How to Separate Laundry for the Cleanest, Brightest Clothes

So long, dingy whites and faded darks! Here's how to separate laundry so your clothes come out of the wash clean and bright.

It’s not a fun chore: separating darks, colors and whites before loading your laundry into the washing machine. So is it really necessary? You bet. Do your laundry correctly, and you’ll be rewarded with clothes whose colors look crisp in the long run. In other words, you may not love it, but you do need to know how to separate laundry.

“Sorting your laundry helps minimize abrasion and color transfer,” says cleaning and laundry expert Patric Richardson, host of the Discovery+ show The Laundry Guy and author of Laundry Love. “Putting all colors in together will shorten the life of your clothes, and they won’t stay looking fresh and new.” Take the time to learn how to separate laundry like the pros, and you could actually make your clothes last longer.

Mary Gagliardi, a laundry scientist at Clorox, agrees that even though sorting takes more time, it’s worth it. But how, exactly, do you do it the right way? To find out how to separate laundry like a professional, Reader’s Digest talked to two of the leading laundry experts. Here, they spill their best laundry-sorting tips so your clothes and other items come out clean and bright—and last a long time.

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About the experts

  • Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, is a stain scientist at the Clorox Company. She has more than 10 years of experience in stain removal and testing laundry products.
  • Patric Richardson, aka the Laundry Evangelist, is the host of The Laundry Guy on Discovery+ and the author of Laundry Love and House Love. He has more than 10 years of experience in laundry care.

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

What happens if you don’t separate your clothes?

It’s important to separate laundry before tossing it into the washing machine. If you don’t, you could end up facing one of these issues:

  • Dye transfer. “After a single load, you can see discoloration from dye transfer—where the color from a single item spreads to the rest of the load, like when one red item turns a white load pink,” says Gagliardi. “Or over time, white items that are included in dark loads will develop a dingy grayish hue.”
  • Lint transfer. Toss clothes of varying fabrics into the same load, and you may need to break out the lint roller once the clothes have dried. If you wash a fuzzy pink blanket with a pair of black pants, for instance, you could end up with pink lint on your pants, which is a pain to remove.
  • Overlooked stains. When you move everything from the hamper to the washer without a second glance, you can miss stains that need tending to. And if you don’t treat them, they can become permanent and ruin your item. Remove stains by pretreating while you’re sorting.
  • Off-balance washer. Failing to separate a load by fabric weight can lead to a washer tub that’s off balance.
  • Wasted water or electricity. Occasionally washing an item in a solo load is fine, but if you make a habit of it, you could be wasting money. Richardson recommends waiting to do laundry until you have a full load—or at least enough items (five or six) for a small load. This keeps the clothes from tumbling too much and doesn’t waste water or electricity.

How to separate laundry by color

Lots of bright dirty colorful scattered clothes, abstract background. The concept of homework, lack of time for household chores.Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

There are several laundry-sorting strategies, but for the best results, start by separating based on color. “Sorting by color is the higher priority because of the potential for dye transfer,” says Gagliardi, adding that fabric type is a secondary consideration. “As you are sorting for color, you can pull out items that may be problematic when it comes to lint and wash them separately.”

The telltale sign you failed to sort your laundry by color? Your formerly white T-shirt is suspiciously pink … kind of like the red pair of socks that were tossed in with the load. That said, dye-transfer usually can be reversed on white, 100% cotton items. “Simply soak your garment for five minutes in a gallon of cool water with a quarter cup of bleach, rinse and add it to your white load,” says Gagliardi. Of course, “it’s better to just sort the laundry properly in the first place,” she says. 

When separating laundry, rely on the basic color groupings below.

White clothes

Always separate and sort white laundry by type of fabric (sheets and towels vs. nylon undies) and soil level (office shirts vs. baseball pants). Washing whites separately and following the recommendations on the care label will help prevent dinginess.

Dark clothes

Garments that are black, brown, navy blue, forest green and gray belong in this group, along with blue jeans.

Mixed-colored clothes

This load is yellow, pink, orange, beige, khaki and light blue.

Reds

Don’t take the chance of washing new red items with other laundry—you might end up with dye transfer that you may or may not be able to fix. “Anything red should be washed for the first time separately in a dishpan, and assess the amount of dye that comes off,” says Gagliardi. “Once you know they won’t bleed, they can go in the dark color load.”

Can’t decide if that red-and-blue-striped shirt is red or blue? When in doubt, wash an item that you fear will bleed onto other items separately. Gagliardi recommends hand-washing a single item. Prefer to throw it in the machine? Don’t hand-wring over washing a single item every once in a while. “Fortunately, today’s washers adjust water usage for load size, so washing a small load is generally OK when needed,” she says.

Pro tip
Check the care labels, and if you see the laundry symbols for “hand wash” or “dry clean only,” don’t put the item in the washing machine.

