The Best Way to Do Laundry (Especially If You’ve Never Done It Before!)

published Mar 11, 2024
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Much like washing the dishes, doing the laundry is one of those domestic tasks that you can’t put off for too long. Whether you’re living alone for the first time, or maybe just want to improve your laundry routine, there’s always room to learn and up your laundry game to make daily life smoother. 

Quick Overview

How to Do Laundry

  1. Separate your laundry.
  2. Pretreat stains.
  3. Adjust the washer and dryer settings.
  4. See if anything needs to be hand-washed.
  5. Dry your clothes and maintain your machines.

Since I was a child, I’ve always loved doing laundry. Whether I’m taking out warm clothes from the dryer on a cold day, or folding my T-shirts as I watch my favorite TV show, laundry day has always felt like a relaxing and productive ritual. While I understand this may not be the case for everyone, I figured you deserve to know the best tips and recommendations to perhaps make “laundry day” your favorite day of the week. 

I reached out to Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert Mary Gagliardi, also known as Dr. Laundry, for her invaluable tips on how to do your laundry, plus some advice and steps from yours truly so laundry day never has to feel like a dreaded chore. 

What You’ll Need:

  • Hamper
  • Laundry detergent 
  • Stain remover
  • Bleach
  • Fabric softener (optional)
  • Dryer balls/dryer sheets
  • A mesh laundry bag

Before You Get Started

Before you can actually get to washing (and drying) your laundry, it helps to know the basics — from the difference in washers to which laundry products to use to the importance of care instructions. 

Front-Load vs. Top-Load Washers

You may think that a washing machine is just a washing machine, but it’s important to understand the two main types so you can optimize your laundry day. 

Top-load washing machines are typically easier to clean, maintain, and load (no crouching required and your clothes don’t fly out when loading something mid-wash). However, they require more water, have agitators that can wear down your clothes, and are more likely to accumulate mold and mildew

Front-load washing machines are often more efficient, require less water and detergent, and can handle larger loads. However, they’re usually more expensive and the door seals and gaskets require frequent cleaning to avoid mold.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Choosing Laundry Products

Laundry detergent is the most important product you’ll need when doing laundry, so it’s important to choose the best one for you. While all detergents share the same purpose, they come in various forms with slight differences. These include liquid, which is effective in all water temperatures; tablets or pods, which are convenient since they don’t require measuring; powder, which is usually the most affordable option; and laundry sheets, which are typically eco-friendly and prevent the over-use of detergent. You can also choose between free and clear detergents which are free of perfumes and dyes, and HE (high efficiency) detergents which are formulated for high-efficiency washing machines. 

Gagliardi says that using products such as fabric softener and dryer sheets can depend on a couple of factors, including personal preferences and the region in which you live. Dryer sheets are also quite controversial so if you’re looking for an equally effective alternative, wool dryer balls are a laundry room essential. 

“Dryer sheets can work to reduce static cling so they may not be needed in more humid climates,” she says. “As for fabric softener, towels, and athletic wear, manufacturers recommend against it because it can inhibit absorbency and moisture wicking.”

If you’re sensitive to fragrances but still want to make sure your laundry stays soft, you can choose from a few fabric softener alternatives such as white vinegar and ice cubes. Lastly, Gagliardi recommends investing in bleach (which not only cleans, whitens, and disinfects laundry, but other non-porous surfaces) as well as a powerful stain remover.

Credit: Apartment Therapy

Read Care Labels

Maybe you have all the care and fiber labels memorized, or maybe you never even knew they existed. Either way, Gagliardi says that understanding these symbols and instructions will help maintain your laundry in excellent condition. 

“The best time to check a care label is at the point of purchase — then you know what’s allowed or not, especially if you want to avoid certain items like dry clean only,” she says. “Note that if you’re shopping online, the care instructions may be incomplete. Also, on many garments, there are care labels in two different places: fiber content on one tag at the neckline, and wash instructions on a side seam, so be sure to check in both places.”

Get a Laundry Mesh Bag

At my previous apartment, there was an instance when my washing machine wasn’t draining, which immediately prompted me to put in a maintenance request. When the maintenance manager arrived the next morning and was working on the washer, he pulled out one of my socks from the hose. He recommended that I get a mesh laundry bag to prevent this issue and never lose socks again. Now, I never do laundry without these bags. 

Mesh laundry bags are great for socks and undergarments, as well as other small items like cloth face masks, headbands, scrunchies, baby clothes, and bandanas. Best of all, you can use them as dirty laundry bags when you’re traveling. 

How to Do Laundry

Follow the step-by-step guide below to do your laundry.

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Step 1: Separate your laundry.

Gagliardi explains that while separating your laundry is a challenging and time-consuming practice to embrace (“Who doesn’t want to wash just one load of laundry?” she says), it’s a necessary one to avoid color transfer. 

“You don’t want your whites turning dingy gray over time, or suddenly have a lot of pink laundry after adding a red item to the wrong load,” she says. “Something else to keep in mind is that whites need to be separated into two loads: bleach-safe whites like cotton or polyester need to be washed in a separate load from white items with spandex because these can’t be bleached.”

You should separate your laundry into these categories:

  • Whites
  • Colors
  • Socks and small items
  • Bedding/linens
  • Towels
  • Kitchen textiles (dish towels, cloth placemats, and napkins)
  • Cleaning textiles (rags, microfiber mop pads)
  • Delicates and hand-wash items (bras, lace, silk, wool)

I use a double hamper to keep my colors and whites separate, which saves me a ton of time come laundry day, but use whatever laundry hamper best suits you — whether that’s a collapsible one or a four-sorter one. If I have more to wash than expected, I will separate black/dark clothes and light/bright clothes so I don’t overfill my washer. I also check pockets for things I don’t want to lose or destroy in the wash (loose change and bills, receipts, etc.).

