How to Do Laundry: A Step-by-Step Guide
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about doing laundry, from sorting to detergents to the best washer and dryer settings for your clothes.
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It’s not surprising so many people consider doing laundry a chore. After all, most of us do laundry at least once a week and those with big families or little kids are likely throwing in a load more frequently, some even daily. Even if you have the best washer and dryer and use the best laundry detergents, the laundry won’t just do itself.
Laundry is probably not the highlight of your week. That’s why Reader’s Digest created a guide on how to do laundry that will make it easier than ever. It may also help to approach the task with a new outlook. According to Patric Richardson, author of Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore, “Changing our mindsets from simply cleaning clothes to caring for others is key to changing our attitudes about laundry from drudgery to love.” [Read more of Richardson’s laundry advice in our December 2021/January 2022 issue.]
Regardless of whether you love laundry or hate it, we’ve got the answers to all your clothes cleaning questions, from how to read laundry symbols and how to clean a washing machine to “should I turn my clothes inside out before washing?” (Spoiler alert: yes!) Our team of experts will tell you everything you need to know, like how to separate laundry and how to hand-wash clothes, so you can get the job done quickly and efficiently, and your clothes will come out looking like new.
First things first: different fabrics require different care. Although there are general guidelines for the most common fabrics, always check the specific instructions on an item’s label before laundering.
Most cottons are machine washable but because the fabric is very susceptible to shrinkage, your best bet is to wash them in cold water, according to Alicia Sokolowski, president and co-CEO of AspenClean, a Canadian-based cleaning service. You can dry them on a low setting but they should be removed while still slightly damp and hung on a line or placed on a clothes-drying rack to air dry.
You can use cold or warm water to wash polyester. Polyester doesn’t tend to shrink or wrinkle but it can pill (here’s how to remove pilling). Add fabric softener to the wash to prevent static, says Leena Alsulaiman, a fashion stylist based in the San Francisco Bay area. “I advise airdrying as polyester dries quickly and too much heat can break down the fabric, cause shrinkage, or even change the shape of a garment.”
Figuring out how to wash silk the right way can be tricky so don’t place your silk item in water before reading the care label. If the label says hand washing is OK, our experts agree it’s best to do so in cold water using a gentle detergent. Soak before washing, then rinse with cold water. Absorb the excess water with a towel and hang or lay flat away from sunlight to dry. If the label says “Dry Clean Only,” bring the item to a professional.
Because wool can shrink when washed, it’s safest to hand wash it or if machine washing it (after clearing it on the care label, of course!), place it in a mesh bag before putting it in the machine. Use the “wool” setting which— if your machine doesn’t have one—is the gentle cycle and cold water. Lay flat to dry.
“First and foremost, never wash spandex using a detergent that contains chlorine or fabric conditioners,” cautions Alsulaiman. “It will destroy the structure of the spandex.” She recommends turning the garment inside out and placing it inside a mesh bag before washing it on the gentle setting with a slow spin at the end of the cycle. Spandex does not react well when exposed to heat—the heat can weaken and break down the fibers—so keep it out of the dryer and let it air dry away from sunlight.
If the label doesn’t say “Dry Clean Only,” you can wash linen in warm water in your machine on a gentle cycle but keep it separate from other fabrics, says Sokolowski. She suggests pre-washing linen in cold water to prevent shrinking, then removing it from the dryer while still damp and iron straight away. (The wrinkles will readily disappear, thanks to the slight water content.) Or, another smart option is to line dry it. “Line drying helps preserve fibers, colors, and shape while saving energy, too.”
1. Know the Laundry Symbols
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You’ve probably noticed that nearly all your clothing has a label that features symbols showing the best way to care for the item. Although there are effective ways to deviate from these instructions, laundry symbols should be considered important guidelines, giving you a place to start when you’re figuring out how to clean an item, explains Samantha Brown, a fashion stylist based in New York City. “You can make your own educated decisions from there.”
Learning how to read laundry symbols can feel like learning a new language but it’s actually less complicated than it looks. We’ve even provided a handy washing symbols chart as a cheat sheet.
Dry clean at home
Dry cleaning can be inconvenient and expensive, so you might be tempted to machine-wash “dry clean only” clothes, but can you? The short answer: maybe. By law, manufacturers only have to include one method of laundering, which by default is the the “safest” one. So, in some cases, dry cleaning may not be necessary. However, there’s a big difference between “Dry Clean” and “Dry Clean Only.” The first is a recommendation, the second means it’s best to leave the cleaning up to the pros.
