We Tried This Cult-Favorite Bleach Alternative and Here are the Results

In a recent quest to rid a gorgeous old handmade quilt of some weird unknown stains, I came across a so-called “miracle product” named Retro Clean. It promised to be able to do heavy lifting of bleach without being harsh and corrosive—in other words, the perfect solution for my delicate, yet well-loved vintage linens. The reviews on the product were almost all positive, and one in particular cited “sorcery” as an active ingredient—so of course I had to try it to see if the hype was real.

Retro Clean’s Claim to Clean:

The product description says: “The gentle solution for safely removing yellow and brown age stains from all washable vintage fabrics including: laces, linens, quilts, tablecloths, clothing aprons and more! It removes stains related to water damage, mildew, coffee, tea, blood and more. It will leave your fabric with renewed color and vitality. Eco-safe. Made in USA.”

Retro Clean has 140 ratings on Amazon, with more than 90 percent 4- and 5-star reviews. Most of the testimonials are from people who have purchased Retro Clean to remove yellow stains or browning from old quilts and fabrics.

Test 1: Stained Antique Quilt

This gorgeous hand-stitched quilt had been donated to a thrift store and tagged $12 because of a few gnarly stains. The stains were a deterrent, but I bought it anyway because the colors were amazing and I figured for $12 I could afford to gamble on getting the stains out. The quilt was bright white when I bought it (someone else had probably tried getting the stains out, too) but I ran it through the washing machine when I got home to see what might happen. The quilt came out nice and clean, but those stains didn’t lift one bit.

Enter: Retro Clean. The product description said the detergent removes stains from myriad sources like water damage, mildew, coffee, tea and blood. I figured the mystery stains on my quilt had to fall under one of those categories (please don’t be blood, please don’t be blood) and excitedly counted the days until the Retro Clean arrived on my doorstep.

After soaking overnight:

Since I’d previously washed the quilt in the washing machine, there wasn’t a lot of “yellow” left to come out in the water, but the water was a little murky. I was hopeful the stains would come out, but that didn’t happen. At least not totally—they faded just enough that I still have faith in Retro Clean. One of the tips the company suggests is to soak the item in a bucket of water outside in the sun for up to 48 hours so that the wash water is able to stay warm. Since I did this in early April in Illinois, that was not an option for me — but you better believe I’ll be doing it come July!

How did the quilt feel after soaking?

The quilt was a little bit stiff, but I’m sure that’s just because I didn’t get the Retro Clean completely out of it in the bathtub. I ran it through the washing machine with detergent afterwards and it’s back to normal. Overall, the Retro Clean seems to be a pretty mild detergent.

Did any of the color fade?

I was really happy to find that none of the bright colors of the quilt faded.

Did it neutralize odors?

The quilt was odorless before testing.

Test 2: Yellowed, Musty Vintage Skirt

I picked this skirt up for 50¢ at an estate sale a while back and had been storing it in my “needs a serious cleaning/am I really going to keep it?” pile until recently. It felt heavy with years of dust and smelled like a midwestern basement and lots of other things that could really gross a person out — but I loved it, and for half a buck I couldn’t pass it up. I knew it was the perfect item to test because it fit two of the most common issues people have with vintage clothing and linens: yellowing and the “musty vintage” smell.

After soaking overnight:

The overnight soak was so satisfying—the wash water was super murky—an indicator that the detergent was pulling all the “gross” out of the skirt and into the water.

Did it get the “yellow” out?

It absolutely got the yellow out! It’s kind of difficult to see how yellow the skirt was in the “before” photo, but you can see it best at the bottom of the skirt near the hemline.

How did the skirt feel after soaking?

It felt great—ready to hang in the closet and wear.

Did any of the color fade?

No colors faded. In fact, I feel like they look brighter since the yellow was lifted out of the skirt.

Did it neutralize odors?

After one wash, the Retro Clean didn’t get rid of the odor completely, but it did make it much less noticeable. After washing the skirt a second time with regular detergent, the smell was almost completely gone. The Retro Clean detergent itself doesn’t seem to have a smell to it.

Overall thoughts:

To fully harness the power of Retro Clean you need three things: warm, sunny weather, a large outdoor tub filled with warm water, and time. If used in the right combination, Retro Clean can tackle really tough stains while being extremely gentle on garments. Even though my quilt test didn’t turn out how I’d hoped, I was happy with how it faded the stains, and very impressed with its ability to make a skirt from the 1960s look brand new.

The active ingredient in Retro Clean is sodium perborate, which is gentle compound commonly found in teeth whitener and has antiseptic and disinfectant properties. It’s also a less aggressive bleach than sodium hypochlorite—AKA liquid bleach—and can be expected to cause less degradation to dyes and textiles. Sodium perborate detergents usually need a separate activator to help release oxygen when in a solution below 140°Fahrenheit/60° celsius, that’s why this it’s most effective in warm to very hot water.

Before placing an order, keep in mind you’ll need 3 to 4 tablespoons for every gallon of water you use, so a large quilt can quickly use up an entire 1-pound bag of Retro Clean.

Get it: Retro Clean, $14.59 for a 1-pound bag

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