Discharging with Household Cleansers


One day my apprentice went out back of the studio to clean out some yuckiness from a trash can with a spray bottle of bathroom cleanser.  He came back inside fussing up a storm, showing me the bleach spots on his black skinny jeans and black high tops.  Then the “Ah Ha” moment struck us simultaneously.  Discharging history was made at Up and Dyed!

Discharging is the chemical removal of dye from fabric. Sometimes tie dyers call it ‘reverse’ tie dye. It is a tricky business, requiring a tight balancing act between effectively removing dye and irreversibly damaging fibers.  Dharma Trading Company offers non-chlorine discharging agents, as well as bleach thickeners and neutralizing agents to stop the bleaching action.   If using Dharma’s products, please follow their recommended guidelines for proper handling.  The instructions offered in this discussion are all common household cleaning products that contain chlorine bleach.

Three factors are involved in successful discharging:

  1. Strength of the discharging agent.
  2. Timing.
  3. Neutralizing the discharging agent to stop the chemical reaction.


In World War II, chlorine gas was used as an agent of chemical war fare.  Chlorine, and substances containing chlorine, are hazardous to health and must be handled with caution and good sense.  Work in an open, well ventilated space. Use a fan. Work for only short periods of time.  Never leave the containers of the discharging agents open–chlorine evaporates quickly, becoming a part of the air you are breathing.  Wear gloves, clean up spills at once.  Keep away from children, pets, and folks with respiratory sensitivities.  The sensitivity is cumulative, so prolonged exposure means you are less likely to successfully use in the future.              BE SMART, friends!

Not all dyes can be discharged.  It is somewhat of a guessing game.  But with a little knowledge, an educated guess can be made.  A sample test of the fabric on an inside seam or hem will aid  in discovering if the dye can be removed.

To get started you need:

  1. Garment or fabric that is cotton, linen, rayon, or a blend of plant origin fibers.  It is not advisable to attempt discharging with delicate fabrics.
  2. Soft Scrub paste type bathroom cleanser and/or a Clorox Bleach Pen–The Clorox Bleach Pen is a dandy device, but costly.  Soft Scrub is inexpensive.  When a bleach pen is emptied, the cap can be pried off, and the pen refilled with Soft Scrub.  Because Soft Scrub is a paste, it doesn’t spread out and is very controllable. Both products have enough chlorine content to discharge dye, but are mild enough to not damage the fibers.
  3. Synthetic bristle brushes
  4. Small squeeze bottles
  5. Dish pan or 2 gallon pail
  6. Hydrogen peroxide
  7. Gloves
  8. Respirator with multigas/vapor cartridge
  9. Newspapers
  10. Rubber bands or the binding material of your choice.
  11. Measuring cup
  • Wash and dry the garment according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
  •  If you plan to reverse tie dye, bind the garment in the pattern of choice.
  • Cover the work area with several layers of newspaper.
  •  If you are “painting’ with the discharging agent and do not plan to discharge both sides of the garment, place a pad of newspapers between the layers of the garment to protect the underside from the bleaching action.
  • Using white or light-colored chalk, mark the areas where dye removal is desired.  
  • Fill a small squeeze bottle or Clorox Pen with Soft Scrub for fine lines, writing, and details.
  • Use a brush or a squeeze bottle with a large opening to apply Soft Scrub over large areas.

The discharging agent will begin to remove the color immediately.  Check the degree of discharging every 5 minutes.  As soon as the desired color is reached, or one hour has passed, begin the neutralizing process.  Never leave Soft Scrub on the fabric longer than one hour, or the fibers will be permanently damaged.  The damage will not be apparent until after the item has been laundered a few times.  The goal is not white, as that is not attainable.  Most blacks discharge to a peachy tan color.  Navy Blues discharge to a tan or khaki color.  Reds and purples discharge closer to light pink or ecru.  Discharging from secondary colored garments is a surprise every time, as the primaries breakdown leaving a shade of one of the components behind.


Reverse tie dye using Soft Scrub,  with accents using a Clorox Bleach Pen.


Branches and lightest areas were discharged first using a tiny squeeze bottle to apply the paste, then a brush was used to apply the bleaching agent to create the bark.

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In the purple and green shirts, notice how David used a fork to spread the discharge paste, creating details around the heart and mushroom images.

Neutralizing the Bleaching Action

  • While the bleaching is happening, prepare a 1-1.5 gallon soapy warm bath in a 2 gallon pail or dishpan.
  • Take the discharged item to a sink with a sprayer, or a garden hose.
  •  Spray off all the Soft Scrub.
  • Place the item in the soapy bath already prepared, immerse fully, and swish around for 30 seconds.
  • Add one cup of hydrogen peroxide to the soapy bath, with more swishing.
  • Soak for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Rinse.
  • Machine wash and line or tumble dry.

Procion fiber reactive dyes can be added back into discharged areas.Use  a sodium carbonate solution in a spray bottle to pre-soak the areas, then ‘paint’ with thickened dyes.

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Filed under How to

3 responses to “Discharging with Household Cleansers

  1. Melissa Bailes

    thanks a million for the directions. I have used the bleach pen and bleach and water in spray bottles before but the soft scrub sounds like a great idea!

  2. amhcorbin

    I recently tried a Clorox Bleach pen on a navy blue 50% cotton/50% rayon scarf and it DID NOT WORK! The bleach pen completely washed out leaving a perfectly clean navy blue scarf. Any ideas?!

    • Several variable could be at work.
      The bleach in the pen could have evaporated, rendering it useless. Did it smell bleachy?
      The length of time the agent was in contact with the fabric might have been too brief. How long did it remain in contact with the fabric?
      Or, most probably, the fabric was “un-bleachable”. Some fabric will not discharge at all. One time, I destroyed a pair of shorts with bleach- no color change at all.

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