To see if you can avoid actually dry cleaning an item, “always test an inconspicuous spot, by a hem or seam where it can’t be seen, first,” advises Jelina Saliu, president of Safely, a company that makes plant-based cleaning products. “Test with a little water and you’ll know right away if it can be hand washed instead of dry cleaned. If the material becomes distorted or crinkles, get it to the dry cleaner.”
2. Sort Laundry
In order to keep your clothes looking their best, you need to know how to sort your laundry—and that starts with the care labels. They’ll tell you how specific items needed to be washed; you’ll want to keep those with the same needs together.
|♦ Expert Laundry Tip
|You don’t need to wash many types of clothing, especially denim, after every wear. Use a good fabric freshening spray in between washes to keep them smelling fresh and preserve their longevity. —Jelina Saliu, president of Safely
Everyone has their own method of sorting—based on colors (this lights and darks laundry hamper will make the job easier than ever) and fabrics—but the most important factors will be found in those laundry symbols. Items that require handwashing or dry cleaning only shouldn’t end up in the machine.
3. Pick the Right Detergent
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Because so much depends on using the best laundry detergent for your machine, here’s everything you should consider.
- HE laundry detergent vs. regular: If you have a high-efficiency washing machine, be sure to check the detergent bottle for the HE (high-efficiency) label. You can use HE laundry detergent in a standard machine but you can’t use standard detergent in a high-efficiency machine. HE laundry detergents are formulated specifically for these machines and are vital to keeping them working properly. If you don’t already have a high-efficiency machine, you may want to consider buying one. According to Sokolowski, they use up to 80 percent less water than traditional, top-loaders, deliver up to 65 percent energy savings, and can wash more laundry in one go. “This is where it’s important to follow instructions,” warns Brown. “Due to the extra power in HE washers, regular detergent can bubble and overflow, causing potential damage to the machine as well as a big mess.”
- Ingredients: When hunting for the best laundry detergent, “look for those that disclose all ingredients and choose one that doesn’t include fillers, fragrances that could cause allergies, phosphates that pollute water, or other toxic ingredients,” says Sokolowski. “The more active ingredients like surfactants (that lift soil away from fabric and suspend it in the water) and enzymes (that remove stains and end in ‘-ase’), the more effective the detergent.” Sokolowski’s AspenClean and Saliu’s Safely both offer detergents that meet these standards. Alsulaiman, who likes to keep a regular detergent and a gentle one on hand at all times, recommends Persil ProClean Stain Fighter Liquid Laundry Detergent and Woolite Extra Delicates Laundry Detergent. Brown swears by brands like Dreft and Seventh Generation, which have fewer additives. “This is not only better for your skin and for minimizing the chemicals in your household but it’s also better for the garments.”
How much detergent to use
All the experts agree it’s important to follow the instructions on the bottle that tell you how much laundry detergent to use.
- Using too much: “Overpouring detergent can actually do more harm than good,” says Brown. According to Alsulaiman, “If you use too much detergent, you can end up with residue on the clothes, which will accelerate the wear and tear and shorten their lifespan.” Plus, you’re wasting detergent and spending extra money unnecessarily.
- Using too little. “The reality is, even if you use less because you’re running low on detergent, your clothing should still come out clean,” says Brown. “Unless your clothes are really filthy, the water and movement of the machine will get the job done, so always err on the side of too little detergent rather than too much.”
(P.S.—here’s a great recipe for making homemade laundry detergent.)
Many of us have come to think of fabric softener as a laundry requirement but it’s really more of a matter of personal preference.
So what does fabric softener do? “It coats fabrics to make the individual fibers feel more slippery and stand more upright, making your clothes feel softer and fluffier and reducing static cling,” says Sokolowski.
The experts have mixed feelings about fabric softener, admiring its ability to soften clothes but not the fact that it’s often full of chemicals and heavy scents. If avoiding added chemicals is important to you, you might want to try an alternative like dryer balls. These have the added benefit of reducing drying time by up to 40 percent, according to Richardson.
