrics.
  • If iron content in water is not an issue: pretreat the stain with a heavy duty liquid detergent or make a paste with powder detergent/water and let this set on fabric at least 30 minutes or overnight for touch stains. Then launder as usual. Check clothing before drying. If stain remains, repeat.
  • It may also be effective is to soak clothing in a strong solution of a bleach for colored fabrics then launder as usual.

Do not put clothing in clothes dryer until stain is removed.

We then put the question to Harold Baker, AKA Dr. Laundry, a stain scientist who works for Clorox Corp. He said avobenzone is not the only culprit -- although mixing it with water from certain locations certain can cause stains -- so reading labels isn't likely to help avoid a staining sunscreen.

He offered detailed advice on removing the stains.

"Removal success can vary depending on prior treatment and fiber type -- synthetic fibers tend to absorb and hold oily parts while cottons tend to hold the finer particulates," Baker said. "We need to treat the greasy portion first so NO water."

Here are Dr. Laundry's sunscreen stain removal tips:

  1. Quickly blot up any excess with a paper towel or cloth, try not to rub hard to avoid pushing it further into the fiber. We want to remove as much stain as possible and not make our removal more difficult.
  2. Do NOT dryer dry the item; air drying should be OK if you're not going to wash immediately after wearing. Dryer heat can drive the remaining oily portion of the stain into the fiber and "set" the stain.
  3. Pretreat using a good liquid laundry or liquid dish soap; apply and rub it into the stain; wait 5-10 minutes. Here we're trying to dissolve the oily part and help lift the particulates off the fabric.
If your stained item is white:

  1. Wash immediately in hottest water recommended on the care label with detergent and ¾ cup of bleach. (Of course, he recommends Clorox.)
  2. Check for success at the end of the wash cycle. Inspect the item. If any stain remains, repeat the steps above before drying the item.

If your stained item has color:

  1. Wash in warmest water recommended using detergent and color-safe bleach.
  2. Check for success at the end of the wash cycle. Inspect the item. If any stain remains, repeat the steps above prior to drying the item.
  3. If retreating is required, apply color-safe bleach; rub it into the stain; wait 5-10 minutes then wash in the warmest water recommended on the care label.
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