Ask a Clean Person: Laundry School — Bras and Mildew and Taffy, Oh My!

Get out your notebooks, sharpen your pencils, hone your note-passing skills: Laundry School is in session! We’re devoting the entire month of May to the subject of laundry. And what fun would Laundry School be if you couldn’t backtalk the teacher, right? So! The Twitter hashtag for this is #LAUNDRYSCHOOL. If you follow me on Twitter (@joliekerr) you can holler at me when you do your laundry! Or lemme see those beautiful piles of folded clothes! Or ask questions! Or tweet at me in emergency situations! Or maybe you just really, really, really need to talk to me about how folding a fitted sheet sends you into fits of rage. This is me, being here for you. And because I try to be here for you in as many ways as possible, I’ve started a pinboard devoted entirely to laundry to serve as a reference source. Most importantly: got questions? Ask away!

I have two bras with deodorant stains on them that I cannot wear with tank tops for fear of people seeing how gross they are. One is black and has white stains, the other is red and has sort of dark and splotch-y areas in the armpits. Is there anything that can be done to save these bras? What about my beige bra with the darker pit areas? In the event that I have to accept that I have ruined these bras, what can be done to protect future lingerie?

As longtime readers of this column will remember I LOVE WASHING BRAS. Or as they’re called in my native tongue, brawrs. Can we all get behind calling them ‘brawrs’? I really would enjoy that so much.

So yes, there are absolutely ways to get the stains out of brawrs, and also ways to handle them so that the staining doesn’t get to the point where your boulder holder is no longer salvageable. That’s prevention and maintenance, as opposed to triage. Let’s take prevention and maintenance on first, and then talk triage. Oh and then when we’re done with that can we talk about our prettiest brawrs and what brands we really like and just totally GIRL OUT on the topic? Cool thanks! I just bought this set and am so in love with myself I can hardly stand it. Betsy Johnson, btw, is one of my favorite lines for underthings. They’re fashion-y, but also give great support and look super under clothes. But ole Bets isn’t so great for the gals who are DD+, which I hate. You and your glorious girls should have all the great choices available to the less busty among us!!

Prevention and Maintenance

The first thing to keep in mind when caring for your brassieres is that you’ll want to rotate your collection. A general rule of thumb is to not wear a bra more than once in a row without giving it a day off to recover from the trauma of holding your bosoms up all day. This is to help preserve the integrity of the elastic, which is sensitive to the heat and oils produced by your body. In terms of washing cycles, it’s obviously going to depend largely on the size of your collection, but for the sake of providing guidelines let’s go with trying to wash your frilly lacies every 3–6 wearings. Now I can hear some of you out there shouting, “But Jolie! My boobs don’t get dirty!” to which I’ll remind you that no, they don’t, but under your arms things get smelly, and also when it’s warm your back probably sweats a lil’ bit (JUST A LIL’. I KNOW — YOU ARE A DELICATE FLOWER WHO DOESN’T SWEAT, SHE GLISTENS.) and also your entire body produces oil and dead skin and alllllll that stuff ends up on your brawr. So you can howl at me all you want, but the fact of the matter is that your brawr is dirty, girl.

Before we get fully into the specifics of handwashing a brawr, here’s a little tip for handling deodorant residue in between wearings: wipe the stained areas clean with a washcloth that’s somewhere between damp and wet. A clean sponge or rag or whatever will also work. Don’t rub too, too hard, but also don’t be afraid to put a little muscle into it.

Okay and now for your washing instructions!

1. The best place to do your handwashing is in kitchen sink (CLEAN THE SINK FIRST), though the tub or bathroom sink will also work. Or a bucket. Whatever, you just need a place where you can create a standing body of water.

2. Plug the drain, begin filling the sink with warm water and a mild detergent of your choosing. You all can discuss among yourself the detergents you like — Tocca, SOAK, Ivory Snow, Woolite, all fair choices. (The Woolite deniers are already salivating in anticipation of a fight, I can tell.) You don’t need or want to use a lot of detergent; a teaspoon up to a tablespoon will do it. Now add in your brassieres and let them sit in their bubble bath for 10 or so minutes.

