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How to Test Clothing for Color Bleeding & Water Reactions

August 4, 2019

Let’s face it—most of us have probably dealt with dye stains. You know, when you take your freshly washed clothes out of the washer only to realize that there’s a big smudge of red on the front? Yeah, stuff like that. You have to admit, it can be quite a downer—especially if it’s a shirt that you really liked. Sure, you can always try to get rid of it, but then you’d have to put in effort that you otherwise wouldn’t need to!

This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to separate your laundry by color. At least the stain wouldn’t be as obvious if it’s navy on black! Navy on white, on the other hand, would be well—quite noticeable.

The thing about dyes, though, is that you never know when it might bleed. In some cases, your white shirt might come out perfectly fine even if you mix it with dark-colored items. Having said that, you don’t want to just leave it up to chance. Your clothes are way too valuable for that! When in doubt, play it safe—test the fabric. In doing so, you’ll be able to find out whether or not the colors will bleed in the wash. 

Different Types of Dyes Used in Clothing

Before we go into how to test your items, though, let’s take a look at some of the dyes that are commonly used in clothing. After all, not all dyes are the same; some will be more steadfast than others. Generally speaking, there are two types—natural and synthetic dyes. Let’s take a look at how they differ below.

synthetic dyes

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are exactly what they sound like—they’re derived from natural sources. For instance, many are made from roots, berries, leaves, woods, minerals, and invertebrates. Prior to the discovery of synthetic dyes, they were widely used for a variety of purposes. While their use has declined over the past few decades, interest in them has been revived recently due to the fact that people want environmentally friendly alternatives.

They do have a few downsides, though. For one thing, they have relatively poor lightfastness—that is, they tend to fade easily when exposed to light. Not only that, but many have little affinity for textile materials; because of this, many have to be combined with heavy-metal salts.

Synthetic Dyes

Synthetic dyes were first discovered in 1856. Before that, almost all dyes were prepared from natural sources such as roots and berries. Manufactured from organic molecules, these dyes are made from synthetic resources such as petroleum by-products and chemicals.

Nowadays, there are numerous kinds of synthetic dyes, all of which are classified based on their chemical structure. Some of the most common ones include acid dyes, azoic dyes, direct dyes, disperse dyes, pigment dyes, sulphur dyes, and reactive dyes. What makes them a better choice than natural dyes? The colours are long-lasting; they won’t fade nearly as easily as those derived from natural sources. On top of that, they’re easy to make and available in a wide range of colors.

That’s not to say that they don’t have their disadvantages, though—they do. For one thing, synthetic dyes are not exactly the best for the environment. During the coloration process, it’s not uncommon for some of the dye to enter the waterways. As you can imagine, that can have great impacts on the waters and marine life.

Not only that, but they can have a negative effect on our health. After all, many synthetic dyes are made from chemical compounds that are known for being harmful. For instance, it’s not common for them to contain lead, chromium, mercury and benzene, all of which can be toxic to the body.

What is Color Fastness?

what is color fastness

What is color fastness? It refers to a material’s color resistance to bleeding or fading. As mentioned earlier, the type of dye plays a key role in how likely it is for the colors to bleed. However, that’s not the only thing that affects it.

A number of other factors also affect an item’s color fastness. For one thing, the type of fabric makes a difference. Take cotton or linen, for instance—they are generally poor at retaining colors compared to synthetic fibers such as polyester or viscose.

You also want to consider the products that you use. Laundry detergents, bleaches, and stain removers can all affect an item’s color fastness. In addition to that, you also want to pay attention to the water’s temperature and pH. Last but not least, sunlight can fade certain dyes as well.

How to Check Your Clothes For Color Fastness

Most fabrics, assuming that they’re manufactured properly, should be stable. In other words, you shouldn’t have to worry about them releasing any dyes when they’re put in the wash. However, not all fabrics are made equal; some will inevitably release dyes when they’re immersed in water. For this reason, it’s important to test your garments before you wash them. Here’s how!

