Sweat, fabric dye, oh my!

(1) Dear Alice,

I got a new sweatshirt and either my deodorant or my sweat radically changes the color in the armpit area. This is a beige sweatshirt, and the color it changed to is almost as if it were bleached and turned an odd shade or bright-orangeish. Is there anything I can do? Or is it simply a bad dye...?

(2) Alice,

Why do deodorants stain my t-shirts with a yellowish color? Is there a brand that doesn't do this?

Dear Readers,

Funky armpit stains are a bummer. Underarm stains can be caused by sweat or the aluminum chloride found in antiperspirants (which some deodorants also contain if they are a deodorant/antiperspirant combo). Reader #1, based on the color change you describe, it seems more likely that aluminum chloride is the culprit. Reader #2, the yellowish discoloration suggests that sweat stains may be to blame. The longer a stain has to set, the harder it will be to get it out. Luckily, there are a few tricks and tips for working on tough stains. Better yet, learning how to prevent these stains from occurring in the first place can save a whole lot of trouble.

Reader #1, you write that you are using deodorant — but does it also contain antiperspirant? Deodorant alone helps decrease body odor but does not stop the armpit from sweating, while antiperspirant does (hence, different active ingredients). If your deodorant is actually a combination of deodorant/antiperspirant, it likely contains aluminum chloride. As an additive used in many antiperspirants to keep sweat from coming through the skin, aluminum chloride can wreak havoc on fabrics. Both over-the-counter (OTC) antiperspirants (which contain about 10 to 20 percent aluminum chloride) and prescription antiperspirants (clinical-strength aluminum chloride) can stain clothes. Because sweating is our body's natural cooling mechanism, it’s impossible to prevent it entirely. Therefore, even though antiperspirants block sweat from coming out, when the glands reach equilibrium (there is as much fluid outside of the gland as inside), sweat and antiperspirant escape and end up on our clothes. This causes the same ingredients that were keeping you dry to get absorbed by our shirts. Even with consistent laundering, aluminum from antiperspirants can build up on fabrics, causing the stains that are loathsome to many.

Try as you might, sometimes stains happen. Unfortunately, once the stains have set in, they are pretty difficult to get rid of, so leaping into action as soon as you notice the first signs of a stain may be your best bet. These tried and true remedies may help remove some stains (fingers crossed!):

For antiperspirant stains:

  • Scratch off any antiperspirant that is caked on the clothes.
  • Mix one quart of lukewarm water, half a teaspoon of liquid hand dishwashing soap, and a tablespoon of ammonia — then let the clothes soak for about 15 minutes.
  • Locate the stain and then rub the other side of the fabric.
  • Let soak for another 15 minutes.
  • Rinse.
  • Depending on the type of stain, soaking in enzyme product (such as Biz) for half an hour to several hours before putting clothes in the laundry may help remove or reduce stubborn stains.
  • If stain persists even after putting clothes through the laundry, fabric-safe chlorine bleach or oxygen bleach might do the trick. (Note: It’s dangerous mix chlorine bleach with ammonia!)

Instructions adapted from University of Illinois.

For sweat stains:

  • Apply cool water to the stain, by soaking or using a sponge.
  • Pre-treat the area with an enzyme presoak product in warm water. Leave the treatment in for about a half-hour.
  • If perspiration has caused the fabric to discolor, depending on how old the stain is, the following options may help restore color to the area. With either solution, remember to test them on an inconspicuous area of the fabric first to check for colorfastness.
    • For fresher stains, soak the area in or spray with an ammonia solution (one quart of warm water, one tablespoon of ammonia, one half teaspoon of hand liquid soap) for about 15 minutes. Rinse thoroughly.
    • For older stains, soak the area in or spray with a warm vinegar solution (one quart of warm water and one tablespoon of white vinegar) for about 15 minutes. Rinse thoroughly.
  • Apply laundry detergent and/or bar soap directly to the stain and massage it in. Depending on the fabric color and type, adding a color-safe or chlorine bleach to the wash may offer some benefit. Wash the item in the hottest water the fabric care label will allow.
  • Air dry, preferably in the sunlight. The heat from machine drying or using an iron causes stains to set.

To reduce and prevent stains, you could try switching to a simple deodorant (rather than a deodorant/antiperspirant) that does not contain aluminum chloride. Another option is to dust your underarms with baking soda as an alternative form of deodorant (which would be sans antiperspirant). If you do want to stick to a deodorant that includes antiperspirant (and therefore aluminum chloride), the International Hyperhidrosis Society has some helpful hints for you:

  • Just apply a small amount of the product — a little antiperspirant goes a long way.
  • After application, make sure to rub the antiperspirant into the skin.
  • Let armpits dry before putting on clothes (you can even apply the night before).
  • Wearing an undershirt can help prevent stains from reaching your outer clothes.

Hope this helps you find a solution to a sticky (but hopefully not stinky) situation. As frustrating as stains can be, don’t sweat it — they happen to everyone!

Last updated May 01, 2015
Originally published May 06, 2011

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