How to Hand-Wash Clothes the Right Way, According to Laundry Experts

Machines do most of our laundry for us, but learning how to hand-wash clothes is a skill that's definitely worth mastering

Knowing how to hand-wash clothes may not be essential, but it sure does come in handy. Let me set the scene: It was early 2020, and all the laundromats in my neighborhood and the surrounding areas had shut down for several weeks. I had no way to machine-wash clothing and household linens. And nobody knew when things would get back to normal. Thankfully, I’m a cleaning expert with more than a decade of experience and knew exactly how to hand-wash clothes.

While you may never find yourself without access to laundry facilities, it’s still worth learning how to do laundry by hand. Not only is it an easy skill to master, but it’s also well worth having in your arsenal for more than emergency situations. It’s useful for laundering delicate fabrics and embellished clothing, when traveling, for in-a-pinch laundry (like, you really want to wear your favorite leggings to yoga tomorrow!) and in a disaster.

Because I’ve been there, done that, I’ve created a guide to explain the basics of how to hand-wash clothes and offer tips for what can and can’t be successfully washed by hand. I’m even including special instructions for hand-washing sweaters, bras, lingerie and underwear. And don’t worry: This step-by-step guide will also cover drying techniques, including when to air-dry or machine-dry clothes that have been washed by hand.

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Reviewed for accuracy by: Mary Marlowe Leverette, a highly regarded fabric-care, stain-removal and housekeeping expert with more than 40 years of experience.

Which items should be hand-washed?

Colorful clothes in suds, top view. Hand washing laundryLiudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Anything safe to machine-wash is a candidate for washing by hand, including clothing, accessories and household linens. That said, certain items—typically those made from lightweight and quick-drying fabrics—are better suited to hand-laundering.

Before you jump in, check the care tag. Garments that have rayon and viscose in their fiber content, for instance, are best cleaned with dry-cleaning solvents.

Ideal for hand-washing

Yes, you can wash delicate fabrics like silk, wool, cashmere and angora by hand. In fact, hand-laundering these materials is often the better option for preserving the look and feel of these natural fibers.

The following types of clothing and accessories are ideal for washing by hand:

  • Activewear
  • Bras, underwear and lingerie
  • Embellished items
  • Hosiery
  • Lightweight outerwear, like puffer coats and fleece
  • Silk clothing and accessories
  • Sweaters, especially lightweight and/or delicate natural fibers like angora, cashmere and merino

Ideal for machine-washing

Bulky and/or heavy items are best washed in the machine, rather than by hand, when possible. The weight and size of the following items can make the hand-laundering process an energy-consuming slog—and better to skip it if you can!

  • Bedspreads, duvets and quilts
  • Heavy outerwear
  • Jeans and other work-weight pants
  • Sweatshirts, sweatpants and other bulky leisurewear
  • Towels

Hand-washing dry-clean-only items

Certain garments labeled “dry-clean only” can be successfully hand-washed. To determine if a dry-clean-only item can be washed by hand, look at the fabric content. If it includes cotton, linen, spandex, nylon or polyester, you can safely wash it by hand, even if the care tag says to dry-clean it. “If the garment is structured, like a suit jacket or coat, it should not be hand-washed because of the interfacings that give it its shape. Save it for the dry cleaner,” adds fabric-care expert Mary Marlowe Leverette.

Is hand-washing as effective as machine-washing?

When done correctly, hand-washing is as effective as machine-washing. The most important thing to bear in mind when hand-laundering clothing and other items is to use the correct dose of detergent. Using too much detergent will add unnecessary time and labor to the process of rinsing clothes clean, and residue from detergent will leave clothing and accessories that have been washed by hand feeling stiff. That residue can even lend a dingy, dull appearance to otherwise clean clothing.

In addition to using the wrong amount of detergent, using unnecessary laundry boosters like fabric softeners and scent beads when hand-washing can lead to a less-than-ideal outcome. Repeat after me: Less is more when it comes to products.