Should you separate laundry by fabric type?

Full Laundry Basket in Front of Washing Machine and Dryer, Domestic Life Household ChoresJena Ardell/Getty Images

Though the laundry process always begins with color separation, Gagliardi says there are a few instances in which you may want to consider further separating your similar-colored items by fabric or fabric weight. 

To separate your laundry by fabric type, group items into these categories:

  • Towels
  • Sheets
  • Delicates or hand-wash items
  • Heavily soiled items (such as clothes you wore gardening or clothes your kids wore to art class)

Combine sheets and towels with care

If your towels and sheets are all in the same color group, you can throw them into the same load. “But you will want to separate towels and sheets into two separate loads if one is white (like your bed sheets) and the other is not (like colored towels),” says Gagliardi.

One thing to keep in mind when washing towels and lighter-weight items such as sheets or clothes? A load with two different fabric weights can make it difficult for your washer—especially if it’s a front loader—to distribute them evenly in the tub before spinning. Lighter-weight sheets, in particular, can get tangled up with heavier towels, causing your machine to go off-balance.

“If the items can’t be balanced, then the washer can’t spin at a high enough speed to efficiently extract soils, detergent and water from the laundry,” Gagliardi explains. “If your machine is prone to balance issues, try to have at least two of heavier items like towels, and take an extra step to separate heavier fabrics from lighter-weight ones so that your laundry load comes out clean and well-spun.”

Toss delicates and activewear in their own load

Don’t toss delicates and activewear (items made of spandex, polypropylene and other high-tech fabrics typically found in workout clothing) in with the rest of your laundry. You need to wash them in a separate load. (Personally, I wash my activewear separately and then hang it to air-dry.)

“These fabrics are made to absorb sweat and dry quickly,” Gagliardi says, “so they should go in their own load, since they wash and dry differently from other fabrics.”

Take lint into account

Clothes Dryer Lint Trap Lifted to Clean from Inside Close-upGarysFRP/Getty Images

One final point: Consider lint. “Some fabrics generate more lint in the washer and dryer [like towels or flannel], and others are lint magnets [like corduroy and velour],” explains Galiardi. “It’s a good idea to separate lint producers and lint attractors in the laundry and not combine these fabrics in the same load.” 

She points to corduroy pants, a classic lint attractor. Let’s say you have a navy pair that goes into the wash in a dark load. “If the rest of the items in the load are denim and dress shirts, go ahead and add the corduroy. But if the other items include flannel shirts and a towel, hold off on the corduroy,” she says.

Alternately, if you’re dealing with a couple of pairs of corduroy pants along with the denim and a couple of dress shirts plus a single flannel shirt, set the flannel shirt aside for later and wash the corduroy with the denim and dress shirts. “The trick is to know your lint attractors and your lint donators and adjust as needed for the particular load at hand,” she explains.

Should you sort your laundry by temperature?

“Water temperature provides thermal energy to help with cleaning: the hotter the water, the better the cleaning,” says Gagliardi, who notes that hot water doesn’t necessarily reduce bacteria or dust mites. “I think it’s better to just wash with the water temperature recommended on the care label, increasing it if possible for better cleaning. Trying to link color groupings with water temperatures without also bringing in fabric type and garment construction makes doing laundry too complicated.”

The exception to this rule applies to delicates. “Delicates like silk, rayon, linen and wool generally need to be washed on cold to avoid shrinking,” she notes.

The bottom line on separating your laundry

There’s a lot of advice for how to separate laundry. So how complex does your system need to be? “The real trick to sorting laundry is to simply trust your best judgment,” says Richardson.

Gagliardi agrees. “There’s a lot of personal preference when it comes to laundry,” she says. “I try to provide informative tips to help improve the cleaning and whitening results people are getting—and it’s nice for me when they are happy after trying a new approach.”

Happy with some parts of your laundry-sorting routine? As long as your clothes are well cared for, there’s nothing wrong with sticking with it, the experts say.

Why you should 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. For this piece, Cari Wira Dineen, professional journalist and avid laundress to her two children, tapped laundry experts Mary Gagliardi and Patric Richardson to ensure that all information is accurate and offers the best possible advice to readers. Then, Mary Marlowe Leverette, a highly regarded fabric-care, stain-removal and housekeeping expert with more than 40 years of experience, reviewed the article for accuracy. We rely on reputable primary sources, including government and professional organizations and academic institutions as well as our writers’ personal experience where appropriate. 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.

Sources:

Cari Wira Dineen
Cari Wira Dineen is a writer, editor and blogger in the New York metropolitan area. Cari has held senior editorial staff positions at Redbook, Woman's Day and For Me. Her writing has appeared in Parents, Women's Health, Redbook, Woman's Day, Cosmopolitan, Health, Fitness, Weight Watchers magazine, New York Post and more.