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How to wash clothes

By Jade Harding

Use our expert laundry guide to keep your clothes looking good. We cover everything from detergents to fabrics and even how to clean soiled clothing

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Whether you’re wondering if you can wash your trainers in the machine or you just can’t get the washing powder out of your clothes, we’ve got the answer.

Keep scrolling for our top tips on washing clothes, or go straight to our washing machine reviews.

Beginners' clothes washing tips

How to wash whites with colours, how to shrink clothes, how to get washing powder out of clothes and more...

You should never wash brand-new brightly coloured clothes with whites or light-coloured items. The darker dye is likely to bleed onto the lighter garments during the first one or two washes, especially if it’s on a hot cycle. 

After a few washes the risk of the dye running isn’t as high, but if you like to have whiter-than-white clothes you should probably still avoid mixing colours. Even small amounts of colour transfer can dull light garments. 

If you really have to mix your whites, lights and colours, always opt for a low temperature (30°C). This should limit the risk of dye transfer, as should ‘colour catcher’ products that you can buy in most supermarkets. 

Hand wash striped tops in cold water the first time and then wash on a low temperature with similar colours. 

It really depends on the clothing and what you do in it. For example, workout gear should be washed after every use, but jeans that you wear shopping can hold out for around six wears. Here’s our guide for how often you should be washing the different items in your wardrobe.

Don’t leave your clothes in the washer for longer than eight to 12 hours. Any more than that and clothes will begin to smell and mould will grow. 

If the washing smells anything less than fresh, rerun the wash cycle as the aroma won’t just go away once it dries. 

Leaving clothes in the washer can also result in mould and mildew growing in the machine drum. If this happens, the drum will start to smell and so will any clothes you wash. 

Watch our video on how to clean a smelly washing machine. 

Follow these simple steps to make sure your clothes smell good after washing:

  1. Use a scented fabric softener.
  2. Don’t overload your washing machine. Overloading means the clothes cannot move around the machine, dirt can get trapped between items of clothing and it leaves little room for the detergent to disperse.
  3. Don’t leave your clothes in the washing machine for too long (max eight to 12 hours), otherwise it will start to smell and grow mildew.
  4. Dry clothes thoroughly and quickly. Using an outdoor washing line will keep clothes fresh. But if you have to dry indoors, make sure it doesn’t sit there damp for days. Either spin it through the tumble or leave it close to a radiator – and don’t overload the clothes horse.
  5. Smells can come from a dirty door seal or a mould infested drum or detergent drawer. Clean your washing machine using these five easy steps.

Most modern washing machines have a ‘hand-wash’ or a ‘delicate’ cycle that can be used to wash clothes that are more suited to hand washing. These cycles should replicate a gentle wash – soaking in cold water and light tumbling. Placing the garment in a net bag will also help to minimise any damage.

However, it depends on the garment and its care instructions. When the care label clearly states ‘hand wash only’ or ‘dry clean only’ it will be a risk to use the washing machine. Agitation and friction against other items and the drum can damage flimsy items.

Clothes manufacturers generally state the optimal cleaning, so do use your laundry senses. For example, avoid machine washing materials such as silk and cashmere or heavily embellished clothes but wool should be suitable for a hand-wash cycle.

Shrinking cotton is really simple; just wash the item in the longest cycle at the hottest temperature, followed by a spin in the tumble dryer on the highest heat setting. Do check the garment throughout the spin though; you don’t want to over-shrink it.

Wool is more sensitive and will shrink quicker. You can still put it on a hot wash but then dry it on a medium heat.

Check the care label – some clothes, mostly jeans, are made using an anti-shrink treatment, typically called ‘sanforized’ so you’ll just be wasting your time, water and energy.

Don’t spend time moving the clothes from the washer to the dryer – get a washer-dryer instead. Find one that excels at both key jobs using our Best washer-dryer recommendations.

Check for stains when the clothes are still wet – once the powder has dried on it will be harder to remove. If it’s still wet, put the stained item in a bowl with a solution of one cup of vinegar to four cups of water and soak for a few hours. Then rewash using a warm water cycle and running a repeat rinse.