One of my most trusted fabric-care experts, Wayne Edelman, CEO of New York City’s Meurice Garment Care, once instructed me, “Only add enough detergent to create a slippery feel to the water and some sudsing.” I always loved the way he put that—”a slippery feel to the water”—because it is so normal to think that a sink full of suds is the path to super-clean clothes, when the opposite is true. That tactile instruction is so helpful for gauging what the right amount of detergent should look and feel like.

I strongly recommend using a no-rinse detergent when hand-washing clothing and accessories. These detergents are formulated with delicate fabric types in mind and do not require rinsing, making hand-washing a less labor-intensive effort and reducing the amount of handling needed.

Infographic showing how to hand wash clothes step by stepRD.com

How to hand-wash clothes

For dirty delicates and other items that can’t go into the washer (look for that hand-wash-only symbol on the label!), follow the steps below to launder by hand.

Step 1: Read the care tag

Consult the care label for washing instructions, taking particular note of guidance on what water temperature to use as well as any products to avoid using.

Step 2: Treat stains

pretreating a large red stain on a white shirt with powder detergentLiudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Pre-treat stains on the garment, if necessary, before hand-washing. The method will differ depending on the fabric and type of stain, and a good place to start is with our guide to stain removal.

Step 3: Fill the sink with soapy water

Fill the sink with water, leaving enough space to submerge the garment and to move your hands through the water without displacing it. If the care instructions do not indicate an ideal water temperature, default to cool water.

Add laundry detergent following dosing directions provided by the detergent manufacturer. If the detergent does not come with dosing instructions, use approximately 1 teaspoon of detergent per item being washed by hand.

Pro tip
If a sink is not available, use a washing basin or bathtub.

Step 4: Submerge and soak items

white shirt submerged in soapy detergent waterLiudmila Chernetska/getty images

Place the garment in the detergent solution. Use your hands to submerge and gently agitate it so that the water and laundry detergent fully penetrate the fibers. Then allow the garment to soak for five to 15 minutes.

Step 5: Rinse

If you’ve used regular detergent, rather than a no-rinse formula, drain the sink of soapy water and thoroughly rinse the garment to remove all detergent. You can do this by either holding the garment under running water or refilling the basin and rinsing the item by gently agitating it to release detergent. The latter method is best for delicate items, as it is gentler on fabrics than flushing with the force of running water. Use the same water temperature for rinsing that you did for washing.

If you used a no-rinse detergent, this step is not necessary.

Step 6: Press out excess water

After draining the sink, leave the garment in the basin and gently press down on it to push out as much water as possible. Take care not to wring, twist or otherwise roughly handle the fibers—overhandling can cause stretching, fraying and other damage.

When you’ve forced out all the water, carefully lift the garment out of the sink, supporting its weight to prevent stretching, and place it on a clean, dry, absorbent towel. Roll the garment up in the towel, gently pressing down to force out more water.

Step 7: Dry the garment

Woman hanging clean laundry on drying rack in bathroom, closeupLiudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

You’ll either air- or machine-dry items, depending on the fabric, so be sure you’ve read the care tag. Most items that require hand-washing, especially delicate materials like silk or cashmere and performance wear that contains spandex, Lycra or elastane, should be air-dried. Either lay them flat or hang to dry, depending on the type of garment. The same goes for sweaters—check out the full list of sweater-washing steps below.

Cotton, linen and polyester can be air-dried or machine-dried per the instructions on the care label.

Pro tip
Avoid draping wet clothing on wood furniture or floors, or over metal radiators. Doing so can stain and damage both the wet fabric and the wood or metal surfaces.

How to hand-wash sweaters

Sweaters made from natural and synthetic fibers can be washed by hand, and when it comes to materials like cashmere, merino or angora, hand-laundering is the gold standard. The instructions for hand-washing sweaters also apply to washing other woolens, like scarves, hats, gloves and mittens.

Step 1: Read the care tag

clothing care label with notes about ironing and steamingLiudmila Chernetska/getty images

Noticing a pattern? That’s right: The first step to laundering items without destroying them is always to consult the care label for washing instructions.