Step 2: Pretreat stains.

The point of doing laundry is to get everything clean, so you want to focus on treating the items that are particularly dirty or stained. You can pretreat stains by soaking them in a tub or sink filled with cold water to loosen the stain before it’s washed, applying a stain remover, and letting it sit (some brands recommend a few hours while others can stay on for up to a few days); or soaking stained items in a tub or sink filled with hot water and a laundry additive, which is Gagliardi’s recommendation. For those who prefer natural ingredients, you can gently rub a 50/50 mixture of baking soda and water onto the stain before washing. 

“Pretreat stains and any small white areas like logos or embroidery on dark items with a stain remover before washing,” she says. “I have several navy blue sweatshirts with white trim that have to go in a dark load, which isn’t great for the white areas. Pretreating it keeps the white from getting dingy. You could also do this with white collars on colorful rugby-style shirts.”

I personally love the OxiClean Stain Remover for tough stains such as oil and grease. If you’d rather opt for a natural stain remover, Nellie’s Wow Stick is gentle on your hands yet effective on light to moderate stains.

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Step 3: Adjust your washing machine and dryer’s settings.

Now that it’s time to wash (be sure to add your detergent before your clothes), it’s important to familiarize yourself with your washing machine’s settings. Not all loads are created equal, so you want to make sure you’re getting an optimal clean without causing damage. If the care label on your delicates (such as lingerie and silk neckties) indicates that they can be washed on a delicate cycle, choose this option. 

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Other Washing Settings include:

  • Normal, for most loads
  • Heavy duty for heavily soiled items
  • Rinse and spin to quickly remove moisture from items with no detergent
  • Speed/quick wash for small loads
  • Permanent press for synthetic fabrics such as spandex
  • Bulky/bedding for bedding, towels, and machine washable pet beds

Gagliardi says that while you can technically wash bedding and towels together, it’s best to wash them separately since they typically have different care instructions due to their vastly different fabrics. As a bonus tip, I like to clean my mattress (I sprinkle a mixture of baking soda and lavender and then vacuum) while my sheets are being washed so that my bed is extra clean and fresh.

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Washer Temperature

Cold water washing may be controversial, but the myths around it like it can’t remove stains have been largely debunked. According to Gagliardi, hot water is optimal for certain loads such as cleaning rags, pet items, and heavily soiled items, but it’s not always necessary for everyday clothing. When it comes to the water level, she explains that this is usually something to consider for older deep-fill washers, but it’s still best to use the setting that matches the size of your load.

“Clothing needs to circulate freely through the wash water; overloading a washer will limit this and inhibit the washer’s ability to properly agitate the laundry and get it clean,” she says. “HE washers automatically adjust the amount of water added based on the load size, but clothing still needs to tumble in and out of the wash water freely, so even these shouldn’t be overloaded.”

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Dryer Temperature

For dryer temperatures, Gagliardi says to first confirm that tumble drying is allowed for an item by checking the care label. Keep in mind that a high heat level can cause shrinkage for some fabrics, especially cotton. 

“Newer dryers can measure the moisture content of the load as it dries, and adjust dryer temperature and drying time accordingly,” she says. “If you have an older dryer, start with a shorter drying time and increase it as needed if clothes aren’t getting dry. Also, be sure to empty the lint filter in the dryer before drying a load of laundry, every time. It really comes down to experience, which you build by doing the laundry one load at a time.”

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Step 4: See if anything needs to be hand-washed.

It’s never too late to start hand washing your clothes, even if you’ve never done it before. Certain fabrics, such as wool, lace, and chiffon, will maintain their quality for longer when hand-washed. Start by checking the care label, pretreating any stains, and then with a clean sink, tub, or basin. Some care labels may indicate the water temperature, but if not, it’s best to use warm water. Submerge your clothes and add a few drops of detergent or delicate formulas such as Woolite. I’ve long associated the sight and scent of Zote Soap with my grandmother, aunts, and mom. Thankfully, it’s also highly effective for hand washing delicates. 

Gently wash your clothes using only your hands and leave them sitting for about half an hour. Drain the dirty water, rinse with clean water, and gently rinse (I usually press whatever piece of clothing I’m hand washing against the sides of the sink or tub to avoid wrinkling). Lastly, lay your items flat to dry on a towel or hang them on a clothesline so they maintain their shape. 

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Step 5: Dry and maintenance. 

It’s best to use your dryer on medium to high heat for items such as towels and sheets, and low to medium heat for everyday clothing. While some items like delicates require air drying, Gagliardi recommends it, in general, to limit shrinkage and preserve quality. 

“Warmer water temperatures clean better but also can contribute to shrinkage, so air drying instead of tumble drying in a hot dryer can offset this,” she says. “It’s definitely a technique that I (and my tall kids!) use to keep our clothes from shrinking while still getting clean.”

Last but not least, it’s time to give your washing machine and dryer some much-needed TLC. This can be often neglected since these appliances are the ones doing the cleaning, but they need regular maintenance. I use a packet of OxiClean Washing Machine Cleaner once every three months to freshen up my washer, and I always make sure to clear out the lint from every crevice of my dryer after drying clothes. About once a week, I also clean the exterior of each machine and around the doors using my favorite surface cleaner and a microfiber cloth.