3. After they’ve had a chance to let Calgon take them away, you’ll want to go in and gently press on each one just a bit, while submerged, to help release dirt and oil trapped in the fabric. Then drain your wash water and rinse each brawr very very very very well with clean water. Oftentimes I find it easiest to drain, rinse, replug, and refill the sink with clean water before re-submerging my unmentionables as the first pass in rinsing them.

4. To dry, you’ll first want to gently squeeze out as much water as you can, being careful not to wring or otherwise get too rough in your handling of these delicate items. Then lay out a clean towel and place each clean brawr on it, leaving a bit of space between each one so that you can roll the towel up in order to squeeze more water out of each item. The final step is to reshape each bra and allow to dry either flat or on a drying rack.


If any of your clothes ever stain your bras with dye, you’ll want to treat them in the same way your would stains on other clothes. You just want to be mindful of the products you choose — go for as gentle an option as you can find. I think OxiClean is a great choice, but I would say that, wouldn’t I? You can throw some Oxi right onto the stained areas and do a little chh-chh frottage action of rubbing the fabric against itself. Then put the bra right back in the wash water, add a sprinkle of Oxi to the mix, swirl it around and let everything have a good soak. It’s also a really great thing to try to wash a bra as soon as you notice staining. Deodorant will come out more easily; just rubbing the fabric together while the brawr is submerged will go a long way in getting it gone.

Now then, this reader mentioned dark stains on her brawrs, suggesting that she might be using a gel-style deodorant, which may be leaving behind an oily residue that’s causing darkening. To treat oily stains, try a product like Lestoil as a pretreat. In the case of more delicate items I would suggest using it very sparingly and only as a pretreat, and not in the wash water because it will be too damaging. If you continue to have a problem, maybe try out another kind of deodorant and see if it’s less upsetting to the delicate constitution of your brawrs.

I have a lined wool sheath dress from Banana Republic that I LOVE LOVE LOVE. It is perfect for work, and I wear it a lot. Of course, it’s dry clean only. I am both skeptical of this claim and a little cheap. But if I destroy this dress, I might cry. So do I need to dry clean? And if the answer is “no, you can handwash,” can I use the handwash cycle on my front-loaded machine?

The answer is yes, you can handwash. And yeah, you can probably use the handwash cycle on your front loader, but I wouldn’t. At least not until you’ve tried handwashing with your actual hands to see how things turn out, and here’s why: while handwashing wool and other fine fabrics is generally pretty much fine, there are some things you’ll sacrifice in choosing not to take your “dry clean only” items to the dry cleaner. Most notably, the fabric may lose some of its softness and you may also find that there’s a little bit of shrinkage and/or color loss, particularly in wool. If true handwashing goes just fine for you and your beloved dress and you’re feeling confident, go ahead and try out the machine version, but know that wool doesn’t love to be over-handled, and even on a delicate cycle, the friction caused by the machine washing might leave the fabric looking a little on the shabby side. So with those warnings in mind let’s get to the hows of it.

When handwashing wool you’ll always want to use a mild detergent and either cold or lukewarm water. Never ever ever ever ever use hot water on wool. I want you to live in fear of using hot water on wool in the same way that you live in fear of putting stained items in the dryer. You will end up with tiny persons’ clothing if you wash your woolens in hot water.

So! Make a bubble bath for your clothes by swirling the detergent around in water, submerge the garment and let it soak for 3–5 minutes. Then, while it’s still submerged, gently press/squeeze it so that the water and detergent can get into the fibers. HOWEVER. Do not wring it. Wringing is too hard on the fabric. Be kind to your wool! Then, with clean water, you’ll rinse it free of soap, squeezing gently to remove excess water. Squeezing. Not wringing.

Once you’ve squeezed out as much excess water as you can, it’s time to lay the garment out to dry. With wool you want to let it lie flat rather than hanging it dry, because the weight of all that soggy wool will cause the fabric to stretch out in ways that you likely don’t want it to and all of a sudden your nice office-appropriate sheath has turned into a floor-length wool gown and we can’t have that.

Air drying my pants leaves them smelling not so clean. The smell is a bit musty, but definitely not mildewy. I tend to wash my pants inside out on gentle cycle with a non-chemical detergent, and then I either lay them flat or hang them up to dry. I’ve noticed that my denim is more susceptible to becoming smelly, though now some of my leggings have acquired this particular smell as well.

