Doing the laundry can seem like a daunting task; so many different kinds of detergent to choose from, deciding whether or not to bleach, how to dry your clothes for the best results – it can all leave your head spinning. One of the biggest concerns is what temperature to wash clothes at.
The temperature at which you wash your clothes depends on the fabric and the level of soiling. Though warm water has long been the standard, there’s been a trend toward cold water recently.
Here’s a basic guide to what temperature to wash clothes at based on their type.
|130 degrees Fahrenheit or 55 degrees Celsius or higher
|Heavily soiled clothing, fabrics that need to be disinfected
|60-80 degrees Fahrenheit or 16-27 degrees Celsius
|Brightly colored clothing, delicate clothing, clothing susceptible to shrinking (i.e., wool), rinsing all clothes
|90-110 degrees Fahrenheit or 32-43 degrees Celsius
|All other fabrics
Of course, it can be slightly more complicated than this, which is why we’ve written a complete guide for you to follow.
Here’s what you need to know about water temperature and clothes washing. There is also some helpful advice about correctly reading the labels of and sorting your clothes, as well as some general advice about the laundry process.
Washing machine settings and what they mean
To understand what settings you need to wash your clothes, including the temperature settings, it’s helpful to know how the settings on your machine work.
A basic washing machine will have at least three cycle settings: Standard, Heavy, and Delicate (sometimes called Gentle). These cycles all include an initial soak, agitation, rinsing, and spinning. The setting indicates how intensely the clothes need to be washed.
On a separate dial will be a water temperature selection. It’ll usually have settings for hot, warm, and cold, following the table above. Some washers have dual settings (hot/hot, hot/cold, cold/cold, etc.); these indicate that the temperature for the soak and rinse can be independently controlled.
There will also usually be a load size selection, with four options: small, medium, large, and oversized or “super.” This is the setting that tells the machine how much water it needs to soak an entire load of laundry.
Some more advanced machines may have settings for just a rinse and spin cycle, speed washing, permanent pressing (which reduces wrinkling), and other specific fabric settings. They may even let you select the exact temperature of the water or the duration of the cycle.
Settings for washing by color
One of the ways that laundry is sorted is by color. This changes a lot about how the item is cared for, and can have an impact on which wash cycle you use. Here’s how to wash your laundry by its color category.
What settings to use when washing whites
When washing whites, use the hottest water setting the fabrics can tolerate. Most stubborn dirt and grime are effectively removed at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or 49 degrees Celsius, or higher. You can gauge the safest temperature to wash your whites on by using the lowest maximum from your most delicate white piece.
You should also add a bleaching agent to the load if you can, either by adding bleach itself or choosing a detergent with a bleaching agent in it. Remember to check your items and see if they can tolerate bleaching first, to avoid damaging the fabric.
Treat any stained clothing and soak any heavily soiled clothing separately before washing. This prevents any stain or stubborn particles from settling into the other pieces during the wash cycle.
What settings to use when washing darks
To wash dark laundry, use the coldest setting on your machine, around 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 16 degrees Celsius. You’ll also want to use the shortest setting you have. This, along with the correct detergent (free of bleaching agents), can prevent fading and other fabric damage.
Remember that not all darks are going to have the same fabric weight. Lighter materials like cotton or wool may get caught on the fastenings of heavier pieces made from denim or canvas. Wash like weights together, and heavier pieces fastened and inside-out, to prevent damage to your machine.
What settings to use when washing colors
Color loads, or laundry that’s not particularly dark but does still have a colored dye added (especially if it’s vibrant), should be washed in cold water – 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit or 16-27 degrees Celsius.
They should be washed on the shortest setting available to avoid as much dye loss as possible. There will always be some loss over time, due to natural wear and tear, but it’s possible to prevent the majority of it with proper care.
Colors come in two categories: brights and pastels. Wash the two groups separately to prevent color bleed, especially when the items are brand new. Turn the items inside-out to keep them looking new longer.
Settings for washing by fabrics
Another way clothing is sorted is by the kind of fabric used to make it. Alongside color, this can determine how safe it is to wash it in certain settings, and what damage you’re looking to avoid, either to the clothing or the machines. Here’s how to wash your laundry based on its fabric.
What settings to use to wash delicate fabrics
Delicate laundry usually refers to undergarments and lingerie. These items are often made with fabrics that are sheer, thin, and otherwise easy to damage. Other delicates include anything made from silk or cashmere and items like wool and knitting.
To wash delicate items, you should use the delicate cycle on your machine. This is designed to have a similar effect as hand washing, though handwashing will always be the safest way to wash this kind of laundry. It’s usually a slow-paced, short cycle.
