Doing laundry in these modern times
June 10, 2018 9:43 AM   Subscribe

The old adage I learned as a kid about 'wash whites together, hot' and 'wash darks together, cold' doesn't hold up anymore given what I see in my laundry basket. What is the best way to divide my laundry now?

This is what I see in my laundry basket these days:

Dark colors, tag says wash cold
Dark colors, tag says wash warm
Dark colors, no tag (socks, tag wore off, etc.)

Light colors, tag says wash cold
Light colors, tag says wash warm
Light colors, no tag (socks, tag wore off, etc.)

I wash at a laundromat, so I don't have the funds or ability to wash all these groups separately. The most economical thing is to use two medium size washers. The second most economical is one medium washer and two small ones.

The dark colors, wash cold group is by far the largest. If I put the light, wash warm and light, no tag in their own washer, and the rest together, then I have one medium washer that is overfull and one medium washer that is barely 1/4 full. Tossing the dark, wash warm in with whites would help fix that, but it feels odd to put a navy shirt in with a white shirt.

Then there are other variables, like fabric and stains. I have a lot of work out clothing. There's also denim, although sometimes it says wash warm even though I've heard that you should always wash it cold. There are some non-work clothes that have stretch material in them. Red I know always gets washed cold so the color doesn't run. There are stain issues too. Blood occasionally, though I guess the solution there is to pre-treat. Sweat is another big one, even on non-work out clothes. Sometimes mud.

So if I can't follow the tag instructions exactly, is it better to compromise by temperature, color, fabric, or some combination?

I prefer answers based in science, not anecdote. I've seen some books recommended in previous answers, but I'm not sure if they'll have the info I'm looking for, and haven't had a chance to read them. Thanks.
posted by unannihilated to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I am 36 years old, the mom who does the laundry for her family of 4. Everything goes together, washed in cold water, whites, lights, darks, etc. I'm lazy. It's fine. I know you asked for science not anecdote, I apologize. All I have is 20 years of anecdote.
posted by katypickle at 9:56 AM on June 10, 2018 [48 favorites]

Jolie Kerr of Ask A Clean Person is probably your best go-to on this. Here's some basic advice. She says that it's ok to wash everything cold, because modern detergents work fine in cold water, and you can separate either by color or by fabric type. I typically do two loads: normal clothes, sheets and towels, which I wash on cool, and delicates, which I wash cold on the delicate cycle. I occasionally do a separate load for dish rags, which I wash on hot.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:00 AM on June 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Laundry seems to be a thing that some people have very strong opinions about and you're probably going to get a range of advice, but personally… after 25+ years of adult laundry-doing I have found that the only thing that really makes much of a difference is separating darks and lights. And even that isn't hard and fast; if you've got some medium-darker garments that have already been through the wash a bunch of times and aren't going to bleed, you can get away with throwing them in with the lights.

I can't even remember the last time I looked at a garment label for warm/cold instructions. Life is too short to worry stuff like this.

RE: stains and workout clothes, in the last couple of years I started using Oxyclean in addition to detergent and it genuinely seems effective on both stains and for getting that awful permanent workout funk out of synthetics.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:00 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wash everything in cold, but separated into light and darks, with the exception of sheets and towels. Sheets and towels I wash hot, because I feel it's more hygenic plus it's actually good for the machine to run a hot wash once in a while (I read somewhere it prolongs their life) although that's less relevant at a laundromat.
posted by stillnocturnal at 10:06 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, I know my answer is more anecdote than science, but for what it's worth when I first started doing laundry on my own, I did spend a few years trying to it The Right Way… then got lazy and realized that it really doesn't make an observable difference as long as you're not throwing a brand new crimson red shirt into a load of white dress shirts.)
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:07 AM on June 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

The reason for using hot/warm water is that it is easier for the detergent (a surfactant) to bind up and sequester all the dirt and grime in your clothes. That's a basic chemical reaction, and heat makes chemical reactions go faster.

The downside to using hotter water is that it also speeds the breakdown of dyes (the dye binding to your cotton or whatever is also a chemical reaction). That is why it's not recommended for darker items. I think newer dyes, and synthetics, are less of an issue, although red can be tricky depending on the type of dye used. The other downside is environmental -- heating up all that water takes longer, uses energy, etc.

