Are you doing laundry all wrong? An expert guide to caring for your clothes (2024)

For years, I approached laundry much the same way criminals handle incriminating evidence: annihilate the offending material beyond recognition.

Water temperature? Hot. Dryer temperature? Like the surface of the sun. The longer the clothes spent getting battered about in a drum, the better. No one ever taught me this sad*stic technique. At some point in my youth, I thought, “hot=clean” and never looked back. If this method damaged my finery, I didn’t notice – probably because my wardrobe consisted largely of ill-fitting fast-fashion garments that seemed to dissolve after three wears.

Well Actually series embed

Thanks to the intervention of caring friends and informative Twitter/X threads, I eventually righted my ways. Properly caring for your clothes, sheets and towels is not just sensible and hygienic, it can greatly expand the lifespan of an item. It is also far better for the environment. According to the National Park Service, the average residential washing machine in the US uses 41 gallons (155 litres) of water a load, and dryers are responsible for roughly 6% of the average home’s energy use.

We talked to experts about how to do laundry better and smarter.

How often should you be doing laundry?

The experts I spoke to agreed that we could extend the lifespan of most garments by going a little longer between washes.

Patric Richardson, also known as the Laundry Evangelist, and star of The Laundry Guy on HGTV, says that with the exception of underwear and socks, which should be washed after every wear, he tries to wear his clothes as many times as possible before washing them.

“People want to wash things after every wear, and that’s silly because it wears your clothes out way too fast,” he says. In general, he tries to wear his shirts three times between washes, and his jeans nine or ten times.

Other items should be washed more frequently. Towels, Richardson says, should be washed every three or four uses.

I’m a fortysomething runner. Can I become a flexible person in a month?Read more

As for sheets: “It’s good manners that, if you’re expecting company in your bed, make sure your bed is clean and fresh,” says Ann Russell, a former full-time cleaner in the UK who has gained over 210,000 TikTok followers with her practical, no-nonsense advice. Beyond that, she jokes: “Please change your sheets more than once a year” – preferably “between once a week to once every two or three weeks”.

Richardson says what you wear to sleep matters: if you sleep in pajamas, two weeks between washes is reasonable. If you sleep without a shirt or without bottoms, you could go a week. And if you sleep naked, launder sheets ideally a couple of times a week, and go “no longer than once a week”.

What’s the right water temperature for laundry?

For the most part, experts recommend cold water. Modern fabrics, Russell explains, are generally easier to care for, and respond well to cold water. And unless you regularly work with heavy grease or your clothes need regular, deep sanitization, you probably don’t need to scorch your clothes.

Plus, she adds: “Energy is expensive, and the climate crisis is a thing.”

Indeed, according to Energy Star, 90% of the energy a washing machine uses goes towards heating the water.

Derek Guy, the author of the blog Die, Workwear!, also known as “the menswear guy” on X, washes his clothes on cold too. But Richardson, who lives in Minnesota, has another view: “Warm water express cycle.”

‘Honestly, he kind of sucks’: trash-talking can feel great but is it really bad for you?Read more

“My cold is about 42 degrees [Fahrenheit],” he explains, arguing that’s too cold to properly clean clothes. Warm water, he says, allows you to use a shorter cycle, and that less time spent in the wash is better for your clothes. “Extending the life cycle of the garment is its own practice in sustainability,” he said.

How much detergent should you use?

The general consensus is: people use too much.

“Two tablespoons of detergent is more than enough for a large load of laundry,” says Richardson. Besides being expensive and unnecessary, Richardson argues that overusing detergent can actually prevent your clothes from getting fully clean. “The soap’s job is to trap dirt. So if you don’t rinse the soap away and it’s trapped all the dirt, the dirt is still [on your laundry.]” Less detergent means cleaner clothes, because the clothes can get fully rinsed.

Where should the detergent go?

Russell says powder should go in the designated detergent drawer so it doesn’t clump in the drum. Liquids go on top of clothes; pods at the back or bottom of the machine, under the items, so that they burst more quickly and the detergent can circulate as soon as possible.

Softener: friend or foe?

“I’m very opposed to fabric softener,” says Richardson. Softeners can trigger allergies in some people, he said. Coating the fabric with conditioner can also reduce an item’s absorbency. This is particularly problematic for items that are designed to absorb moisture, like towels. But it’s equally undesirable for regular clothes.

