Laundry

Everything you need to know about doing laundry

Breaking it down one step at a time

Person throwing in dirty laundry into the washer next to a dryer Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

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Doing laundry for the first time? Be forewarned: It’s one of those chores that just never seems to end. And, while it’s certainly not hard, there are several steps involved that can feel overwhelming for laundry novices.

We’ve compiled a comprehensive, step-by-step guide on how to do your laundry, from checking labels to pretreating stains. Here’s everything you need to know.

1. Check the labels

Label
Credit: Getty Images / Kwangmoozaa

The tags in your clothes show diagrams for cleaning care, but they'll also often have written instructions , too.

First things first: Check your clothing’s labels! Almost every shirt or pair of pants you own has a sewn-in tag featuring care symbols that may seem hard to decipher. But, once you learn what they mean, you’ll have crystal clear knowledge as to how to take care of everything in your closet.

Care symbols include—but are not limited to—washing, drying, pretreating, bleaching, and ironing instructions. Follow these to ensure you don’t damage your silk undies or your Irish wool sweater.

Laundry symbols
Credit: Reviewed / Naidin Concul-Ticas

Here's our quick guide on some of the most common laundry care symbols.

A quick Google search will show you what each symbol means, and Tide also has a nice guide.

This laundry symbol chart makes a smart and quirky décor piece for your laundry at home—and also a reference sheet.

Over time, you’ll get the hang of it and remember off the top of your head.

2. Sort and separate laundry

Since different pieces of clothing require different care, it’s important to separate your dirty clothes into groups with similar instructions so that you can run separate loads. We recommend sorting your laundry by label, as well as by color.

Typical sorting strategies include separating into delicates (items including a silk blouse, lace underwear, or cashmere sweaters and socks) and regular (cotton T-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and other items).

Once you’ve got your care piles, separate these by color, into darks, lights, and whites. Nobody wants a red T-shirt staining your white socks pink in case its dye bleeds. If you’re not washing any brand new items, dye transfer is less likely, but you can use a color catcher to prevent it.

Having a white pile—including bed sheets and towels—means you can add a laundry whitener that’ll brighten them up or a laundry disinfectant and freshener for a deeper clean. You can also make your own laundry sanitizing solution by adding a ½ cup of bleach after adding your detergent—make sure you do this before you add your clothes to prevent any bleach spotting.

If you’d rather sort as you go rather than right before you wash a load, invest in a laundry hamper with dividing sections.

3. Pretreat or soak stains

Stain
Credit: Getty Images / cirano83

If the stain is stubborn, apply detergent to it and let it soak in for a few hours or overnight.

Stains happen, and usually by accident, whether by a spilled glass of red wine or a rogue splotch of ketchup. Some stains—like blood, grease, or ink—may leave you wondering if you’ll even be able to salvage your garment. Fear not, proper pretreating and soaking can get it back into shape.

One cardinal rule of stubborn stains is to always pretreat, when possible. Once a stained piece of clothing runs through a dryer cycle, the stain essentially gets sealed into the material and is virtually impossible to get out.

As soon as you can after a spill, dab a small amount of detergent onto the stain and rub in gently on both the front and backside of the fabric, with a soft cloth or paper towel under the fabric, beneath the stain. You can also try a stain remover treatment.

Let any pretreating treatment soak into the fabric for at least a couple of hours to fully penetrate the stain.

4. Pick a cycle to wash your clothes

Now, it’s time to throw the dirty clothes in the wash. If you’ve never used a washing machine before (hello, college freshman) and even if you have, you may be looking at your washing machine knobs and buttons with a puzzled look. However, most machines’ basic settings are straightforward and easy to learn.

Let’s walk through the most common wash cycles that come with most basic washers.

  • Normal: Use the normal cycle setting for the average laundry load of T-shirts, shorts, sweatshirts, cotton underwear, and any other items made with durable fabric types. A normal cycle tumbles and moves clothing around aggressively, so avoid including delicate items in this setting. Also in the normal cycle, you should be able to pick the water temperature, ranging from cold to hot. Stick with cold or warm settings, unless you’re washing whites, and for this use hot water.

  • Permanent Press: The permanent press cycle is great for items that can wrinkle easily like polyester tops and linen shirts. This setting washes with both warm and cold water to prevent these wrinkles and it discourages fading or shrinking in the wash.