Source: college biochemistry major, also I am a lazy heathen who washes everything in one load, tap cold, with Costco detergent.
posted by basalganglia at 10:09 AM on June 10, 2018 [11 favorites]

Jolie Kerr did a thing on washing workout clothes for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Essentially: turn clothes inside out before washing, wash on cold, don't use fabric softener, air-dry if possible (and otherwise dry on the lowest setting you can), add some vinegar to the wash if you want, don't use too much detergent, and don't wash anything delicate with heavy stuff like towels or jeans.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

you're probably going to get a range of advice, but personally… after 25+ years of adult laundry-doing I have found that the only thing that really makes much of a difference is separating darks and lights

Yeah, you're going to get a bunch of conflicting advice. After 30+ years of adult laundry-doing my feeling is that the one thing you can completely forget about is separating darks and lights. It's very rare for anything to bleed these days. Even red things.

You'll never damage anything by washing it in cold. Maybe it won't get as clean, but you can try doing everything in cold a few times and see if you're satisfied with the results. Sometimes things can shrink if you wash them in warm, but if you're putting them in the dryer afterwards that probably has more of an impact. Anything you put in the dryer probably can be washed in warm. My sister washes everything in warm no matter what the label says and it seems to work fine for her.

Your main take-away from all the conflicting advice should be that it doesn't really matter that much. Anything some people are saying they don't do is probably something you don't have to do.
posted by Redstart at 10:13 AM on June 10, 2018

I separate into the following loads: Sheets, towels, lights, darks. Everything gets washed on cold and the stronger delicate cycle except the towels (I use modal sheets and they require cold/delicate) with some Oxyclean added to the detergent for extra crud-removing. It seems to work perfectly well, and I get multiple years of wear out of my garments without smell being an issue. Towels get washed in cold (according to the label) and on the “heavy” cycle with an additional rinse.

It may also be a factor that I leave the lid open on my washer between wash days, so the washer dries completely. Not a factor when you’re using a laundromat, but sometimes people notice a mildew smell being added to their laundry, and it can be caused by mildew build-up in a washer that doesn’t dry completely between wash days.

I don’t know about anybody else, but I like having a scent added to my laundry, but some things aren’t fabric-softener friendly and so I’ve been using Downy Fresh Protect Odor Defense beads in the washer. These make my towels smell nice without using fabric softener.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:13 AM on June 10, 2018

the one thing you can completely forget about is separating darks and lights.

My now-husband felt this way, and dyed every single one of my whites (I didn't have that many) the first time he did our joint laundry. He doesn't do the laundry any more. I feel it depends very much on your clothes, cottons bleed a whole lot more than polyesters in my experience.
posted by stillnocturnal at 10:16 AM on June 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I wash everything on cold, dry on low (except sheets and towels, which I wash on hot). OxyClean is the best for getting rid of blood stains and other organic stains. You may have to soak for a couple of days.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:17 AM on June 10, 2018

I agree that I still find dye bleeding to be a common issue, and therefore continue to separate whites and colors, with one exception—light blue non-denim items go in with the whites. (On the theory that a slight blue bleed will act like bluing on whites.) Every other color item goes in the colors load.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:21 AM on June 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

My categories: Things that I wash in Hot, things that must be washed in Cold, everything else separated into lights and darks. Hot things are divided between Large Flat things (bedding and towels) and Underwear.
posted by rhizome at 10:21 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wash everything cold unless someone has been sick and I suspect vomit or diarrhea residue. Washing in cold prevents fading and increases the life of the garment.

Most dry clean only or do not wash items get washed in cold, and if they survive I keep them, and if they don't they can get tossed or repurposed. It would have to be a very special item, like my job interview and funerals blazer before I would be willing to invest in the dry cleaning.

I buy a lot of red and purple clothing for the family and not all of it is dye fast, so laundry is divided into three shades: Darks, reds and lights. Pink, purple, lavender and orange things can go in with the reds. If there is any colour transfer they do fine. Anything that might lose blue, black dark green or brown dye goes in the darks. Things like grey socks and underpants or light blue ones can go in either lights or darks depending on what I need to make up a batch.

Once I have washed things a few times I know if they are dye fast or not, and can be more flexible about the categories. Plastic fabric is much more likely to be dye fast than organic fabrics.

I dry at the lowest possible practical temperature.

Kitchen towels that may have a grease residue and cannot pass the sniff test get boiled in a large pot on the stove. This is helpful if they are being used for covering rising bread, or otherwise coming in contact with food.

I used a non scented cold friendly detergent, as most of the other detergents smell to me like insecticide and/or can trigger me sneezing.

Dishrags get microwaved daily, and thrown out frequently.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:32 AM on June 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

In general, I launder everything together in cold water.

