Q And Answer: What Do I Do About Underarm Stains On Shirts?

September 10, 2010

Q and Answer: What Do I Do About Underarm Stains on Shirts?

Rebecca writes from Changwon, South Korea: My boyfriend and I are teaching in southern South Korea and it is the full bloom of summer here.  This means heat and humidity at tropical levels. He has several what I call dress shirts, but are just basic cotton and polyester blend button downs that he wears to work. They are starting to get a bit yellow and grimy around the collar and armpits. With his white ones I just bleach them and that works out fine. However, he has some light coloured ones that I can’t bleach. My question is, how do I get sweat stains out of light coloured shirts and how I can prevent it from reoccurring?

This is an eternal problem.  There are a number of ways to address it, but none of them are perfect.

These stains are caused by the combination of sweat and anti-perspirant chemicals, so one solution is to switch from anti-perspirant to deodorant.  In my experience, those underarm “crystals” are about as effective as aligning your chakras, but you a real deoderant will have some anti-microbial agents that will kill stink bugs, in addition to some scent to cover them up.  Look for something alcohol-free, without aluminum chloride.  If you stick with the old stuff, let it dry before you put on your shirt, and don’t go crazy with it.

In your husband’s case, I’d start by recommending switching away from poly-cotton blends, which breathe poorly and will certainly contribute to his sweating issues.  Go with all cotton, or for very warm weather, a cotton-linen blend, which will wear cooler.

You can also have him try wearing undershirts.  Of course, the undershirts will be stained, but at least it’ll keep it off the shirts.

Some people swear by more powerful anti-perspirants, like those which can be obtained by prescription.  These are applied before bed, and then wiped off in the morning.  No sweat means no stains.

As far as removing the stain, I defer to Cheryl Mendelson’s brilliant, brilliant, wonderful book Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House.  Mendelson recommends the following for perspiration stains:

Treat with prewash stain remover, or dampen stain and rub with bar soap.  If the color of the fabric has changed slightly, apply ammonia to fresh stain or white vinegar to old stain; rinse.  Launder in hottest water safe for that fabric.  Stubborn stains may respond to pretreating with a product containing enzymes, then launder using an all-fabric bleach.

Probably the most freely available enzymatic stain fighter is Biz.  You can also, believe it or not, use dish soap.  I’ve personally had good results with Oxiclean, which is pretty much the single greatest product ever.

(We also just got a product in the mail from our advertiser, RibbedTees, called “Deo-Go."  I think they’re distributing it in the States.  It’s specifically for this purpose.  I haven’t tried it yet, but when I get the chance, I’ll put up a "We Got It For Free” with the results.  We’ll see.)