  • Delicate or Hand Wash: Delicates is the go-to cycle setting for your silk and lace unmentionables, for its gentle, low tumble and cool water temperature.

Beyond these basic cycle settings, your washing machine may have others to choose from. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of these extras, as one may be able to better specifically wash your laundry.

Take this LG top-load washer that we’ve tested and reviewed; it boasts special wash cycles like Deep Wash and Bedding. Additionally, this Maytag washer has wash settings for bulky items that may require extra TLC.

If you’re ever unsure about a particular setting on your washer, read through the manufacturer’s website, which will tell you what each cycle can specifically do.

5. Pick your detergent and any necessary additives

Detergent
Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

Use detergent pods, powder, or liquid to clean your clothes.

Here’s the fun part! Toss in a detergent and any other additives to boost scent or soften up your laundry.

When it comes to laundry detergents, there are a ton of options on the market in powder, pods, or liquid form. Each has its own set of benefits.

For a first-timer, laundry detergent pods are convenient and take the guesswork out of how much detergent to add per load. Just grab a pod, toss it in, and your work is done.

We’ve tested dozens of liquid laundry detergents to determine which one gets the best clean at the best price-point. If you have no preference for a detergent formula, you can’t go wrong with the Persil ProClean detergent, which reigns supreme as our best overall choice, or, for sensitive skin, the Persil ProClean detergent for sensitive skin.

If you’re conscious about the environment, you may already know that laundry detergent heavily contributes to water pollution. For an eco-friendly option, the Tide Purclean Plant-based detergent is our top choice, using USDA-certified biobased product that’s much better for the environment.

After selecting your laundry detergent, you can add in a fabric softener, too. While you don’t need this to get your laundry clean, fabric softener helps to maintain the integrity of your laundry’s material and keep it feeling soft and fresh. You can also add a scent booster to combat any musty laundry smells.

6. Use a dryer—or not

Dryer
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

Don't forget to empty out your dryer's lint catcher after a cycle finished. In a worst-case scenario, lint build-up can lead to a house fire.

You’ve almost made it. Before adding your laundry to the dryer, check your clothes’ care labels again. Many delicates like wire bras or wool sweaters should not be thrown into the dryer, but rather hung out to air dry, since dryers can warp and damage certain materials.

Once you’ve determined if it’s OK to machine dry or not, you need to choose a cycle setting.

Here are the most common dryer settings:

  • Normal or Regular: Similar to the washer, the normal or regular cycle will probably be a go-to, at least for your normal clothes, towels, or sheets. A normal cycle typically runs at the highest heat (although, you can adjust the heat on many dryer models), so be sure your garments’ care labels align with this temperature.

  • Delicates: This cycle is appropriate for any clothing made of specific material or with accessories you may worry about including sewn-on patches or embellishments, or silky scarfs or tops. Even though this cycle is delicate and doesn’t tumble as vigorously as other cycles, we still do not recommend adding in very delicate items like bras and sweaters.

  • Permanent Press: Again, this cycle is used to prevent easily-wrinkled garments from wrinkling. For clothing you don’t want to fade or shrink, this cycle uses a lower temperature to ensure no damage is done.

When it comes to using your dryer, don’t be afraid to explore additional cycle settings like Air Fluff or Steam, which are great for tossing laundry at room temperature to help remove any lint or hair from your clothes.

This GE dryer that we’ve tested and reviewed, for example, comes with a set of unique cycles curated for your specific types of garments, like Cotton and Casuals.

Consider adding extra drying tools, such as dryer sheets or dryer balls, which are reusable balls that contain fewer chemicals than single-use dryer sheets and work to shorten dryer times and keep static at a minimum. We have tested several different types of dryer balls and recommend the Budieggs Wool Dryer Balls as our top pick for their eco-friendly design.

On the other hand, dryer sheets work to dry your clothes faster, reduce static, release wrinkles, and add more freshness to the garments.

While neither of these items are necessary to do laundry, they may help to cut down drying time and soften up your garments.

Lastly, If you’re concerned about shrinking your favorite jeans or a top that fits just right, think about avoiding the dryer all together and letting your clothing air dry. Do be careful about using hangers, as the shoulder areas may cause unwanted stretching of the material.

It’s best to use a drying rack—this foldable drying rack is great when you don’t have a ton of room inside and no backyard.

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