That said, if things fall just right and I can eke-out an all-whites/lights load, I'll do it. Also, even in cold water, new reds can sometimes bleed. If I have such a red object, I'll put it in with really dark stuff, like bluejeans or black pants and shirts.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:41 AM on June 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

The only whites I have are socks and underwear or pajamas, so I mix them with colors because I don't care how white they look. The only time I've experienced color bleeds is with a new pair of dark jeans - they will bleed blue for the first few washes so I wash them only with other jeans.

I find it's important to separate things that get fuzzy and pill vs. things that do not. Never put a fleece hoodie that might shed with a shirt you're going to wear going out, unless you want it to be covered in fuzz. A lot will end up in your lint trap, but not all of it. That's my most important rule - not anything to do with separating by color.

I wash everything on cold and dry on low heat to avoid shrinking, but when I do my bed sheets and towels, I do hot water and high heat in the dryer to kill any dust mites or mold or anything that could be lurking. I'm sure someone here will let me know if I am wrong.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:46 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The important thing is don't toss a delicate thing, such as a summer dress, in with your heavy jeans. The jeans will shred the delicate thing, or at least shorten its life dramatically.

Do a test washing in hot or warm water of anything that is new and either intense red, purple, brown, or black, along with a white rag or washcloth. Since your're a laundromat user, do this test washing in the sink at home. If the color transfers, do not, in the future, wash that item in the same load with whites. If the color doesn't transfer, just go ahead and wash everything of a similar weight together in cool water.
posted by chromium at 10:50 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Agree with washing just about everything cold at this point. The only exception are bed linen, towels, flannels and dish cloths. They get washed on hot with oxi, not least because I use flannels to take my make up off.

The reason I continue to separate lights, darks and reds is not so much full on bleeding. In my experience coloured items seem to leech a bit of colour in every wash resulting in the whites becoming slightly grey over time.

This may or may not be relevant for you but it was my experience that as I acquired ‚nicer‘ clothes things became a lot less forgiving. It turns out smaller loads, delicate cycles, laundry bags and different kinds of detergent all exist for a reason. And who knew it may make sense to own both an iron and a garment steamer.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2018

If cold prevents fading of dark colors, why do I have some dark clothes that recommended warm wash? Examples: Black tank top from H&M that is 95% cotton, 5% elastane; jeans from the Gap, 98% cotton, 2% spandex; pair of bright blue underwear made of something really stretchy.
posted by unannihilated at 11:29 AM on June 10, 2018

I do everything in cold. Admittedly, I don’t have kids in sports or anything where I have to get dirt stains out. Mine is just normal wear. But yeah, all cold. I separate lights and darks.
posted by greermahoney at 11:32 AM on June 10, 2018

I firmly believe the idea of separating darks and lights is a scam designed to sell more laundry detergent. I have washed everything together my entire life and nothing has ever bled - sometimes I'll separate the actual whites (not lights), but even that doesn't seem to really matter in practice. I do everything on cold now, but that's for carbon-footprint reasons; it was fine on warm.
posted by waffleriot at 11:54 AM on June 10, 2018

If cold prevents fading of dark colors, why do I have some dark clothes that recommended warm wash?

Because clothing manufacturers would like you to buy more of their product.
posted by corey flood at 11:55 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I only separate towels from the rest of the washing bc 01) all my towels are very brightly colored and absolutely 100% bleed a lot of that color for way longer than you'd expect and 02) you're not supposed to use dryer sheets with them so it's easier for me to just keep them totally separate. Everything else goes in on tap cold, normal cycle.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:52 PM on June 10, 2018

koahiatamadl, white clothing is treated with bluing to make it appear properly white. Bluing is not colorfast, so it will fade over time, leaving your whites yellowish-gray. Nothing to do with dyes leeching from other fabrics; this is the same principle as the (in)famous blue rinse for women of a certain age.

unannihilated, I suspect that's to do with the spandex/elastane component. Synthetics don't behave like organic compounds.
posted by basalganglia at 1:14 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

i used to not separate colors and wash on cold. but i also stopped buying white shirts (other than undershirts) because they always ended up off-white. when i shacked up my partner started doing a separate light load and lo-and-behold my new white undershirts now stay white and i've even bought some regular white shirts.

edit: basalganglia attributes this to bluing agents but i swear they start to look dinghy and mine don't anymore despite weekly use and washing.
posted by noloveforned at 1:15 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a lot of work out clothing.

This will attract all the lint that sheds from your cotton clothing and it should be washed only with other synthetics. The attracted lint will also cause (or exacerbate) pilling.

There's also denim, although sometimes it says wash warm even though I've heard that you should always wash it cold.