Stains from detergent normally occur when the machine doesn’t sufficiently rinse the load. We measure how much detergent is left after a wash when we review washing machines. See which Best Buys are great at rinsing.

Other ways to avoid staining your clothes with washing powder include:

  • Don’t use too much detergent.  
  • Use the correct detergent for the cycle/clothes – you could also try liquid detergent.
  • Check your detergent tray isn’t blocked.
  • Don’t overload the machine.
  • Make sure the water pump isn’t clogged.

Simply turn the dial to the ‘rinse’ setting and press start.

Before you start dying your favourite dress, you’ll need to check what fabric it is. Clothes that are made of natural fibres, such as cotton, are the easiest to dye, while certain dyes will only work with specific materials.

Once you’ve found the correct product, wash the items you’re dying to remove any stains or dirt residue that could affect coverage and then follow these steps:

  1. Put on rubber gloves and mix the dye with four cups of very hot water in a container.
  2. In another container, dissolve one cup of salt in four cups of hot water. If you’re dying non-natural fibres, such as silk, you will need to alter the ratio accordingly.
  3. Then add a teaspoon of detergent.
  4. Now wet the clothing you plan to dye (don’t soak) and put it all in the washing machine.
  5. Set the machine to a cycle longer than 30 minutes – you need this time for the dye to settle into the material – and at a hot temperature. Press start.
  6. Now pour the dye solution into the detergent tray, followed by the salt solution.
  7. Flush the tray out using around three to four cups of hot water.
  8. Once the cycle has finished, rewash the item at a warm temperature.
  9. You can then wash the machine by adding one cup of chlorine bleach to the drum or the dispenser tray and running a hot wash.

Always follow the instructions on the dye packet to avoid damaging your machine and/or losing your warranty. If you’re concerned your warranty might be void check with your manufacturer before using.

Instead of spending your mornings removing fluff off your favourite top with a lint roller – stop the fuzz at the source.

Put the lint affected items in the washing machine and add half a cup of baking soda on top.  Pour one cup of white vinegar into the dispenser tray and start a wash cycle. The solution should soften the water and dislodge the lint off the clothes.

It’s also important to regularly empty the lint filter on the tumble dryer too.

Hard water, too much detergent and frequent washing can all contribute to ‘stiff’ clothing. Follow these simple steps to achieve soft and fluffy laundry:

  1. Add half a cup of white wine vinegar to the last rinse in the washing cycle. It will help dissolve the detergent, leaving your clothes fluffy and soft. Don’t worry; the smell will go when the clothes have dried.
  2. Make the most of the dryer if you have one. Throwing the load in the tumble for 10 minutes before you put them on the line will soften up the fibres. Alternatively wait until the clothes are nearly dry on the washing line then spin them in the dryer for 10 minutes after – it will do the same thing.
  3. If you haven’t got a dryer then flex your muscles and give the washing a good shake. It will save energy – the electric kind of course – and give you a workout, too.
  4. Use less detergent. Too much laundry powder can leave residue on your clothes, making them feel a little rigid.
  5. Try soaking the clothes in a bowl of cold water and a quarter of a cup of fabric softener overnight, before washing and rinsing as usual.
  6. Baking soda can help to soften the water and in turn soften your washing. Add a cup of it to the dispenser tray.
  7. Make the most of a windy day and get your washing on the line. The movement and fresh air should help to reduce stiffness.

See our shortlist of the best tumble dryers.

How to wash different clothes

Find out how to wash baby clothes, pillows, underwear, jeans, trainers, Uggs and more. 

 

  • Before doing anything always check the care label for instructions. Some materials won’t withstand the washing machine so should be hand washed. For example, Nike recommends steering clear of the washing machine. Read instructions on how to wash Nike trainers further down.
  • If the shoes can be machine washed then start by brushing off any mud or debris with an old toothbrush and some warm soapy water.
  • Next, remove the laces. You want to make sure the water and detergent can reach the eyelets.
  • Put both the trainers and laces into a mesh bag or old pillowcase and tie the opening so they can’t fall out.
  • Place it in the washing machine along with a couple of towels or throws. These will cushion the drum so the shoes don’t bang around during the cycle and balance the load.
  • Add liquid detergent (powders can stick to the shoes) and start a cold, delicate cycle.
  • When the cycle is finished hang out the trainers to dry. Never tumble dry as the heat can warp the shoes.