4. Pre-Treat Stains and Odors
- Stain removal: Pre-treating your laundry offers your best chance of getting a stain out of any fabric because it gives the treatment time to work. How you treat the stain will depend on what type of stain it is but, in general, Brown recommends pre-treating stains with Oxyclean, Grandma’s Stain Remover, or her natural go-to for just about everything: a bit of white vinegar and baking soda. “Regardless of what treatment method you use, allow the stain remover to sit for about 30 minutes,” she says. “Then either rinse and repeat if the stain is still there or toss it in the laundry.”
- Odor removal: Though your instinct may be to pour more detergent or fragrance on the problem, that won’t work. Instead, Saliu recommends spraying or squirting some diluted vinegar on the odor-ridden areas and soak in a basin of water. “Sometimes I do a pre-wash with vinegar and then a second quick wash with my detergent. I promise it works!” Or you could try a product like Clorox Laundry Sanitizer that kills odor-causing bacteria to make clothes smell fresh.
5. Wash Your Clothes and Linens
Most of your clothing and bedding is going to be washed in your machine so it’s important to understand how your specific model works. Read the owner’s manual. Tip: You can probably find it online if you’ve long since tossed yours. And if you’re washing your sheets, try using a tool like Wad-Free for Bed Sheets to avoid tangles.
How to wash colors, whites, and delicates
Colors and whites need to be separated, especially if the colored items are being washed for the first time and may bleed. Colors should always be washed in cold water—and whites can, too, although some people like to use warm or even hot water for those.
Delicates do best when hand washed in cold water but can usually be machine washed on a gentle cycle. Check the care label before putting them in your washer and, if you do want to use the machine, place them in a mesh bag to prevent them from rubbing against the machine and becoming damaged.
People have varying opinions about the right water temperature for washing clothes but “when in doubt, always go cold,” Saliu says. “Cold water is the least abrasive option for your clothing and is the best at preserving its color.” Brown agrees, adding, “Cold water also decreases the chance of shrinkage and uses a lot less energy. Ultimately, it will save you money.” One caveat: If the water in your washing machine runs too cold, warm water may be the better choice. That’s because detergents won’t dissolve in water that’s colder than 58 degrees, according to Richardson.
|♦ Expert Laundry Tip
|Stop washing your jeans! Water is not a friend to denim. Instead, chuck them in the freezer to get rid of any funky smells, and only wash jeans when you’ve spilled something on them. —Alicia Sokolowski, president and co-CEO of AspenClean
Modern washing machines have lots of buttons and options (check your owner’s manual to learn about the ones on your specific model) but, other than water temperature, the two main functions are cycle length and cycle speed.
- Cycle length is basically just the timer and, although longer cycles are meant for heavily soiled or bulky items, you should always choose the shortest cycle possible to accomplish the job. In fact, Richardson recommends the express cycle over longer ones. “This short cycle is much kinder to your clothes than a full cycle, helping them last longer.”
- Cycle speed refers to the speed at which the machine agitates or tumbles the clothes around and then another speed at which it spins the water out of the clothes. These are the most common:
- Permanent Press/ “fast/slow” means that the cycle will produce a fast, highly agitated washing cycle, followed by a slow spin cycle to prevent wrinkling. According to the experts, it’s the one you should be using most often. T
- Regular setting is “fast/fast,” and is meant for really dirty, sweaty, bulky loads.
- Delicate or Gentle cycle is a “slow/slow” combination that offers extra protection while washing your underwear, bras, and other delicate clothing.
Calculating load capacity
It’s important not to overload your machine but how do you know how much is too much? Check the user manual for your specific model’s capacity recommendation—it’s generally 12 pounds of laundry for a standard top load washer, 15 to 18 pounds for a front loader, and 20 to 22 pounds for an extra-large capacity front loader. You can weigh your laundry (would you guess that a dirty bath towel weighs 1.6 pounds and an XL tee weighs half a pound?) but the experts agree it’s OK to eyeball it. “All the clothes should be distributed evenly and loosely inside the machine,” says Alsulaiman. “A large load of laundry should not fill the tub to more than three-quarters full.” If your clothes can tumble freely, you should be fine.
5. Dry Your Clothes
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Once you’ve gone through the trouble of properly washing your clothes, you don’t want to ruin them in the drying process so check the care label for instructions.
