The Best Temperature to Wash Clothes to Keep Them Looking New

Updated: May 28, 2024

If you’re not paying attention to what temperature to wash clothes in, you could be in for a world of hurt! Here’s when to use hot, warm and cold water for the best results.

Laundry day: It’s a chore that you probably do on autopilot, without giving much thought to whether you’re doing it 100% right … until your white clothes come out of the wash looking dingy or you accidentally shrink your favorite sweater. Both of those snafus boil down to knowing what temperature to wash clothes in, and if you’re not paying close attention to it for every load, you’re making a big mistake.

Knowing which laundry temperature is best means you’ll get clothes truly clean, prevent accidents like the ones noted above and get rid of stains, says Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert. And as a bonus, you can even save money on your monthly energy bills!

So which is best? Reader’s Digest asked Gagliardi and LaundryTok pro Melissa Dilkes Pateras, author of A Dirty Guide to a Clean Home, to give us the lowdown on the ideal water temperature for every type of fabric and situation.

Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more cleaning, tech, travel, humor and fun facts all week long.

About the experts

  • Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, is Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert. She first joined Clorox as a scientist in laundry-product research and development, and she has more than 12 years of research in stain-removal and laundry-product testing under her belt.
  •  Melissa Dilkes Pateras creates viral videos with laundry tips and tricks on her TikTok channel, @melissadilkespateras. She is also the author of A Dirty Guide to a Clean Home: Housekeeping Hacks You Can’t Live Without.

What’s the best temperature to wash clothes?

It depends! Factors like fabric type, color, soil level and garment construction will determine the best temperature to wash your clothes. You should also always check the care label on your garment before cleaning it. “Just like reading instructions to put together a table,” Pateras says, “a product label is there to give guidance on the best cleaning procedure for washing that specific item.” Gagliardi adds that there may be two labels, one for fiber content and one with washing instructions; if so, consult both of those.

When in doubt, go with a cold cycle. While hot water used to be the best way to clean clothes, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Improvements in laundry detergents and washing machines—as well as changes in common fabric types—now mean that cold water will clean clothes effectively in most scenarios, according to Pateras. Plus, there is less risk of shrinking your items in cold water. Just make sure to use a detergent labeled with terms like “cold water” or “cold wash” since they’re specifically formulated for cold-water washes and will ensure your clothes get clean.

There are some exceptions to the cold-water rule, though. Gagliardi recommends using hot or warm water when washing white garments, home textiles like sheets and towels, and laundry contaminated by a sick person. When push comes to shove, she says, “you have to balance these factors with how dirty the item is and whether or not warmer water is needed to get something clean possibly at the expense of fading or shrinkage.”

When to use hot water

Stack of clean folded towels with a hot water laundry, Getty Images (2)

Your clothes need a spin in a hot-water cycle if “someone in your household is sick with a respiratory illness like COVID-19, the flu or a cold, has experienced vomiting or diarrhea, or has a weakened immune system,” Pateras says. In most washers, the hot water will reach up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the temperature needed to kill bacteria, viruses and other germs on soiled fabrics. And you should always wash your sheets, pillowcases and towels in hot water since bacteria, dead skin, dust mites and more accumulate on them.

Hot water also works well if you need to remove residue buildup on white items—from T-shirts to socks. “Since white items easily show dirt and the dinginess that builds up over multiple cold washes, it’s always good to use hot water for them,” Gagliardi says. Hot water causes the molecules in grease and dirt to move faster, working with the detergent to break stains apart and lift them off the fabric.

What to watch out for: Hot water can shrink your clothes, cause fading and lead to dye transfer, which can make your garments look older faster, Gagliardi says. That’s why you should wash in hot water only those items that actually need it; clean the rest of your loads at a warm or cold water temperature.

Hot water is best for:
Any items used by a sick person
Towels, sheets and pillowcases
White garments (as long as the care label doesn’t say otherwise)

When to use warm water

Linen shirts with a warm water laundry, Getty Images (2)

If you don’t want to wash your clothes in hot water but they need brightening or have food residue, grease or sweat stains on them, warm water is a good alternative, Gagliardi says. Temperatures between 87 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit will offer better cleaning results than cold water while also reducing the risk of shrinkage and fading that might result from hot water. For example, warm water can brighten light-colored linen items without damaging the delicate material.

What to watch out for: Many washers make warm water by mixing hot and cold water, so if the incoming cold water is too cold, the water mixture might not get warm enough to fight bacteria and stains, Gagliardi says. She recommends checking the temperature of the water before doing a full load. (See the instructions on how to do that below.)

