6 Common Cold-Water Washing Myths Debunked by a Laundry Scientist

published Apr 27, 2023
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Living in an apartment building with a shared washer, I’ve never really stopped to think about how much energy and money it costs to run the washing machine. But when I was visiting home in Australia recently, my mom opened my eyes after she saw me continuously run hot cycles. It was then that I learned that 90 percent of the energy used by washing machines is purely to heat the water. A 2022 report found that the average household spends $282 annually to wash in hot/warm water compared to $20 when using cold water. While some may be aware of these benefits of using cold water, there are still many misconceptions (like how hot water is better at removing germs) out there.

For the past few years, I’ve been making a conscious effort to try to live greener and reduce my carbon footprint. While my mom has been cold-water washing for years, I have to admit that I wasn’t nearly as educated. So when I came across Tide scientist Darenton Randall, I was excited to chat and learn more about the myths and misconceptions when it comes to cold-water washing. 

Myth 1: Detergents aren’t effective in cold water.

“This belief was particularly prevalent when detergents weren’t as advanced as they are today when they required the hot water to do the ‘heavy lifting’ during the cleaning process,” shares Randall. But with advancements in cleaning technologies, detergents now work just as well in cold water. “At Tide, our cold-water formulas contain specifically designed cleaning ingredients like surfactants and enzymes that can break down and remove stains.”

Myth 2: Cold water can’t remove stains.

Traditionally it was true that stains were harder to remove in cold water, as the lower thermal energy struggled to break down the detergent and remove stains. However, today this is no longer the case. “With improved cleaning technologies, we are now able to overcome the challenges of cleaning in cold water with specifically designed ingredients that are engineered to clean in lower temperatures,” explains Randall. And for any hard-to-remove stains, you might have to do a little pre-treatment first before tossing it in the wash.

Myth 3: Cold water makes clothes bigger.

Washing in cold water protects garments and helps preserve the fabric’s structure. “When clothes are washed in hot water, the fibers can become damaged and shrink, which can lead to a reduction in the size of the garment,” says Randall. “Cold water, on the other hand, is gentler on the fibers and can help to preserve the shape and structure of clothes.” While it’s always important to check the care label on your items, Randall adds that most machine-washable fabrics are fine for cold water when paired with a high-quality detergent.

Myth 4: Cold water can’t be used for sheets and towels.

Even my mom, who almost always uses cold water, has been known to wash sheets and towels in hot water — something which Randall says is, again, not necessary. “Bed sheets and towels are often washed in hot water, as consumers believe because these fabrics come in contact with the body, and are not washed as often, they need hot water to clean them,” he says. That’s why Randall says to use a high-quality detergent that’s designed to work effectively in cold water. There’s Tide Ultra OXI Power PODS with Odor Eliminators, his recommendation, as well as Biokleen Natural Cold Water Laundry Detergent or Grove Co. Cold Wash Liquid Laundry Detergent — which are both natural and plant-based options. Beyond lowering the home’s carbon footprint and utility bills, cold water also helps to prevent the shrinkage and fading of your sheets and towels. 

Myth 5: Cold water won’t kill germs and won’t give a hygienic clean.

For everyday laundry, cold water does an ample job of sanitizing and killing germs. According to the American Cleaning Institute, “Most of the time, a healthy household is low-risk and can do the laundry as usual and wash in cold water.” However, it’s important to note that in certain situations, such as when someone in the household is sick with a respiratory illness like COVID-19, the flu, or a cold, they advise considering washing in warmer temperatures. “It can also help to take extra precautions to keep others from getting ill, like not shaking dirty laundry and washing and drying in warmer temperatures,” advises Randall. 

Myth 6: Cold water won’t get rid of blood.

While higher temperatures are an option during times of illness, the same can’t be said for stains like blood. “Blood stains should always be treated with cold water to avoid setting in the stain,” says Randall. “Blood contains cellular matter, proteins, sugars, and fats, which not only requires a variety of ingredients to remove but can also ‘set in’ fabrics if warm or hot water is applied to the stain.”