Use cold water on delicates, as this can prevent shrinking or warping. You should also avoid bleach unless the clothing label specifically indicates that it should be used, as bleach can break down these fabric fibers very quickly.
What settings to use to wash standard fabrics
Standard fabrics include everyday clothing items like shirts, pants, and socks. It can also refer to bedsheets or thin curtains. These items are often made with cotton or light linen.
To wash these items, you can usually use the standard cycle on your machine, which will soak, agitate, rinse, and spin them over the course of a roughly 20-30 minute cycle. Most lightly soiled clothing will be well washed by cold water and a regular detergent, though the liquid is best as it dissolves better in cold water.
You can usually use bleach on standard fabrics without much of an issue. Remember to follow manufacturer instructions as to whether bleach is appropriate for a particular item.
What settings to use to wash heavy fabrics
Heavy fabrics include thick, course materials like canvas and denim. It’s often used to refer to loads of towels, blankets, curtains, and other such items that would be too bulky to go in with standard loads. “Heavy” can also refer to the level of soiling – items need heavy cleaning when they have caked-on mud or dirt.
There’s usually a heavy cycle in the machine or a “Bulky” setting. This will usually be a longer cycle that might include multiple rounds of agitation or an additional rinse, as well as a longer spin cycle. Heavy fabrics should almost always be washed with hot water, as this is the best way to dissolve dirt and grime, and also disinfects the fabric (which is important with loads such as towels).
Bleach is usually safe to use and even recommended for use, with heavy fabrics. Be careful of using it on any item with colors, though, as it can lead to fading or spotting.
The fabrics you should never wash
Oddly enough, there are certain fabrics and items you should never wash in your machine.
- Viscose, a kind of rayon, is extremely prone to shrinking and is a careful hand wash only fabric.
- Polyamide, which is usually blended with rayon, can expand in the wash so shouldn’t be laundered.
- Leather should never go in the washing machine unless it is specifically labeled as “washable.”
- Fur with attached skin, such as on a traditional fur coat, should not be washed at all.
- Highly structured items, such as those with padding or boning, generally can’t be washed, as it would degrade the additive materials. It may also damage your machine.
- Items with unstitched pleats shouldn’t be washed, as the heat from the process can undo the pressing.
Of course, anything labeled as “Dry Clean Only” should not be put through a washing machine. Take these items to a professional dry cleaner, who knows the proper chemicals and processes for cleaning them.
Detergents and additives in hot, cold, and warm water
As mentioned, different kinds of detergents and additives work best in different water temperatures. This is because of their ingredients and, in some cases, their composition. Generally, the rules for detergents are as follows:
- Powder detergents work well in warm or hot water but not in cold.
- Liquid detergents work well in warm or hot water, and may work well in cold, depending on the formula.
- Pod detergents work best in warm or hot water, though they will often work in a longer cold wash.
- Fabric softeners work in any temperature
- Bleach may work well in any temperature, but is usually best used with warm cycles.
- Stain removers should be used as a pretreatment in lukewarm water rather than during the actual cycle itself.
There are many modern detergents in all forms that are specifically designed for use in cold water. If you plan to use cold water exclusively, you should invest in a cold water detergent. Liquid is probably the best form to use. There are also formulations for heavy-duty cleaning if you do a lot of towel and linen washing.
An important thing to note is that you should always measure your detergent properly. Using too little may not clean your clothes as well as you would like it to. Using too much is not only a waste of money but is likely to leave a sticky or dying residue on your clothes.
Be especially careful when using bleach in your laundry. Avoid touching bleach with your bare hands, and be sure your laundry is fully and properly rinsed after using it. Keep bleach away from pets and children. You should never mix bleach with chemicals unless the packaging specifically states it’s safe to do so, as some combinations with bleach can make dangerous ammonia gas.
Interpreting your clothes’ instruction labels
Most clothing comes with a label detailing its proper care instructions. These labels can detail how to wash, dry clean, bleach, iron, and dry the piece. Unfortunately, some of these symbols are difficult to read.
To explain what these symbols represent, they’ve been broken down into three categories: washing, drying, and other care. Here’s what each category’s symbols mean.
The washing symbols are relatively easy to interpret. They’re shaped like a bucket or washtub with waves of water along the top and have several variations you should be on the lookout for.
- If the washtub symbol has a number in it, this is the temperature in Celsius that you should be washing your clothes at.
- If there is a hand reaching into the bucket, the garment is handwash-only.
- If there is one line under the bucket, the item should be washed on the “permanent press” setting.
- If there are two lines under the bucket, the item should be washed on the “gentle” setting.
- The presence of a twisted piece of fabric (resembling a wrapped candy) with an “X” over it indicates the piece shouldn’t be wrung out.
The label will usually also include instructions for how to dry the garment. These symbols look like a square with a circle in the middle, reminiscent of a tumble dryer.