Air dry vs machine dry
Even though it takes longer, every single expert recommends air drying whenever possible. “There are significant benefits to using a clothing rack or line,” says Sokolowski. Air drying uses less energy, saves money, prevents static cling, and extends the lifetime of clothing by reducing wear and tear caused by the dryer. “Plus, it’s better for the environment.” Air drying outdoors—away from sunlight—gives garments a fresh, clean smell that the dryer can’t match. If you are using the dryer, use the shortest time and lowest heat cycle possible. According to Saliu, “Most damage (hello, shrinkage!) happens within the drying process.”
Although they can vary by machine, the most common dryer settings are Regular/Heavy (high heat and fast-drying for whites, socks, and towels), Permanent Press (medium heat with a cool-down to help release and reduce wrinkling), Delicates (lowest heat setting) and Air Fluff (no heat, used for fluffing or refreshing).
Load size is another proper consideration. “Like the washer, a dryer should never be more than ¾ full,” says Alsulaiman. “A load that is too big will not allow the clothes to dry properly. And the longer it takes to dry them, the longer they are exposed to the heat and friction, which wears down fabric.” Sokolowski adds, “Your clothes will not dry properly if there are too few items in the dryer, either. At least three to five items are recommended.”
|♦ Expert Laundry Tip
|Put a dry towel in the dryer with your wet clothes. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it will soak up the excess moisture and dry your clothes faster. —Alicia Sokolowski, president and co-CEO of AspenClean
Dryer sheets vs dryer balls
Dryer sheets soften clothes by coating them while dryer balls soften them by agitating the fibers as they bounce around. Although it’s really a matter of personal preference—and, again, you don’t need to use them at all—a good option is Grove Collaborative Wool Dryer Balls with a few drops of Aura Cacia 100% Pure French Lavender Essential Oil or Natural Riches Five Guards Essential Oil Blend.
6. Hang or Fold Your Clothes
There are countless laundry memes with a similar punchline that all allude to the fact that many folks will leave a clean load of laundry sitting in the dryer or laundry basket (or even on a designated laundry chair) for days. “Don’t let procrastination get the best of you!” laughs Brown. “Completing this task will literally lighten your load and the added benefit is that your clothes won’t end up in a ball of wrinkles.”
Hang flowy and delicate fabrics like silk and lace, dresses (unless they’re made of jersey or some type of athleisure or performance fabric), blouses, jackets, dress pants, jumpsuits, and linen or other fabrics that wrinkle easily. Pretty much everything else—sweaters and sweatshirts, tees, jeans, activewear—can be folded. The Marie Kondo folding method is virtually foolproof.
Steamer vs iron: which is better for your clothes? “This will come down to the fabric and the outcome you are looking for,” says Alsulaiman. “If you want crisp lines and pleats, then—fabric permitting—ironing is the way to go. But if you are looking for a general de-wrinkling, then steam is the fastest and easiest way. But, as with all the other steps of clothing care, please read the laundry care tag on your clothes for the best instructions.”
Maintain Your Washer/Dryer
Because your washer and dryer are all about cleaning, it’s easy to forget that they need to be cleaned, too, in order to keep them performing at their best. How do you clean a washing machine? “You should do a light clean every month,” says Sokolowski. “Run an empty load with hot water and about a cup of distilled white vinegar to sanitize the basin then wipe it dry.” Don’t forget to wash the dispenser drawer, where water can build up and turn to mold. If you have a front-loading machine, leave the door open between washes to let the machine’s interior dry. You should also wipe down the inside of the machine and the seal on the door after every use.
As for your dryer, clean out the lint filter after every single use. “This is super important,” stresses Saliu. “Dryer safety is key because lint build-up can end up in a dangerous situation.” According to the U.S. Fire Administration, nearly 3,000 dryer fires are reported each year, most of them caused by clogged vents, ducts, and filters. Don’t overload your dryer, which can cause it to overheat, and never run the dryer while you’re sleeping or out of the house. Clean the dryer vents annually and—it bears repeating because most of us don’t do it—clean out the lint filter after every single use.
Avoid Common Laundry Mistakes
We’ve all made laundry mistakes but here are some of the easiest ways to prevent them from happening again:
- Turn clothes inside out to avoid getting stained by items accidentally left in pockets
- Empty all pockets before washing
- Zip zippers but unbutton buttons before washing garments
- Check care labels before using bleach
- Take clothes out of the wash immediately to prevent odors in the fabric and mildew in the machine