Locate an inconspicuous area on the garment—for instance, you can use the hem or seam. Submerge that part of the item into a sink of lukewarm water. You may choose to add a little bit of detergent if you wish, but it’s not necessary.

placing shirt in sink

Note: It’s important that you always test in an inconspicuous area—that way, even if the color bleeds, it won’t be that noticeable. The last thing that you’d want is to have a big faded area on the front of your shirt!

From there, let the fabric sit in the water for up to 30 minutes. Once the time is up, check to see if any of the dye has seeped into the water (it’d be obvious). If there’s discolouration, there’s a great chance that the dye can bleed onto your other clothes.

Is the water clear? Great! To be on the safe side, though, it’s best to conduct one more test before deeming it steadfast. Without rinsing, remove it from the water and place it on a clean paper towel. Allow it to sit for a few minutes. Afterwards, check to see if any of the dyes has transferred onto the towel. If it’s stained, there’s a high possibility that the dye will also transfer onto your adjacent garments when it’s in the washing machine.

Rinse the wet area clean with water. Perform the test again by submerging it in the sink. If the bleeding continues, you’ll probably want to wash the item separately by itself. If the bleeding stops, you might be able to wash it with other garments as long as you pre-wash it a few times first.

Setting the Dye In Your Clothes

There are several ways to “set” the dye in your clothes—that way, you won’t have to worry about the colors coming off in the wash. Do note, however, that the results will depend on the type of fabric and the type of dye. In any case, it’s worth a shot!

setting color on clothes

Use a Commercial Dye Fixative Product

Don’t want to have to wash that one shirt separately all the time? Consider using dye fixative—you can find them in most department stores. Ultimately, what these products will do is that they’ll help to make the dyes more permanent. In doing so, there will be a smaller chance of bleeds. While it depends on the fixative, most involve soaking the fabric in the solution before the first wash.

Pro-tip: Consider adding 1/4 cup of table salt for extra color-retaining power!

Use White Vinegar

Alternatively, you can use vinegar. That’s right, vinegar is not only good for eating and cleaning, it can also be used to lock in color! Start by filling a large bowl with clean water. Add in a cup of vinegar and mix (swirling the liquid around in the bowl works well). Once it’s combined, put the garment into the water. Lightly press down until it’s fully submerged. For the best results, let it soak for at least 24 hours. Don’t be alarmed if you see a little bit of color in the vinegar solution—that’s normal.

Remove the item once it’s been soaked. Refill the bowl with clean water and place the garment back in. Gently swirl it a few times. Repeat the soaking if you notice any color in the vinegar water.

Use a Salt Water Mixture

Believe it or not but salt can actually keep your coloured clothes from bleeding. Start by filling a tub or bucket with a gallon of lukewarm water. Add in a cup of salt and mix until it’s completely dissolved (you might want to add more salt if your item is large).

Place the item in the solution and let it soak for a few hours. Ideally, you want to do so before the first wash—that way, the colors will already be set. Once it’s soaked, take the garment out and rinse it with water. Wash it as usual by hand or by putting it in the washing machine.

Pro-tip: For extra color protection, you can add a quarter cup of salt to the wash cycle. The key is to not only do this for the first wash but for each washing afterwards as well.

Best Ways to Prevent Colors From Fading

You can prevent the dyes from fading by doing a few things:

cold water cycle

  • Do not wash your garments with hot water. As it is, the high heat can wash out the mordant—that is, the substance that is used to set dyes on fabric. For this reason, you always want to use a cold water cycle.
  • Be careful when you’re washing the garment. For one thing, you should never overcrowd the washer—that will increase the risk of damage by friction. It’s also advised to skip harsh detergents (go for an all-natural product such as ACTIVE detergent). If possible, avoid washing in hard water as that can lead to the loss of color.

  • Do not use any bleaching products on your item. Likewise, you do not want to expose your garment to the sun as the rays can cause the material to fade (i.e. the dyes will be released).

As a general rule of thumb, you never want to wash an item with your other clothes if you’re not sure whether or not its dyes are stable (that’s why it’s so important to test it for color bleeding). When in doubt, wash it separately! It’ll save you the headache of having to deal with potential color bleeds.

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