Doing laundry: The complete guide to washing your clothes

Every question you've ever had about doing laundry and tackling tough stains, answered.

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Laundry is one of those perpetually never-ending chores. Somehow, no matter how often you seem to do it, those dirty clothes just keep stacking up. Plus, it's not a task you want to rush and take lightly. (Moment of silence for all the wool sweaters we've shrunk to infant sizes .) 

Thankfully, there are some simple steps you can take to keep your clothes in tip-top shape and streamline your washing routine. Read on for everything you've ever wanted to know about doing laundry, busting stains, and keeping your clothes in top shape. 

Doing laundry starts with having the best washing machine. Read our buying guide to find the right one for you. 

Laundry 101: Sorting


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While it can be tempting to just throw the whole laundry pile into the washing machine, it's important to do some sorting. First, you'll want to separate lights from darks. It's true, there is an age-old debate over whether it really matters, but there are a few good arguments for taking the extra step.

Dye in darker colored clothing, especially when pieces are new, can seep into your lighter pieces. For example, a new red T-shirt can turn all of your light-colored undershirts pink. It can have the same effect on light gray and beige clothing, and they'll be ruined for good. Another benefit to washing whites on their own is that you can add in some white vinegar or bleach to keep them looking bright and new.

If you're in a pinch for time or only need to wash a few items together, chances are you'll be okay. Just be sure to wash clothes in cold water so you won't encourage color bleeding. Also, be sure not to throw in a new pair of jeans or dark-colored piece of clothing or your whites may be changed forever. 

But wait, there's more! You'll also want to separate types of fabrics to avoid damaging your more delicate items. Separate items into these groups: 

  • Durable everyday laundry: Most of your everyday wear can go in one group. Think cotton, linen, and durable synthetics. This will include pieces like T-shirts, button-downs, socks, and khakis. 
  • Jeans and other denim items
  • Towels and sheets
  • Delicates: Make sure your lingerie, silk camis, and embellished sweaters go in their own pile. 
  • Athleisure and performance fabrics: Gym clothes like active leggings, sports bras, and swimwear should be washed separately.
  • Woolens and other knits that will be prone to shrinkage. 
  • Anything "dry clean only"

Laundry 101: Selecting a wash cycle

Now that you have your laundry sorted, you'll need to select your water temperature and wash cycle. Sturdy, everyday pieces can handle hot water if they are heavily soiled (looking at you parents). If not, opt for warm water. Any brand-new or highly saturated pieces should be washed in cold water to avoid bleeding.

No shock here: these everyday pieces call for the normal cycle. 

Sheets and towels are pretty sturdy, and they come in contact with a lot of sweat and body oils. Wash them with hot water to get them extra clean, on the normal cycle. 

Delicates should never be washed in hot water. Instead, opt for warm or cold. If you use the machine, wash on your delicates cycle. Most, however, should be hand-washed (more on that later). The same goes for woolens, although they should only ever be washed in cold water to avoid shrinkage. 

Laundry 101: Choosing a laundry detergent

We live in the era of choice. So it's no surprise laundry detergent today is available in a few different forms. General purpose laundry detergent is available in liquid, single-dose packets, and powdered forms. Liquid detergent is definitely the most popular and common, and it definitely gets the job done. Just be careful not to overdo it, which can leave a residue on clothes and waste precious cash. 

Powdered detergents are the cheapest, but they aren't the best if you prefer washing in cold water as they may not completely dissolve. To avoid this, you can always mix the detergent with a quart of hot water before adding your laundry.

Single-dose packs are pretty dang convenient, and they cut down on waste since you don't need a plastic detergent jug, but it's no surprise they are the most expensive per load. And, they are portioned for average size loads. If you are washing an extra large load or anything that is extra soiled, use two. 

What do all those symbols mean? 


(Image credit: Tide)

Since much of our clothing is now imported, reading the directions on the label is not always so simple. Sometimes, you may encounter an array of symbols. In general, if you see a symbol with a large X through it, it's telling you not to do something that will damage your clothing. 

Brush up on your symbols before washing. Tide has a pretty thorough reference guide you can keep on hand. 

How to dry your clothes


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Drying your clothes in a clothes dryer is certainly the fastest, easiest method. Take the extra second to shake out each item before throwing it into the dryer. This can help prevent wrinkles and cut down on drying time. And, be sure not to overstuff your dryer. This will end up taking more time, not less. If you feel inclined, toss in a dryer sheet to soften clothes and cut down on static, but this step isn't a must-do, especially if you have sensitive skin or are trying to cut down on chemicals in your home.

When it comes to selecting a dryer setting, revert back to those handy symbols. In general, a cotton or high-heat setting is best for sturdy fabrics like towels, jeans, and T-shirts. 

