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Un-Muddying the Waters Behind the Laundry Stripping Trend—What Really Causes the Murky Water in the Tub?
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Un-Muddying the Waters Behind the Laundry Stripping Trend—What Really Causes the Murky Water in the Tub?

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Have you been on the "cleaning side" of TikTok (or #CleanTok, as some affectionately call it), or videos on Instagram Reels or Facebook? If so, you were bound to have encountered videos of "laundry stripping," where people soak dirty fabrics in their bathtubs mixed with a flurry of chemicals to "strip" the grime the textiles had accumulated over time. What has sparked people's horror (and fascination) with TikTok laundry stripping is the almost-instant transformation of the bathtub water from crystal-clear to a murky brown when the clothes are added, caused by the crud being purged from the laundry, or so it seems.

After learning about or seeing firsthand the plethora of viral videos covering everything from stripping towels to stripping sheets, you might be asking yourself how stripping laundry is done correctly, what sort of chemical reaction is actually taking place in the tub, and if there are any better alternatives for deep-cleaning your laundry. 

Read below as we uncover the surprising science behind the trend.

What is the Best Laundry Stripping Recipe

Though video creators vary in their recipes, laundry stripping TikTok videos all share a common process—fill your bathtub with water, dump in enough chemicals that would make an apothecary blush, and let your clothes soak for approximately five hours. At least on TikTok, many laundry stripping recipes are just an eyeballed hodgepodge of stripping laundry with borax and detergent, sometimes with washing soda, oxygenated bleach, or fabric softener. 

If you would like a more exact method for stripping clothes, Erica Gremminger (@ericagrem) in her video provides this popular clothes stripping recipe

  • ¼ cup of borax 
  • ¼ cup washing soda
  • ¼ cup of detergent

After hearing that most people are stripping clothes with borax, you might hesitate in following through with these recipes, as many sources such as Medical News Today report that even though borax is a naturally-occurring salt, "a person should strongly consider not using products that contain borax when possible." If you are curious if there is a laundry stripping recipe without borax, Laundry Detergent Ideas says instead of borax laundry stripping, you can use both a ½ cup of laundry detergent and ½ cup of washing soda for each gallon of hot water.

In watching #laundrystripping videos or stripping your own laundry at home, you will see that these laundry stripping ingredients cause a stark change to the color of the water, even when laundry stripping with baking soda or detergent. You might be surprised to learn that the color change isn't caused by the original dirt on the clothes, but rather a more complicated chemical reaction.  

What is the Science Behind the Water Becoming Cloudy?

At first glance, it would be reasonable to infer that the mucky water from laundry stripping is caused by the fabrics having been previously soiled. However, the opaque color is actually due to a reaction between hard water and detergent.

In the United States, 85% of citizens' homes have hard water, meaning that the water contains a high concentration of minerals, usually calcium and magnesium. Notice in this stripping laundry recipe video that the water in this user's tub is discolored even before adding chemicals. They said in a comment, "yes, I'm aware my water is already yellow; we have hard water." In addition to occasionally being cloudy, hard water deposits minerals onto laundry, leaving a residue behind. The residue makes clothing stiff and can cause fabric fibers to break down over time.

Further causing laundry complications, most people use an excess of detergent when washing clothing regularly and, ironically, when trying to strip laundry of its buildup. CNN interviewed Jennifer Ahoni, a senior scientist at a detergent company, and Leigh Krietsch Boerner, a journalist with a Ph.D. in chemistry, about laundry stripping. They stated that most residue on clothing is from previous overuse of detergent and fabric softener. 

Thus, when you see videos of people stripping their laundry, the striking color change of the tub water is not due to the inherent dirtiness of the fabrics being soaked. Rather, it is from the minerals in the hard water—and those previously embedded in the clothes—reacting with the excess detergent dunked into the tub—and the soap previously built-up on the clothes. Krietsch also notes that the color change can partially be attributed to the dye seeping out of the fabric and the caked-up detergent that was holding onto dirt. As CNN goes on to say, the need for laundry stripping is ironically caused in part by people using too many chemical-filled detergents. This common mistake might lead you to wonder if there is any organic laundry detergent you could use as a substitute for laundry stripping and daily use. 

Can You Use Natural Detergent Laundry for Laundry Stripping?

When seeking a natural detergent, you might come across recommendations of stripping clothes with baking soda and vinegar, but scientifically speaking, this is very ineffective. Good Housekeeping interviewed Nancy Bock, Senior VP of Education at the American Cleaning Institute, who states that "Baking soda is basic and vinegar is acidic,” which means that “when you put them together,” they essentially cancel each other out, as “you get mostly water and sodium acetate. But really, just mostly water." So, while laundry stripping with baking soda and vinegar is more natural, it isn’t the best natural laundry detergent

However, there is an all-natural laundry detergent that you can use in the form of laundry strips. The paper-thin sheets are an eco-friendly laundry detergent housed in a biodegradable resin that dissolves in water. Some brands even use ingredients that follow the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Safer Choice guidelines. Using non-toxic laundry detergent sheets has multiple advantages over other chemical-laden recipes and even other natural cleaners like eco washing powder, making sheets the best eco-friendly laundry detergent

Illustrated below in a series of three pictures, you can see how different detergent forms change the opacity of water. This first photograph depicts how adding a laundry detergent pod to water drastically changes the color of the solution. 

While some of the opaqueness can be attributed to the blue dye found in the detergent, you can see in this second photo other natural cleaners like eco-friendly washing powders are reacting to the minerals in the hard water, causing it to cloud and yellow. 

By contrast, in this last photo, what looks like crystal-clear water actually contains a dissolved, chemical-free laundry detergent sheet—they have been designed specifically to not react with the minerals in hard water.

Because laundry sheets do not react with hard water, the minerals in the water do not ionize, which prevents the discoloration of the water and stops the minerals from adhering to the clothing, making it the best non-toxic laundry detergent.

These eco-friendly detergent sheets also solve the other culprit of muddy waters from laundry stripping. Because the organic detergent sheets are pre-portioned amounts of cleaner, using them regularly means that clothes will not accumulate an excess of detergent over time, as often happens with those using liquid or powdered detergent. 

By not reacting with hard water nor causing excess detergent to be deposited onto clothing, using plant-based laundry detergent sheets eliminates the need for laundry stripping entirely. As CNN states, “the type of buildup that would necessitate laundry stripping is generally caused by subpar laundry practices." Not only that, but if you were to strip laundry in hard water with an excess of conventional or other natural washing powder, you would be depositing soap and minerals right back onto your clothing. 

If you currently use conventional detergents and want to strip your clothes before switching to detergent sheets, towel stripping and stripping other linens can be done with a soak or wash cycle in your washing machine (no tub required). All you need to add to the load is a ½ cup of distilled white vinegar, as it loosens zinc salts and aluminum chloridemuch less harmful than stripping towels with borax. After leaving that TikTok trend behind by laundry stripping without borax, you can say goodbye to mineral and detergent deposits forever using the best natural detergent sheets.