“We like the absorbency on all our clothes, we just don’t necessarily know it,” Richardson says. When you’re wearing a cotton shirt on a hot day, for example, the cotton absorbs your sweat and brings it to the surface of the shirt, where it dries. “Absorbency keeps us comfortable,” Richardson says.

According to Russell, softener not only reduces the absorbency of the things you’re washing, it can also make them harder to clean in the long run. “People say: ‘All of a sudden my clothes smell rancid!’ And that’s usually fabric softener.” While softener may smell good at first, Russell explains, if you use it every time you wash, the layers of conditioner build up over time and trap dirt and smells.

But if you’ve been dousing your clothes in fabric softener for years, don’t despair. Russell says washing items with washing soda, also known as sodium carbonate, will usually get rid of conditioner buildup.

Are you doing laundry all wrong? An expert guide to caring for your clothes (1)

Is it important to separate different types of clothing?

So, it’s time to do laundry, and you’re face to face with a hamper full of clothes. How do you proceed?

Russell has one hard and fast rule: “Never wash pure white with anything that isn’t pure white.”

If you are washing bright, multicolored items, Russell has a trick. “I use this thing called a color catcher,” she says. “It’s a very absorbent piece of material that you put in the wash. Any dye that comes out in the wash water is soaked into the color capture before it soaks into other fabric.”

Russell also prefers to separate out any garments made of natural fibers, as well as animal hair garments – the latter should usually be hand washed or washed on a very gentle cycle. But more often than not, the garment itself will tell you what to do.

“You’re always going to want to look at the garment label,” says Guy. If the label says the piece should be dry cleaned, for example, don’t go rogue. “If you know how the garment was made and what you’re dealing with, you can get more mileage out of it based on how you clean the item.”

Are you doing laundry all wrong? An expert guide to caring for your clothes (2)

How do you find a good dry cleaner?

If your clothes do need to be dry cleaned, Guy says to not overdo it, and that it’s worth doing your homework first instead of dropping them off at the nearest store.

“You should limit the number of times you dry clean, because most dry cleaners are not very good,” says Guy. Many dry cleaners in cities like New York, where space is at a premium, are essentially drop-off locations, Guy says. They will take in clothes and then ship them to mass-cleaning plants elsewhere, some of which recycle their washing fluids. “That to me is just kind of gross,” he says.

To figure out how carefully a dry cleaner treats clothes, Guy suggests you ask whether they clean their clothes on-site, and how they deal with stains. Do they say they treat oil and water stains differently? Do they say they remove the trims from garments (say, brass buttons on a blazer) before cleaning them? “The dry cleaner who gives you those kinds of answers is probably better than the dry cleaner that’s taking an item and sending it to the cheapest mass-cleaning plant possible and banking on the chance that your garment’s not going to be ruined,” Guy says.

If you want a more specific recommendation and you have the time and money to send your most beloved items on a long distance journey of rejuvenation, Guy offers this: “RAVE FabriCARE in Arizona is one of the more recommendable dry cleaners in America,” he says. “They will remove all the buttons and trims and treat the stains accordingly and get it out. If you’re dealing with a high end item, that’s your best chance of removing that stain.”

How do you treat stains?

When it comes to removing certain stains, pre-treatment stain removers can be helpful. But for this to work, Guy warns that it’s important to understand the fabric and stains you’re dealing with, and that not all pre-treatments are created equal. Treating a stain, he explains, depends on whether it’s an oil-based stain (from, say, salad dressing or pizza drippings) or a water-based stain (from something like orange juice or wine).

“If you’re dealing with a water-based stain, that’s something that you can usually take care of at home through a wet wash,” he says. But if you’re dealing with an oil stain, a wet wash can actually set the stain into the fabric. At that point, you’ll probably have to send the garment to an experienced, reliable dry cleaner to fully remove the stain.

Most pre-treatments will treat some types of stains but not others (water and not oil for example), and some stains will require different, overlapping treatments. This information isn’t always easy to glean from the packaging, and it can be difficult to find a pre-treatment that effectively handles the particular stain you’re detailing with. For this reason, Guy recommends sending more expensive pieces to a dry cleaner to treat stains.

Are you doing laundry all wrong? An expert guide to caring for your clothes (3)

For cheaper items that you don’t feel as strongly about, he recommends OxiClean, a color-safe, chlorine bleach alternative available in the US that works for most fabrics (though not all: it should not be used on dry clean only garments, or animal derived fabrics like wool, silk and leather).

