How to Strip Your Laundry

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A Vanlife Guide to go from Dirtbag to Mr. Clean with Laundry Stripping

Life on the road can be incredibly hard on your belongings. Your clothes, bedding, and towels are no exception. In our case, and many others, life on the road means being closer to nature. Closer to nature means more dirt, and less frequent laundering of clothes. After a significant time traveling in our Chevy Express campervan, our laundry was starting to struggle. A lot of our textiles had built up a residue that we couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard we tried. We were ready to get rid of some of it! Luckily, we discovered the viral trend of laundry stripping before we did. We were able to bring clothes and bedding back to life that we thought were a lost cause. If you haven’t heard of laundry stripping, read on and you’ll be running to gather the ingredients to try it yourself! We’ll put a disclaimer here that you should always exercise caution when stripping laundry, it is a harsh process. Read through to read which fabrics you should avoid stripping before starting the process!

What is Laundry Stripping?

Laundry stripping is a method of cleaning your clothes that is designed to rid clothes of built up detergent, fabric softener, oils, and dirt. Towels and sheets are especially prone to build up as oils and softener can get trapped in the fiber. The combination of ingredients in laundry stripping is able to penetrate into the fabric releasing trapped grime that traditional laundry methods can’t. 

Why is Laundry Stripping Necessary?

Build up on your fabrics is bound to happen, especially on fiber heavy fabrics like towels and sheets. Fabric softener and dryer sheets are a huge culprit, they can leave a residue on clothes that attracts dirt and traps it. Over time this grime builds up. Laundry stripping should be a last resort however. You can try soaking your laundry in hot water with powder detergent for a couple hours, sometimes this is enough to release the grime. Laundry stripping is an extreme method and does have some impact on the fabric.

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Are There Any Fabrics That Shouldn’t be Laundry Stripped?

Yes! You should avoid stripping any delicate garments including lace, silk, and wool. Wool contains lanolin so it especially should not be stripped. Read the tags on your garments and avoid stripping any laundry that cannot be washed in warm water. Colored and dark fabrics should be stripped with caution as it can cause dyes to run. If your garments are color fast, they should be okay. While older clothes can be tempting to try, if they are fragile, laundry stripping can be too harsh and cause further breakdown of the fabric. Always use caution when stripping your clothing. When in doubt, avoid stripping a garment, especially if you would be heartbroken if it were harmed.

How Can I Tell if My Laundry Needs to be Stripped?

We knew it was time to try laundry stripping when our fabric had built up a layer of grime. If your clothes look dingy and feel gummy, it is probably time to strip them. Stripping laundry can also get rid of mildew or musty smells that can build up in fabric. We saw especially great success with our microfiber towels which had taken some abuse after heavy use in our campervan.

How Often Can I Strip My Laundry?

Laundry stripping shouldn’t be necessary often, especially if you are laundering your clothes correctly. Once or twice per year should be sufficient. If your laundry is building up grime quicker than this, it can be a sign that you need to use higher quality detergent, less detergent or fabric softener, or launder in warmer water if fabrics allow. Laundry stripping can be harsh on your clothes so you don’t want to do it more often than every 4-6 months.

Is it Possible to Strip Laundry on the Road?

If you live in a van or RV you may be wondering how the heck can I strip my laundry? We decided to strip our laundry when we came off the road and had an apartment for a bit. If you have access to a bathtub at any point, take advantage! If you can’t find access to a bathtub, a bucket will work just fine. Head to the laundromat once your garments have been soaked for 4-6 hours. Be sure to responsibly dispose of your gray water when you are done, please do not dump this mixture on the ground!

Does it Really Work?

Yes! We had sheets, towels, and clothes that we were about to give up on. We were appalled at the amount of filth that came out in the water. After stripping our laundry, our garments had new life again! It should be noted that some of the photos on the internet of dark water after laundry stripping is actually partly dye running from fabric. However, we can attest that even our whites produced filthy water. Exercise caution when stripping clothes with dye and ensure that your materials are color fast. 

What Do I Need?

If you can’t find all these ingredients at a grocery store, there are some replacements that are equally as effective. In place of Borax, you can use a Fels Naptha or Zote bar grated. Use the same amount as a direct replacement of Borax. We used a Zote bar and had excellent results. If you can’t find washing soda, baking soda will work with a modification. Place a layer on a baking sheet in the oven at 400 degrees for an hour. This dehydrates the baking soda, taking it from sodium bicarbonate to sodium carbonate. You must use powder laundry detergent and from what we’ve heard, Tide produces the best results. If you are a vanlifer, this can be done on the road in a large bucket. Just be sure you dispose of your gray water responsibly, this is not something that should be dumped on the land!

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Steps to Strip Your Laundry

Laundry being stripped in a bathtub
A load of laundry being stripped
  1. Decide which garments you will be stripping. Remember to avoid stripping delicate fabrics, wool, and any fabric that cannot be laundered in hot water. Separate into whites, brights, and darks, do a load of stripping for each
  2. Fill your tub ⅔ full with warm water. Add 1/4 cup borax (or Fels Naptha/Zote), 1/4 cup washing soda, and 1/3 cup powder detergent. If you have smaller loads you can fill a sink or a bucket, I cut the recipe in half for these smaller loads
  3. Add your garments into the water being sure to saturate them, use a wooden spoon rather than your hands
  4. Soak for 4-6 hours, stirring every hour, you can also add more warm water each hour
  5. Be appalled each hour at the amount of filth coming out of your clothes
  6. Drain the water and rinse your garments
  7. Transfer to the washing machine, wash with powder Tide in a normal wash cycle
  8. Dry your clothing, avoid using dryer sheets or fabric softener
  9. In the future, practice good laundry techniques to avoid the need for frequent laundry stripping

How Can I Avoid Needing to Strip My Laundry?

Some fabrics, like towels and sheets, are just prone to build up. However there are steps you can take while laundering that reduce the need for laundry stripping. Be sure to never fill your washing machine over ¾ full, this ensures that your laundry is getting adequately rinsed each wash and not leaving behind detergent. Additionally you can use two rinse cycles. Avoid using too much fabric softener or dryer sheets, especially on moisture wicking fabrics like workout clothes. You can use wool dryer balls as a substitute to reduce static. Another culprit of grime on clothes is low quality laundry detergent. We suspect part of our problem stemmed from using cheap laundry sheets. We have since upgraded to these laundry sheets and have found that our newer laundry has not been as prone to build up. We love laundry sheets for vanlife because they’re compact and no mess!

Laundry sheets

We hope this answers all your questions about laundry stripping. Will you try it out? If you do, be sure to tag us in your pictures on Instagram. This is one of those oddly satisfying things that we love to see!

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