I’ve tried soaking the pants with offensive odors in OxiClean prior to washing them, to no avail. It honestly seems that once the odor has gotten into the fabric it won’t go away. I’m pretty sure no one else can smell it when I’m wearing the pants, but I sure can, and it’s making me paranoid that people think *I’m* smelly and gross.

Ah well … the thing about Oxi is that it’s great for stains but doesn’t do much for smells. So what you’ll want to do is this: use a ½ -1 cup of white vinegar in your wash, along with your detergent. The vinegar will help to eliminate odors in the clothes, and also serves as a fabric softener, which is nice with items that aren’t going to benefit from the fluffing powers of a dryer. Another thing that will help is rolling the pants up in a clean towel to squeeze out as much excess water as possible. A dark towel is probably best for jeans and leggings and such so you won’t risk getting light colored lint pills on your clean pants. This will help to speed along drying, which means they’ll have less time to develop an odor.

Jolie! I forgot about clothes in the washer and now they are mildew-awful. WHAT NEXT?

Oh man, a soggy, stinking pile of laundry is sort of the worst in that you’re faced with a dripping heap of your own failure to function as an adult. (“I forgot my own laundry. I am a child who is ill-equipped to handle the most basic of tasks.”) Except? Don’t be like me and conjure up those kinds of thoughts, because that’s crazy thinking and also? It’s just laundry. Plus there’s a super easy fix for it.

Run a cup or two of white vinegar through with your wash. A note on amounts: for a regular washing, a half cup to a full cup of white vinegar is more than enough. But when you’re dealing with serious mildew smells you’ll need to up the ante and I want you to be aware of those differences so you can apply that understanding to various laundering situations you may find on your hands. Baking soda is another option, but I prefer vinegar because have we met? I mean … because vinegar is also a fabric softener, which that crunchy, half-dried pile of laundry might benefit from. As an alternative, soak everything in the tub in baking soda before laundering as usual. The one thing you don’t want to do is to mix the baking soda and the vinegar, because as much fun as volcanoes are, they’re not super in the washing machine.

Which leads us to …

The washer in my new apartment has a slight mildewy smell. Help?

Sure thing! The easiest (and cheapest!) way to deal with a stinking washer is to run an empty load of wash on the hottest water setting possible, and use 2 cups of white vinegar — so you’ll need to make sure to buy at least a 16 oz. bottle — in place of detergent. You could use bleach but the vinegar is a better choice, because you won’t run the risk of having any bleach residue ruin your clothes and/or being looked at like you’re an earth-destroying monster by the more environmentally conscious among us.

Last week I put a Laffy Taffy wrapper in the pocket of my favorite trousers and apparently there was still some Laffy Taffy on that wrapper. How do I get the goo out of my pocket?! Even though I wash everything cold, I worry that washing it could compound the problem and I would hate to spread green goo to other parts of my awesome pants and/or other items of clothing.

Get an ice cube and a knife. (Do you like how my advice is getting weirder and weirder and weirder?) Hold the ice cube on the goo until it hardens, at which point take the knife and very carefully scrape it up off your pants. If the ice cube is too unwieldy for you, you can also just freeze the pants in their entirety before getting after the taffy goo with your knife.

If heat is more your thing, you can also grab a brown paper bag and your iron, which you’ll turn on to a low setting, place the paper over the goo and then run the iron over it until it comes up onto the paper. Either way will work, and then when you’re done you can launder as usual.

Soooooo … know anything about mysterious maybe-grease spots appearing during washing? Does this only happen to me??

Oh man, mystery spots. Mystery spots happen to the best of us — any of you ever end up with unidentified orange splotches on your towels? Yup, me too. It’s ENRAGING. We’ve talked about the orange spots before, but I’ll leave this here as a refresher since September 2011 seems like it was a million years ago.

But back to the mystery grease stains: if I had to blindly pick a culprit, I would say it’s probably residue from fabric softener jacking up your ish. But really no matter what exactly it is, the treatment for grease spots is Lestoil or Pine Sol, used as a pretreatment or added right into the wash cycle.

Previously: Laundry School Is In Session!

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?

Photo by Pixel Memoirs, via Shutterstock