New, 100% cotton denim will shrink in hot water. Old denim is probably broken down enough that it won't shrink in any temperature water. Most of the care instructions for denim seem to be about preserving whatever color it had "new" (meaning after whatever treatment it had before it was sold, like bleaching, stone washing, other physical distressing techniques as trends apply). If you care about preserving the color, or if it's stretch denim with lycra, wash cold. If you don't care about the color and it's all cotton, wash warm. Wash hot if you want all cotton denim to shrink or if somebody was sick, but don't wash stretch denim hot, ever.
posted by fedward at 2:03 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I divide mine into material types. Stuff that can go in the dryer is in one load, stuff that can't (or shouldn't) goes in another. If I am lazy or need to adjust to make loads come out better, I'll put towels or sheets in with non-dryer stuff or things I don't care about in with dryer stuff. But I have a lot of synthetics that claim they should not go in a dryer, and I don't use a laundromat. It still might be a useful division though, so you can dry things that are more delicate or synthetics on a lower heat.
posted by Athanassiel at 2:30 PM on June 10, 2018

With modern low water high efficiency washers and detergant designed for them everything works fine on cold and mixed for me.
posted by sotonohito at 3:02 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The only sorting I do is to not put a brand new red thing in with a bunch of whites because of the risk of the former turning the latter pink and to not put fuzzy light-colored clothes in with black clothes because the former will get very visible lint all over the latter.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:27 PM on June 10, 2018

Thank you Jane the Brown, I had stopped using kitchen towels because there was no way I was going to put those in the machine.

Towels go hot wash, hot dry, no frills. I like them scratchy and absorbent. Everything else is cold/medium-dryer-setting. Sheets get their own because they take their own (but two sets can dry together). Everything else is just meh. I sort more to make a suitable load for the $$ hungry apartment laundry machines.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:26 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I used to use cold on dark and light colored everything but switched to warm on same due to biochemistry mentioned above. I use half the recommended detergent and light clothes are coming out much brighter in general even though I am mixing light and darks more now. Warm cleans wayyyy better than cold but isnt fading my fabrics. Also, I like the idea of putting less detergent into the water system.
posted by waving at 3:51 AM on June 11, 2018

If cold prevents fading of dark colors, why do I have some dark clothes that recommended warm wash?

Because lots and lots of people still do hot washes unless they're specifically told not to, and still don't believe that cold washes can actually clean things, and might avoid buying clothes they perceived as so delicate as to require a cold wash.

Treat the manufacturer's wash temperature recommendation like a speed limit: just don't go any hotter than they say you can and you'll be fine.

Dye bleed is also not the only good reason for separating light and dark clothes in a wash; especially in a commercial machine, lint transfer can be an issue as well. It doesn't take much pale lint to be super obvious on dark clothing and vice versa.
posted by flabdablet at 5:41 AM on June 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, liquid detergents generally work better in cold water than powders do, mainly because they don't spend half the wash cycle failing to dissolve. I've seen clothes come all the way through a cold wash with undissolved powder still sticking to them.
posted by flabdablet at 5:43 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

+1 on the side of "wash everything in cold unless it's super dirty, and don't bother separating darks vs. lights."

HOWEVER -- if you're worried about color bleeding, which does happen, throw in a color catcher sheet! I have two pairs of identical white jeans that I bought a year apart, and the newer pair still looks sparkling white after 1 year of washing with a color catcher vs. the slightly dingy older pair that went through its first year of life just mixed in with my regular laundry. I didn't notice how grayish the first pair had gotten until I purchased the second pair and could see them side by side.

Another protip: Close up all zippers and buttons. This is how I wash workout gear and jeans with my delicate rayon blouses without destroying them. I also prefer to turn everything inside out to minimize pilling from abrasion, but the zippers are the most important thing.
posted by serelliya at 8:36 AM on June 11, 2018

The only thing I keep in mind, as someone that has been doing laundry for decades, is what kind of lint will be caused in the drier. I don't do white socks with dark shirts for instance, or towels with almost anything because they will just cover the other clothes with annoying lint.

Everything washed in cold unless you want them to possibly shrink.
posted by dozo at 12:35 PM on June 11, 2018

Workout clothes that promise to wick away sweat tend to soak up a lot of goo and just reek. If you don't have a lot of options because of the laundromat, maybe wash at home and hang dry?

Or, don't get on the stairmaster next to me.

Realistically, of you can only use two machines, you don't have a lot of options and my only advice is don't leave during the dryer cycle or perves will knick your underthings.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:11 PM on June 11, 2018

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