Some suggest avoiding machine washing white trainers as it can shorten their lifespan, so if you can get away with it try soaking the shoes in soapy water and rubbing the dirt off with an old toothbrush.

 

How to wash Nike and Converse trainers

Both Nike and Converse clearly state that their trainers should not be washed in the machine or dried in a tumble dryer. Instead you should use a soft cloth or soft-bristled brush that’s been soaked in lukewarm water and mild soap (that’s been tested on the shoes) to clean away any scuffs and stains. Then leave them to air dry.

It depends on the material. Textile shoes made of canvas, cotton, nylon and polyester can be put through the washing machine. But leather, suede, silk and embellished fabrics should be kept well away. Water can damage the material so it’s better to use specialist cleaning products to tidy these up.

Always check the care label on your shoes to find out the best way of cleaning.

It’s also important to note that regardless of the fabric, using the washing machine to clean up your footwear will shorten its lifespan. The heat, water and detergent can sometimes affect the materials and bonding.

No, Ugg clearly states that your Ugg boots should never be machine washed or taken to the dry cleaners. Instead, follow the official instructions taken from the Ugg website.

Keep your jeans looking great for longer by following these tips:

  • Don’t over-wash your jeans. Some hard core jean enthusiasts say you should never wash your jeans (including the Levi’s CEO). Machine washing can cause your jeans to fade and the fabric to weaken. But so can everyday grime, dirt and oils. Sticking to washing every six to 10 wears – or when they’re really dirty – should keep your jeans fresh and in good condition.
  • Turn jeans inside out. It will prevent fading and bleeding on to other items.
  • Use detergent carefully. Opt for a mild detergent and never over-use it. Half the recommended amount should be fine. Using too much will result in a build up on your jeans, making them stiff. While too harsh a detergent can cause the dye to fade. To stop your black jeans from fading you can also buy detergent made for darker clothing.
  • Use a cold-water setting. A low heat cycle will stop your jeans from fading and shrinking. Washing on a cold setting is particularly important when cleaning stretchy jeans.
  • Don’t wring out. Twisting and turning your wet jeans will break down the fibres. Carefully fold over to squeeze out excess water.
  • Never tumble dry. Too much heat can cause fading, shrinking and fabric damage. Instead air dry, preferably out of direct sunlight.
  • Where possible hand wash or spot wash Levi’s, coated and black jeans so you can avoid the machine as much as possible.

See our quick guide on washing machine symbols.

  1. Separate your black clothes from your white and light-coloured garments. Dark dyes can bleed out, staining the rest of the wash.
  2. Turn clothing inside out to avoid fading.
  3. Use a detergent for dark clothes.
  4. Opt for a cool temperature on the washing machine – hot water will cause fading and will make it more likely for the dye to bleed.
  5. Avoid the sun when drying.

It’s best to wash cotton on a cold cycle, with minimum agitation and loaded with similar coloured items.

Although versatile, cotton does have a tendency to shrink so avoid extremely hot temperatures during washing and drying. Using a cold water cycle will also stop the dyes fading or bleeding on to other clothes.  

Don’t overload the machine either. More items, means more friction – and more friction means more damage to the fibres.

Some delicate items made from wool, silk and linen should only be washed by hand. But if that’s not possible, follow these simple tips for machine washing delicate clothing:

  • Read the care label. This will tell you how to wash your garment correctly.
  • Fasten all buttons, zippers and clasps to avoid snagging.  
  • Put your delicate items into a mesh bag before washing – it will help to stop threads catching on the drum.
  • Use mild detergent.
  • Choose the delicate or hand wash cycle on the machine.
  • Opt for the coldest temperature possible.