Synthetic fabrics require medium heat and do best on permanent press. Delicates like athleisure and lingerie should be dried on gentle for low heat.

If you have the time, there are many perks to line drying. First off, it is a more eco-friendly option that can cut back on your energy usage and costs. You also don't run the risk of shrinking clothes as your do with your electric dryer. Plus, tumbling clothes around in the dryer causes wear and tear you can avoid by line drying.

The cons to line drying? You won't get that super soft, just-out-of-the-dryer feel. Plus, it's weather dependent and takes some extra thought and strategy.

Up for the task? Be sure to follow some general rules of thumb when line drying. 

  • Wipe your clothesline before hanging clothes to be sure your freshly laundered garments aren't met with dust and other debris. 
  • Check the forecast. Don't hang your clothes out to dry if rain is in the forecast or pollen reports are high. 
  • Heavier items, like sweaters, should not go on the clothesline. Instead, lay them flat to dry on an indoor drying rack
  • Like when drying clothes in the electric dryer, shake them out before hanging.
  • Avoid direct sunlight for dark garments, which can encourage fading. (On the other hand, take advantage of bright sun to brighten whites.) 
  • Hang pants by the hems, not the waistband, and pin knits upside down to avoid drooping or marks on the shoulders. Pin towels by the corners. 

How to hand-wash


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When your woolen sweaters, intimates, and delicate items say "handwash only," heed that advice. Some more sturdy delicates can be washed in a mesh bag on your washing machine's delicate cycle, but when in doubt, by hand is best. We prefer to handwash: 

  • Woolens
  • Lace
  • Silk
  • Embellished items
  • Bras and delicate underwear
  • Bathing suits

First, you'll want to fill your tub basin or sink with room temperature water and laundry detergent or a specialty hand-washing detergent. Turn your item inside out, and submerge it in the soapy water. Agitate the water with your hands and allow to soak for no longer than a half-an-hour. 

When the item is done soaking, rinse well with cold or tepid water. Press out the water by pushing it against your sink, but do not wring your clothing. To get out any remaining water, lay the piece flat on a towel and carefully roll it, pressing on the towel to absorb excess moisture. 

To dry delicate items, do not put them in the dryer or hang them on your clothesline. Instead, reshape and lay flat to dry on a drying rack or countertop. 

Stamp out stains

The best way to remove set-in stains is to presoak heavily soiled items. This allows time to do all the legwork—not you! Fill a tub or bucket with warm water and add your stain remover of choice. We like an oxygenated powder like Carbona Oxy Powered Laundry Soaker or Oxi Clean

Presoak for at least 30 minutes and for as long as overnight. If you have a top-loading washing machine, you can also use that basin instead of a separate tub. Add your stain remover to the water, add your stained clothing, and let the machine fill slightly before stopping it to soak. In a few hours, turn it back on to finish the cycle.

For white items, you can presoak in chlorine bleach. In this case, you don't want to soak for too long. Add just a quarter cup for a gallon of water and soak for only 15 minutes. 

Tougher stains require a little extra TLC, but practically any stain can be removed with the right strategy and product. Here are our tested solutions for some of the most common stains: 

  • Blood: Remove fresh stains as quickly as possible by washing with hand soap or with your stain remover of choice in very cold water. 
  • Grease and oil: Pretreat with a prewash stain remover and launder with the hottest water safe for the given fabric. For tougher stains, scrub dish soap into grease spot with a toothbrush and then sprinkle with Oxi Clean. 
  • Ink: Sponge the area surrounding the stain with rubbing alcohol, then work your way directly onto the stain. Place the stain facedown on paper towels and add more alcohol, replacing paper towels frequently. 
  • Ketchup: Remove excess ketchup with a knife so that you don't rub the stain into the fabric. Run through cold water as soon as possible. You can also use a spot treatment designed for ketchup. 
  • Nail Polish: Full disclosure, nail polish may be impossible to remove. First, try adding nail polish remover to the back of the stain and sitting it on paper towels. You can also buy a specialized stain remover and follow directions on the bottle. 
  • Wine: Soak your stain in cool water or sponge it with cool water, then pretreat with your remover of choice before laundering as normal. 

Finally, wash your washing machine


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Since you're taking care to properly clean your clothes, don't forget to properly clean your washing machine. And no, it doesn't just clean itself when you're washing your clothes.

First you'll want to spray the gasket with white vinegar and wipe with a damp cloth. Then, set your washer to its highest water level and hottest temperature settings (or if yours has one, the tub clean setting). Add two cups of white cleaning vinegar and run it through a full cycle. Then, run another cycle (again with hottest water and highest level) with a half-cup of baking soda. Finally, wipe the drum with a damp microfiber cloth. 

Sound like too many steps? To make life easier or to combat heavy buildup, consider purchasing a washing machine cleaner to do the trick in one cycle. 

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