Step 2: Fill the sink

Fill the sink with cool water and detergent. If the sweater is made from natural fibers, use a wool-safe no-rinse detergent. Sweaters made from synthetic fibers do not require a specialty detergent.

When adding detergent, follow the measurement directions on the container. If the detergent doesn’t offer dosing instructions, use approximately 1 teaspoon of detergent per item being washed by hand.

Step 3: Submerge and soak the sweater

Wash the sweater by submerging it fully in the detergent solution and using your hands to gently agitate it. Take care not to overhandle the sweater, which can stretch the fibers. Allow the sweater to soak for 15 minutes.

Step 4: Rinse

If you’ve used regular detergent, drain the sink and then thoroughly rinse the sweater in cool water. Take care not to overhandle the garment by filling the basin with fresh water for rising, rather than rinsing the sweater under running water.

If you used a no-rinse detergent, this step is not necessary.

Step 5: Press out excess water

Drain the sink. Gently press the sweater against the bottom of the basin to push out as much water as possible. Carefully lift the sweater out of the sink, supporting its weight to prevent stretching, and place it on a towel.

Roll the sweater up in the towel, gently pressing down to remove more water. Remember, you never want to wring, twist or otherwise roughly handle the fibers.

Step 6: Air-dry on a flat surface

Female orange knitted sweater on white background top view flat lay. Fashion Lady Clothes Set Trendy Cozy Knit Jumper Autumn accessories. Female fashion lookKseniya Ovchinnikova/Getty Images

Take extra care when drying your sweaters—hanging a wet sweater to dry will cause it to stretch and become misshapen, and it’ll weaken the fibers, leading to fraying and other damage. Also a big no-no? Tossing them into the dryer. Always lay sweaters flat to air-dry, either on a towel or on a flat mesh drying rack.

How to hand-wash bras and lingerie

These delicate and finely constructed garments do not like to be overhandled, making hand-washing the ideal choice when cleaning your bras and lingerie.

Step 1: Read the care tag

Yup, you’re once again beginning by reading the washing instructions on the care label. Pay special attention to the recommended water temperature and any products, like bleach, to avoid.

Step 2: Fill the sink

Fill the sink with water, then add detergent. While a delicates detergent is not necessary—regular liquid or powder detergents are fine, though liquid detergents tend to dissolve more easily, making them a better choice for hand-washing—one can be fun to use, because it makes washing bras feel like a special occasion!

Follow the dosing directions provided by the detergent manufacturer. If the detergent container doesn’t specify a hand-washing dose, use approximately 1 teaspoon of detergent per item being washed by hand.

Pro tip
Use a no-rinse detergent when washing bras. Doing so eliminates a step of the hand-washing process and reduces the amount of handling required.

Step 3: Submerge and soak items

Woman pov handwashing clothingBeeldbewerking/Getty Images

Place the bra (or bras—you can wash more than one at a time) in the water. Submerge and gently agitate it with your hands. Let it soak for 15 minutes.

Step 4: Rinse

If you’ve used regular detergent, drain the water and thoroughly rinse the bra by refilling the basin with cool water and gently agitating the bra while it’s submerged. To protect the item’s delicate construction from the force of the faucet, avoid rinsing it directly under running water.

This step is not necessary if you used a no-rinse detergent as recommended.

Step 5: Press out excess water

Drain the wash water from the sink. Push as much water as possible out of the bra by gently squeezing the cups. Do not wring, twist or otherwise roughly handle a bra or other lingerie—it can leave items misshapen.

Step 6: Air-dry items

bras hanging dryharpazo_hope/getty images

Air-drying is your best bet when it comes to delicates, including bras and lingerie. Ideally, you’ll lay them on a flat surface, such as a towel or a flat mesh drying rack.

Do you prefer to drip-dry items? You can, if the design permits. But do so with care. Never hang a bra to dry by its straps, which will cause them to stretch, ruining the fit of the bra. Instead, hang it by its center gore.

