A spot-on look at the cause of speckled towels

Spotted towels

Spotted towels (Elaine Melko/Illustration for the Tribune)

Dear Answer Angel Ellen: I do not use detergents containing bleach, yet my towels are coming out permanently speckled, as if bleach somehow got in the water. A friend told me this is because so many toothpastes now use bleach whitener, and someone in the family laundry pool is using that toothpaste and it's getting on washcloths or hand towels and infecting whole loads. Do you know if this is the cause of my towel problems?

— Curious in Maryland

Dear Curious: After consulting with the American Cleaning Institute, the American Chemical Society and two Ph.D. chemists I could write a book (or at least a chapter) on this common problem.

If anybody in your household uses a product containing benzoyl peroxide (found in many acne medications such as Clearasil), that's probably the culprit. The spots also could come from one of those household cleaners that contain Clorox or other chlorine-based bleach. It could be some errant spray. But, even if you're careful and don't get the cleaner near fabrics, if you're washing the cleaning rags with your towels (or other laundry), that could cause the problem. Boston chemist Richard Sachleben says some scouring powders and swimming pool disinfectants also contain bleach that could spot your towels. Products containing sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite could definitely do that kind of damage, he told me.

Chemist Anne Andrews, who teaches at UCLA, says she can't rule out tooth-whitening rinses, toothpaste or mouthwash wiped on a towel as the cause of your spots, but both she and Sachleben say it is unlikely. However, that depends on the dye in the towels. Some fabric dyes (including natural ones) are more susceptible to bleaching from products (including hair bleach) that contain hydrogen peroxide, sodium percarbonate or sodium perborate — even though those chemicals are found in "color-safe bleaches" for your clothes.


No kidding!

Based on all my reporting, here are some recommendations:

•Buy bleach-resistant towels and sheets, which are widely available. An Internet search will locate stores.

•Test any questionable products on a towel — preferably one already wrecked by your mystery culprit.

•Add water, detergent and any other additives to the washing machine before adding the clothes to dilute the chemicals before they touch fabrics.

•Don't wash cleaning rags with anything else.

Buy white towels only.

Dear Answer Angel

Ellen: Stuck in the grocer's line Saturday, I saw a cover photo of Marilyn Monroe that was most appealing. Somehow her face was covered with a peach glow including under her eyes (my dark circles refuse to be covered). It was most beautiful and flawless, and I am wondering what makeup companies provide that type of color that gives a peachy, airbrushed look. Kudos for your great investigative skills.

— Barbara S.

Dear Barbara: Thanks for your confidence that my "great investigative skills" will get you flawless Marilyn Monroe skin. I wish I were that good! Sure, airbrush makeup can help get you there and you can buy the kits to do it at home. But I don't recommend them. It sounds like concealing those dark circles is your No. 1 goal. Let the experts at cosmetics superstores (Ulta, Sephora) tackle those circles. Some Sephora stores (sephora.com) offer classes such as one on "flawless foundation" that address exactly what you're talking about. Or, sample a variety of brands at department store makeup counters. This will take some time, but when you find the best solution then — and only then — buy the product.

Dear Answer Angel

Ellen: My favorite eyeliner, a cream applied with a small brush, made by

Clinique has apparently been discontinued. I tried Smashbox, but it wandered and stung my eyes. Before I invest in any more, would you recommend one

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