How to Wash Clothes in a Washing Machine

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Knowing how to wash clothes —without ruining them — is a basic life skill. Before you load up the washing machine, you have to do some prep work such as separating items by color and texture, choosing the right washing cycle, and knowing how much detergent to add. All this calls for just a little practice, but you'll get the hang of it in no time.

Separate and divide for laundry success

Not all fabrics are made the same, so you need to create piles of items based on color and fabric type:

  • Separate light-colored clothes from dark ones: The worst mistake you can make when washing clothes is to mix colored clothes and light-colored clothes in the wash cycle. Clothes (especially new ones) lose some of the dye coloring during the wash cycle, and light-colored fabric will pick up that dye. So don't put your new red T-shirt in a hot water wash with your white undies if you don't want your underwear to turn pink!

    To avoid "painting" your light clothes, separate your dirty laundry into white or light (pale pastel shades) clothing and dark clothing. If you don't have that many clothes to wash and you don't want to do two loads, you can mix light and dark — but only if none of the colored clothes are new and you use cold water. If you don't want to risk staining any light clothes, keep them apart.

  • Separate laundry by fabric or texture: Heavy fabrics like denim jeans and towels require a different washing-machine cycle than delicate items (like bras and lingerie) or medium-weight ones like sheets.

    Women's lingerie, like bras, can be damaged in machines. These items should be done apart using the delicate cycle, though if you don't have the time to do an extra load, you can put them in a special mesh bag that will protect them if you throw them in the regular wash.

  • Read the care label on clothing before washing. Some clothing can only be dry cleaned while other clothing, like that made of wool, needs to be hand-washed with a special soap and dried by placing over a towel or rack.

    To protect all clothes from the damage that a washing machine can do, zip all zippers, and turn the clothes inside out before washing.

  • Choose the right setting: Washing machines have settings for water temperature. Use hot water for light-colored items that are especially dirty or smelly. Use cold water for dark clothes (especially new ones) whose colors are more likely to run. Cotton items also require cold water to avoid shrinkage.

    You'll also see settings for load size, usually small, medium or large. If your dirty laundry fills the machine to one third, then select small; half-way full is medium; and three-quarters full is large. Never stuff the machine, because you need room for the water!

Figuring out laundry detergent, bleach, fabric softener

When you're ready to wash your (separated) clothes, don't just shove them into the machine, dump in some detergent and turn on the machine. There's a process: First, fill your washing machine with water to about one-third full, and then add the bleach if you're using it. Next, add the detergent, swish it around in the water to make sure it's dissolved, and then add your clothes.

  • How much detergent? How much laundry detergent you need will depend on the size of your load. Always read the instructions on the laundry detergent container so that you know how much to put in. Some detergents are more concentrated so require less detergent.

  • To bleach or not? If you have clothes that are especially dirty or if you like your whites to be as white as possible, you can add bleach. But be careful — all bleaches aren't made the same, so be sure to read the product labels carefully.

    • Chlorine bleach is great for making white clothes whiter, especially cotton and linen. Never use chlorine-based bleaches on colored fabric, because it'll take the color right out.

    • All-fabric bleach is made just for colors and chlorine-sensitive fabrics.

    If your washing machine doesn't have a bleach dispenser, then always dilute the bleach with water before it touches your clothes.

    The "hardness" of your water can affect how bleach works, so test it on some clothes you don't care about it.

  • Remember the fabric softener: If you like your towels to be soft and fluffy, add liquid fabric softener to the rinse cycle. (Many washing machines have a special dispenser for liquid fabric softener. You fill this dispenser at the beginning of the wash cycle, and the machine automatically releases it at the proper time.)

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