“Often you can deal with a lot of the problems that people complain about by soaking overnight in OxiClean,” he says. Have a dingy shirt with sweat stains? An overnight soak in OxiClean and a turn in the wash will get you “90% of the way there”, Guy says.

Are you using your dryer too much?

“Most people rely way too much on their dryer, and a dryer is an easy way to ruin clothing,” says Guy. Dryers, he says, often shrink fabrics, even those that have been pre-shrunk. They can also rob clothes of their luster, and ruin their color.

Richardson put it more bluntly: “All that lint that’s in the lint trap in your dryer? That’s your clothes dying.”

“The only thing I put in a dryer is sheets, towels, undies, socks,” says Richardson, explaining that sheets and towels are too big to hang dry anywhere in his apartment, and underwear and socks because they’re inexpensive and it saves him room on his drying racks.

“If you are drying inside on racks, don’t do a whole week’s laundry, because it won’t dry, and then it will smell,” says Ann Russell. “Wash small and often.”

If you feel like you have to use the dryer, never overload it, and avoid dryer sheets, which, like fabric softener, coat clothes with chemicals, says Richardson. “I hate fabric softener and dryer sheets more than I hate squirrels and mosquitoes,” he says firmly.

Is there a way to get rid of odors?

Richardson’s “biggest hack” is spraying smelly clothes with vodka. “It will completely remove the odor,” he says, explaining that vodka absorbs smells but dries colorless and odorless. “Buy the cheapest vodka you can get.” He says it works on stale winter coats, car seats and your pet’s favorite spot on the sofa.

Laundry isn't just about separating darks from lights; it's a science! Experts like Patric Richardson, known as the Laundry Evangelist, and Ann Russell, a former cleaner turned TikTok sensation, bring valuable insights to the table. Let's break down the key concepts discussed in this laundry article:

Water Temperature: The "hot equals clean" misconception is challenged. Experts suggest using cold water for most laundry. Modern fabrics generally respond well to cold water, it's more energy-efficient, and it prevents unnecessary wear on clothes.

Laundry Frequency: The wear-and-tear of clothes is reduced by extending the time between washes. For instance, wearing shirts three times between washes and jeans nine or ten times is suggested. Underwear and socks, however, should be washed after every wear.

Detergent Quantity and Placement: Using excessive detergent can prevent clothes from getting fully clean. Typically, two tablespoons for a large load suffice. Proper placement varies: powder in the detergent drawer, liquid on top of clothes, and pods at the back or bottom of the machine.

Fabric Softener: Experts advise against fabric softener due to its impact on absorbency, especially for towels and regular clothes. It can trap dirt and smells over time. Cleaning items with washing soda can help eliminate conditioner buildup.

Clothing Separation: Segregate pure whites from other colors to avoid accidental dye transfer. Using color catchers can prevent this. Additionally, check garment labels for specific cleaning instructions.

Dry Cleaning: Limit dry cleaning, as not all dry cleaners handle garments with equal care. Recommendations include finding cleaners that clean on-site and treat stains individually.

Stain Treatment: Differentiate between oil-based and water-based stains for effective treatment. Pre-treatments vary in effectiveness, and for expensive items, seeking professional help might be necessary.

Drying Methods: Overreliance on dryers can damage fabrics, causing shrinkage and loss of color. Air drying is preferred, especially for delicate items. Overloading the dryer or using dryer sheets is discouraged.

Odor Elimination: A hack for removing odors involves using inexpensive vodka, which absorbs smells without leaving a scent.

Each of these facets demonstrates a nuanced understanding of laundry care, considering fabric types, environmental impact, and longevity of clothing. Learning from experts like Richardson and Russell can significantly improve laundry practices, ensuring cleanliness, sustainability, and prolonged garment life.

Are you doing laundry all wrong? An expert guide to caring for your clothes (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Nathanael Baumbach

Last Updated:

Views: 5360

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (75 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nathanael Baumbach

Birthday: 1998-12-02

Address: Apt. 829 751 Glover View, West Orlando, IN 22436

Phone: +901025288581

Job: Internal IT Coordinator

Hobby: Gunsmithing, Motor sports, Flying, Skiing, Hooping, Lego building, Ice skating

Introduction: My name is Nathanael Baumbach, I am a fantastic, nice, victorious, brave, healthy, cute, glorious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.