As with all clothes, check the care label before washing. This will tell you the dos and don’ts for that material.

Next, wash off any heavy soiling before putting it in the machine. You don’t want germs swirling around with other pieces of clothing.

Choose a sensitive, mild detergent and fabric softener suitable for baby skin – preferably non-biological – and set the wash cycle on a temperate of 30 or 40°C. The cycle you pick will depend on the materials you’re washing.

Once the wash has finished you might also want to select a double rinse to make sure all the detergent is removed.

Try to clean the baby’s clothes separately from your own if you’re using different detergent.

Yes. Clothes can pick up dust, dirt and germs in the warehouse, shop and in your home, all of which can irritate your baby’s super-sensitive skin. Wash all items with a mild detergent and dry fully before using. You should continue to wash new clothing before letting your baby wear them, even as they get older.

Washing re-usable nappies can seem like a minefield but it’s actually very simple – just follow these five easy steps:

  1. Flush the solids down the toilet.
  2. Store your soiled nappies in a dry bucket until you’re ready to wash. Never leave dirty nappies for longer than two-three days before cleaning. Don’t pre-soak in water or cleaning agents – it can corrode the nappy fabric.
  3. Pre-rinse using a warm water cycle in your machine. This will get rid of any excess poo and urine. Don’t use a hot temperature; it will only help to set staining.
  4. Add detergent suitable for your baby’s skin and set a long hot wash cycle – preferably 60°C. You need the time and heat to ensure the nappies are fully cleaned.
  5. Dry the nappies by hanging them on the washing line or tumble drying at the recommended temperature (see nappy care label).

Discover the energy saving washing machines that keep washing costs down.

As a general guide you should wash your bra after every two to three wears. However, if you’ve been excessively sweaty then you will want to wash straight away. Bras will pick up oils and germs so don’t leave for too long between cleans.

Always fasten the clasp before washing to stop it catching on other garments and try to use a gentle cycle, too. Too much agitation and the bra will lose its shape quicker.

You can wash nude and white bras together, but keep dark colours separate.

Nikwax is a cleaning and waterproofing treatment that is used to prolong and improve the performance of outdoor clothing, footwear and equipment.

Simply add around 100-150ml of Nikwax into your detergent tray and wash according to the care label of your garment.

Always clean out the detergent tray prior to washing to remove all detergent build-up. This is important because normal detergent can include chemicals that will corrode the water resistance of your clothing.

Have you got a mouldy, grimy, detergent drawer? Watch our video to solve common problems with your washing machine detergent drawer.

Cleaning your glasses cloth, otherwise known as a micro-fibre cloth, is quick and easy:

  • Shake off the dust
  • Wash on a cool cycle with no detergent or softener
  • Try to wash on its own or with other micro-fibre cloths
  • Air dry – avoid the tumble dryer

As long as the care label says you can, then yes. Most cotton and down pillows can be machine washed but it’s always worth taking two minutes to check what the manufacturer recommends.

When you’re ready, take the pillows out of the case and place into the washing machine. Try washing two at a time to balance the load. Then add the detergent and set to the recommended cycle. If there isn’t a care label then go for a warm gentle programme, with an extra rinse to make sure all the detergent is removed.

Either air dry or tumble on a low heat (again, depending on the care instructions). Try not to leave the pillows in a room where it will take too long to dry – this could cause a build-up of mildew.

Note: Do not machine-wash foam pillows. Vacuum the dust off instead, and spot wash any stains or grime.

No – no matter how smelly, dirty or gross your boxing gloves get do not put them in the washing machine or tumble dryer. The heat and water will ruin the leather on the gloves. While the saturation causes mould and mildew to grow during the long drying time.

Prevent smells by wiping down the gloves with a cloth after every use and spraying disinfectant (made for sportswear). Leave the straps open so air can circulate – don’t leave them in a bag between uses.

Nobody tests washing machines as thoroughly as we do at Which?. Every year we wash more than 1,750kg of laundry, so you can be sure that the best washing machines that we recommend will leave your clothes brilliantly clean.

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