Have you noticed that your favorite little black dress (a favorite because it’s machine washable) is beginning to look more like a little dark gray dress? Do your freshly laundered gym clothes sometimes retain hints of their post-workout stench? The problem may not have anything to do with the laundry detergent you’re using. Instead, the problem might be that you’re washing your clothes in the wrong water temperature.
Using the right water temperature will keep your machine-washable clothes looking and smelling their best. The labels on your clothing will provide guidance on manufacturers’ ideal washing conditions. If your labels are missing or faded or you simply desire to understand the rationale behind the recommendations, follow the universal rules of the laundry room.
The Hot-water Cycle: Serious Power
You’re probably aware that heat kills germs. You’re probably not entirely aware of exactly how it affects fabric in a washing machine. Heat decreases water’s surface tension, which means water and detergent are better able to infiltrate fabric fibers. This causes the fibers to relax and release dirt, stains, and anything else trapped inside.
It’s generally true that the hotter the water you use, the cleaner your laundry will be. The caveat, though, is that hot water can damage some fabrics and cause colors to bleed and fade. If you think of doing laundry as doing battle with dirt, debris, and stains, consider hot (130°F or hotter) water the most effective weapon in your arsenal; it delivers serious cleaning power for the most soiled, germy loads.
A good rule of thumb is to use hot water for loads that are heavily soiled and/or that you wish to sanitize (such as cloth diapers, bedsheets, or the towels you used to wash your car or your dog.) When you use a hot-water cycle, it’s imperative that you separate lights from darks to prevent the dyes in dark laundry from bleeding onto the rest of the load. (Whites should always be washed only with whites, regardless of what water temperature you’re using.) Use the hot-water cycle sparingly!
The Warm-water Cycle: A Good Compromise
Most people wash their clothes in warm (approximately 90°F) water, reasoning that it’s a good middle-of-the-road compromise. It’s true that the warm-water cycle is a good all-around option for moderately soiled clothes and for cotton, synthetic fabrics, and natural-synthetic fabric blends. Warm water provides good cleaning without causing noticeable fading or shrinking.
The Cold-water Cycle: Gentle Yet Surprisingly Versatile
Sometimes, you don’t need any heat to effectively clean your clothes. In fact, that’s probably the case more often than you may realize. Choose a cold-water laundry cycle for delicate fabrics (including lingerie and washable silks and wools), dark or bright colors, and any load of laundry that isn’t overly dirty. It may seem counterintuitive, but a cold-water wash is also the best option for fabrics that have protein (blood) stains. Unlike hot and warm-water that can cause protein stains to set, cold water will gently lift these stains. (Make sure to pretreat them before washing for the best results.)
The Cold-water Cycle Offers A Bonus Benefit
Cold water is a safe option for any machine-washable fabric. It offers the lowest risk of fading or shrinking, and provides another compelling benefit: it is the most environmentally sound option. Nearly 75% of the energy used to clean one load of laundry involves heating the water; a cold-water wash requires no heating. Thanks to the introduction of detergents formulated to effectively clean laundry in cold water and washing machines that are programmed to default to the energy-efficient cold-water setting, there’s even talk of a global “cold-water revolution” in laundry. Who knew laundry temperature was such a hot-button issue!
Rule for the Rinse Cycle: It’s Now Time to Chill
Regardless of whether you turn your washing machine’s temperature dial to the cold, warm, or hot wash setting, a cold rinse is an effective rinse. The purpose of the rinse cycle is to expel the detergent and all the gunk it has lifted and rinse it down the drain. Cold water can handle that task – and will use much less energy.
Now that you know the effects that different water temperatures will have on your laundry, you have the knowledge to face the dial with confidence rather than confusion!