Warm water is best for:
Dirty items that might shrink or fade in hot water
Light-colored garments made of delicate fabrics, like linen, that need brightening

When to use cold water

Wool sweaters stacked horizontally with a cold water laundry, Getty Images (2)

You can use cold water for almost any load of laundry, and in fact, Pateras washes most of her clothing in cold water these days. “It’s eco-friendly and cost-effective, and detergents today are formulated to work best in cold water,” she says. To get the best clean for your clothes, use a detergent that is specially formulated with enzymes and surfactants that clean in cold water, such as Tide Hygienic Clean Heavy Duty 10X Power Pods or Persil ProClean Liquid Laundry Detergent.

That said, cold water works especially well on wool, washable silk and delicate items, which run the risk of shrinking or being damaged in hot water, Gagliardi says. Cold water can also help reduce color loss on denim. Anything else you want to protect from fading, shrinking and other wear and tear should be washed in cold water too.

The actual temperature of cold water will depend on where you live and the time of year. But for most households, the cold setting on your washing machine will be somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Pateras and Gagliardi.

What to watch out for: Washers in some colder climates might use water that is too cold to provide actual cleaning. During winter, Gagliardi suggests checking the water temperature of your washing machine’s cold cycle. If the temperature falls below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, use a warm cycle until the weather warms up. Yes, cold cycles can technically dip down to the 60-degree mark, but Gagliardi prefers 70 degrees or higher to ensure that items are properly cleaned.

Cold water is best for:
Wool, silk and delicate items
Clothing that you want to protect from fading or shrinking

What is the most energy-efficient temperature to wash clothes?

Washing your clothes in cold water is the most energy-efficient option because it doesn’t require extra energy to heat the water. When you wash laundry in hot water, about 90% of the washing machine’s energy goes toward heating the water, according to the American Cleaning Institute, so switching to cold water could seriously slash your yearly energy bill. It also could eliminate about 1,600 pounds of household carbon dioxide emissions a year, the Institute found.

How do I know if the temperature settings on my washing machine are correct?

The exact range of your water temperature can vary by manufacturer, but there are ways to find out the temperature for both traditional and HE washers. To check the temperature of the water temperature of a top-loading washing machine, Gagliardi suggests the following steps:

  1. Turn your washing machine to the desired temperature setting, such as hot or cold.
  2. Stop the machine after it has filled with water.
  3. Scoop a bit of the water into a plastic cup.
  4. Measure the water temperature with a kitchen thermometer.

Once you know the actual temperature of each cycle, you can adjust the next load you wash by starting off with a warm cycle and switching over to hot near the end of the fill to help get the water warm enough—or switch to cold if you need it to be cooler.

For front-loading machines, there isn’t a straightforward way to test your water temperature at home. You’ll need to contact a licensed service technician or the appliance manufacturer to troubleshoot if you are concerned about your water temperatures.


What temperature should you wash colored clothes in?

You should wash colored clothes in cold or warm water, depending on how deeply they need to be cleaned, Gagliardi says. That said, cold water is best for dark clothes to avoid fading and dye transfer; colors start to bleed in water temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. But if they are particularly dirty, warm water will zap the germs. Just make sure to launder those items alone to avoid potential dye transfer onto other clothes.

What’s the best temperature for whites?

For white items, a spin in the hot-water cycle is best, according to Gagliardi. Hot water will remove dirt and other grime more effectively than cold water. But don’t forget to check your garment’s labels first: Hot water works great for white cotton items, but it can damage white synthetic fibers, silk and wool.

Pro tip: Pateras recommends adding a tablespoon of oxygenated bleach to your hot-water load of white garments to make them look bright again.

Should you use hot or cold water for stains?

It depends on what type of stain you’re dealing with, according to Gagliardi. Hot water can cause stains from blood, coffee or wine to set, so you’ll want to use cold water for those. When washing these stained items in cold water, she recommends pre-treating the stain with stain remover and pre-soaking the item before tossing it in the washing machine. Warmer water, on the other hand, more easily removes oil-based stains from bike grease or sweat, according to Gagliardi. So use a warm or hot water cycle—depending on how delicate the item’s material is—for garments with these types of stains.

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. For this piece, Brooke Nelson Alexander tapped her experience as a cleaning and consumer-products expert, and then fabric-care expert Mary Marlowe Leverette, who has more than 40 years of experience in laundry and stain removal, gave it a rigorous review to ensure that all information is accurate and offers the best possible advice to readers. We also relied on reputable primary sources, including LaundryTok expert Melissa Dilkes Pateras, author of A Dirty Guide to a Clean Home, and Mary Gagliardi, Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert. We verified all facts and data and backed them with credible sourcing, and we will revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.