How to hand-wash underwear

Washing underwear by hand is a fairly straightforward process, similar to washing bras and other lingerie. The most important step? Rinse the underwear thoroughly after washing to avoid itching, inflammation and other discomfort caused by exposure to detergent residue.

Step 1: Read the care tag

By now, you know the drill: Check the care label for washing instructions, paying special attention to any products, like bleach, that you should avoid.

The laundry symbols on the tag will tell you what water temperature to use, but in general, go with the hottest water the fabric can tolerate. That’ll help ensure your undies are free of buildup, bacteria and other germs.

Step 2: Fill the sink

bathroom sink filling with waterclaudiodivizia/getty images

Fill the sink with water and detergent, being very careful with the dosage. When washing underwear, err on the side of less detergent rather than more.

Follow the dosing directions provided by the detergent manufacturer. Don’t see any instructions on the container? Use about 1 teaspoon of detergent per item being washed by hand. Don’t go overboard! Remember, excess detergent can leave behind residue that may irritate your skin with wear.

Step 3: Submerge and soak the underwear

Place the underwear in the soapy water, fully submerging it. Rub the fabric of the gusset against itself to dislodge any buildup of secretions and remove stains. Then allow the underwear to soak for 15 minutes.

Step 4: Rinse

Drain the detergent solution and thoroughly rinse the underwear either by holding them under running water or refilling the basin, making sure no detergent residue remains.

Step 5: Press out excess water

Drain the wash water from the sink and push as much water as possible out of the underwear by gently squeezing it. Gently is the operative word here—avoid roughly handling your underwear. Wringing it out or twisting the fabric can stretch it out or break its elastic.

Step 6: Dry the underwear

red underwear in hands for laundryssuaphoto/Getty Images

Pick your preferred method here: You can either machine- or air-dry underwear. if you go the air-drying route, either lay items flat, hang them on a line or put them on a drying rack.

FAQs

Do you need special detergent for hand-washing clothes?

No, you don’t need to use a specialty detergent to hand-wash clothes—standard liquid or powder laundry detergents get the job done. If you only have detergent pods, Leverette recommends dissolving the pod in a cup of very warm water. Use 1 teaspoon of the solution per item you are hand-washing.

Specialty detergents can be nice to have for hand-washing clothes, though. They’re formulated to be gentler on certain fabric types, and they can elevate the hand-washing experience by making it feel a little special. (Anything to make the chore feel less like a chore, right?)

I strongly recommend using a no-rinse detergent formula for hand-laundering. These products have the benefit of reducing the amount of handling required when hand-washing a garment, which is gentler on fabrics. Plus, they save you time by eliminating a step.

Should you use fabric softener when hand-washing?

No, fabric softener isn’t necessary for hand-washing. In fact, it can leave a residue that may cause skin irritation. Additionally, fabric softener should not be used on many fabrics that are frequently hand-washed, including spandex, Lycra and elastane.

How do you hand-wash heavy clothes?

You don’t, if you can avoid it! I don’t recommend hand-washing heavy or bulky items like blankets or down comforters. There’s a good deal of physical effort involved, and the drying time can be so lengthy.

With that said, you can hand-wash heavy clothing using the methods outlined in this guide. “Use the bathtub for an emergency hand-washing of jeans or athletic uniforms,” says Leverette. “The added space gives the clothes more room to absorb the cleaning ingredients of the detergent, and they are easier to wash and rinse.”

Why are my clothes so stiff after hand-washing?

If clothing is stiff after being washed by hand, the likely culprit is detergent residue. To fix this problem, rinse the garment well in cool water to wash out any product buildup that’s affecting the look and feel of the item.

Why trust us

At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts in the cleaning industry. For this piece, longtime cleaning writer Jolie Kerr, author of My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha, tapped her extensive experience as a cleaning expert, and then Mary Marlowe Leverette, fabric-care and stain-removal expert, gave it a rigorous review to ensure that all information is accurate and offers the best possible advice to readers. We verify all facts and data, back them with credible sourcing and revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.