If that old brown shirt makes you sad, transform it with bleach.

How to Bleach Out the Original Color of a Cotton Shirt

by Joanne Thomas

Cotton shirts are an essential and versatile wardrobe staple, but they can also quickly become items that we just don't love anymore. If there's a shirt that always ends up shoved to the nether regions of your closet but that's otherwise in good condition, consider bleaching out the original color to give it new life. With inexpensive household bleach and a few hours to spare at the weekend, transform that blah cotton shirt into a bright white version of its former self.

Warning: To avoid serious injury, be extra cautious when using bleach and hydrogen peroxide, and never mix the two products.

Wear old clothes, take your supplies and the cotton shirt to a sink area, and put on rubber gloves. Open windows or nearby doors, and turn on a fan to ventilate the area.

Fill one bucket with a solution of one part bleach to four or five parts cold water. Fill another bucket or container with one part hydrogen peroxide to one part water, or a bleach-neutralizing solution made up according to the manufacturer's instructions. Make up enough of both solutions to saturate the shirt. Leave the sink free for rinsing.

Plunge the shirt into the bleach solution and use a long-handled wooden spoon -- one that you don't use in the kitchen any more -- to gently swish the shirt around until it's fully saturated. Be careful not to splash any bleach solution around.

Leave the shirt to soak and revisit it every 10 minutes or so to examine the results. The bleaching process might take anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour, depending on the original color of the shirt and the strength of the bleach you are using. You might also discover that you like a lighter shade of the original color before it turns completely white.

When the color has transformed to your liking, remove the shirt from the bleach solution and completely squeeze the excess liquid back into the bucket. Safely dispose the excess bleach solution, then rinse the shirt thoroughly under clean, cold water in the sink.

Plunge the thoroughly rinsed shirt into the hydrogen peroxide or bleach-neutralizing solution and leave it to soak for approximately 15 minutes. Don't skip this step -- even after rinsing and washing, the bleach can continue to damage fibers unless it's neutralized.

Remove the shirt from the solution and rinse it again in the sink with cold water. Launder the shirt with regular laundry detergent, either by hand or in a washing machine.

Items you will need

  • Buckets or other plastic containers
  • Rubber gloves
  • Bleach
  • Hydrogen peroxide or bleach-neutralizing product
  • Long-handled wooden spoon
  • Laundry detergent


  • * Use a bleach solution to add a surface design to the shirt instead of an all-over bleached effect. Use a spray bottle for a splattered effect, soak just the top or bottom part of the shirt for a dip-dye look or stagger the bleaching from top to bottom to create an ombre design.
  • * Bleaching a shirt can have surprising effects. A black shirt, for example, might turn purple or pink, rather than gray, as the dye bleaches out. Keep your eye on the shirt as it soaks and remove it when you see a shade you like. You might have intended to bleach the shirt white, but instead end up with a completely different color.
  • * Store-bought cotton shirts are commonly sewn with polyester thread, which will not bleach out like cotton no matter how long you soak it for. This can leave you with a white shirt with seams in its original color. If it really bothers you, unpick the seams and re-sew them with white thread.


  • Remember to avoid accidentally mixing bleach and hydrogen peroxide. If combined, a violent chemical reaction will occur which could result in serious injury.

About the Author

A writer of diverse interests, Joanne Thomas has penned pieces about road trips for Hyundai, children's craft projects for Disney and wine cocktails for Robert Mondavi. She has lived on three continents and currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is co-owner and editor of a weekly newspaper. Thomas holds a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol, England.

Photo Credits

  • George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images