- Dots in the central circle indicate the tumble-drying setting. One dot is low heat, two is medium heat, and three is high heat.
- Lines under the square represent the cycle to use when drying. One line is permanent press, two is gentle, and no lines at all means any cycle is fine.
- If there are three vertical lines inside the square, the item should be hung out to dry rather than machine dried
- If there is a curved line in the square, that means the garment should be dried on a line
- If there are two slanting lines in the corner of the square, the item should be line dried in shade rather than direct sunlight
- If there is a horizontal line in the square, the item should be dried flat
Other care symbols
The symbol for bleach, another important washing factor, is a triangle, with a few variations of its own.
- If it’s covered by an “X,” the item should never be bleached.
- Two slanted lines means a non-chlorine or oxygen bleach is to be used
- A regular triangle with no extra markings means any bleach can be used
The ironing symbol is, thankfully, simply in the shape of an old-fashioned iron. The dots in the center indicate the temperature setting used to iron your clothes: one dot for low, two for medium, and three for high. An “X” through squiggly lines under the iron means you should not use steam, while an “X” through the iron itself means do not iron at all.
The symbol for dry-clean-only is a plain circle, usually with accompanying lines or letters denoting chemicals to use. If this symbol is on the label, once again, you should not wash your clothes in water at all. Instead, have them professionally dry cleaned.
There’s more to doing the laundry than just the temperature of the water, of course. Here are the answers to some of the more common questions about washing your clothes.
How do you effectively sort your laundry?
This is a common hurdle for people laundering for the first time. It’s relatively simple to sort laundry, though it may sound complicated initially.
First, sort your laundry by color. As we established, there are four categories: Lights, Brights, Colors, and Darks. From there, sort your clothing by fabric weight: Heavy, Standard, and Light. Finally, set aside anything delicate, unwashable, or with special care instructions.
Once you’ve done that, it’s simply a matter of putting your laundry into the machine and setting it up correctly. Remember to check the settings between loads, to ensure you’re using the appropriate cycle and temperature. Try to leave anything that needs to be bleached for last, to avoid any residual bleach damaging your clothes.
Is washing in cold water better for the environment?
Generally speaking, cold water is better for the environment in that it is more energy efficient; less (or occasionally, no) energy is used to heat the water. Cold water can also make your clothes last longer by being gentler on the fabric itself.
The issue with washing in cold is that many detergents won’t dissolve properly unless washed through a warm or hot water cycle. This is becoming less of an issue as companies redesign their products to suit the growing demand for environmentally friendly washing habits.
Does washing at a certain temperature shrink clothes?
Generally, warm or hot water (over 80 degrees Fahrenheit or 27 degrees Celsius) has the potential to cause delicate fabrics like wool and unstretched cotton to shrink in on themselves.
If your clothes do shrink, you can usually undo the damage by soaking them in lukewarm water mixed with a small amount of hair conditioner or baby shampoo, rolling them, stretching them gently, then drying them flat.
What items should you never wash together?
Whites generally shouldn’t be washed with any colored items, as this can lead to fading. Brights and darks shouldn’t be washed with whites or pastels, and brights and darks shouldn’t be washed together. This can lead to color bleeding, which can be annoying and potentially ruinous for most clothing.
You also shouldn’t wash different fabric weights together. Fabric weight is the thickness and general build of the fabric; cotton and linen are considered lightweight, while canvas and denim are considered heavyweight. These wash differently, so washing them together is usually mutually ineffective.
What should you do if you have color bleeding?
Color bleeding is an extremely common problem caused by loose dye particles attaching themselves to lighter fabrics in the wash cycle. This usually happens if you wash the wrong items together (see above). To treat it, re-wash the affected clothes normally on their own. Don’t dry the items, as this will set the dye.
Though there are wives’ tales about soaking in salt or vinegar, this isn’t a good idea. Not only is it completely ineffective, it could also damage the fabric. It’s best to avoid doing this, and stick to simple isolated washing.
Your clothes are often points of personal pride. They’re how you show off your style. So knowing how to take care of them properly is imperative. Remember that you don’t have to be intimidated by the laundry process.
Learning to identify and sort your laundry is the first step. After that, you just need to know which temperature and cycle to use to wash your clothes properly. Once you have that down, you’ll be keeping your favorite pieces around for a long time to come.
I’ve also created a comprehensive guide on how to use all the settings on your washing machine that may interest you.
I’m an expert organizer and a big laundry enthusiast. I’ve created this website and Organizing TV on YouTube to share practical guides about some of my favorite subjects; making clothes fit well, doing laundry and folding clothes effectively, and organizing wardrobes with a focus on saving space since I live in a home with limited space myself. You can learn more about me here.