Pros reveal where we can cut corners and which laundry rules you really shouldn't break.

By Kate Rockwood
Updated April 01, 2019
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Credit: Christopher Griffith

At first blush, learning how to do laundry is a simple task—throw in the clothes, add the detergent, press the button—but after accidentally shrinking a sweater or ruining a few t-shirts with stubborn sweat stains, you quickly learn it's more complicated than it seems. And if you start to question all of the laundry wisdom your parents taught you years ago, you may begin to wonder, Do I really need to sort my laundry? Is cramming the dryer really so bad? To figure out where we can cut corners and which laundry rules we really shouldn't break, we reached out to cleaning pros to help sort out some of the toughest laundry quandaries. Whether you're wondering if you can hand-wash that dry-clean-only dress or want to rescue a set of dingy-looking white linens, the pros have the solution. And if you suddenly realize you've been doing your laundry wrong the whole time? Don't worry—it will all come out in the wash.

Do I really need to sort my laundry?

“In a word, yes. If you throw white T-shirts, lingerie, jeans, and towels into the same load, you could wind up with dye transfer, lint, pilling, and even snags and holes. Sorting laundry really isn’t so hard, especially if you presort with separate hampers or a hamper with divided sections. Designate one hamper or section for whites, one for dark colors, one for light colors, and one for dry-clean-only items. Then, when you’re ready to wash, sort those color piles by fabric type, so you’re washing heavy jeans or lint-producing bath towels separately from blouses, dress slacks, and underwear. This lets you use the correct water temperature and keep drying times simple, instead of frying your T-shirts in order to get your towels dry. Finally, anything that’s heavily soiled—especially with ground-in dirt or an oily stain—should be washed separately, to prevent odors or dirt from transferring.”

Mary Marlowe Leverette, laundry and housekeeping expert

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Sweat stains are destroying my T-shirts. Help!

“Preventing that stain-causing buildup—which is a mix of body sweat and deodorant chemicals—is a great place to start. To do that, pretreat the armpit area of your T-shirts with liquid laundry detergent or an enzyme-based stain remover every time you wash them, even if you can’t see a stain. Use the hottest recommended water setting—that will clean more effectively and strip out more of the buildup than cold water. If the sweat stains are on a white T-shirt, try putting the shirt in a dish pan and pouring boiling water through each armpit area to loosen the buildup. Then saturate the stains with a mixture of equal parts baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and water. Rinse, and then toss the shirt into the wash with bleach. Use color-safe bleach if the shirt contains spandex, or you risk yellowing the fibers. Also, sweat stains are really individualized, based on how much you sweat and which deodorant you use. It might be worth experimenting with different deodorants—particularly ones without aluminum, which can contribute to discoloration.”

Mary Gagliardi, a.k.a. Dr. Laundry, cleaning expert at The Clorox Company

How much can I cram into my dryer before I have to worry that I’m hurting it?

“If you’re cramming clothes in, you may already be hurting it. Overloading is one of the most common reasons dryers break down, because it can strain the machine’s pulley or drum belt or overheat the motor. When the drum is too full, the clothes can’t circulate and dry properly. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule for capacity, since a big load of jeans will weigh significantly more than a load of blouses and underwear. But in general, you should fill the dryer no more than two-thirds of the way. Closer to halfway is even better, if you’re drying heavy fabrics.”

Kayla Becker, Best Buy in-home adviser in Minneapolis

Can I hand-wash clothes labeled “dry-clean-only”?

“In general, the proper thing to do is to follow the garment’s care label, because the manufacturer has tested what’s best for the item. Also, it depends on the fabric. Velvet, leather, and silk cannot withstand the roughness of the washing machine and don’t do well in water. Nylon, polyester, and spandex hold up well to delicate cycles or handwashing, in water slightly above room temperature. You can also find in-dryer kits, like Dryel, that help freshen a wide variety of ‘dry-clean-only’ garments. They eliminate odors, including perspiration and stale tobacco smells, and can help get rid of wrinkles and even light stains. That’s ideal if you don’t have time to get to the dry cleaner or simply want to extend the time between visits.”

Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communications at The American Cleaning Institute in Washington, D.C.

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I’m using a high-efficiency washer but only have regular detergent on hand. Is it a big deal to just use what I have?

“High-efficiency machines use dramatically less water, so if you use a standard detergent, you’re going to struggle with soap residue on your clothes and in the lines of the machine. You might need four or five rinse cycles to get rid of all the suds. If you only have regular detergent, your best bet is to use less than a quarter of the amount you would in a non-HE machine.”

Shirley Hood, appliance expert at Abt, a national online retailer of electronics and appliances

My white linens always seem to end up looking dingy. What am I doing wrong?

“Over time, whites become dingy from redeposited soil, missed stains, and dye transfer from other garments. Washing whites separately will help. You should also opt for hot water, which works better to remove grime and body oils, and make sure you’re not overloading the machine. If the linens are packed too tightly, the loosened soil will reattach to the fibers rather than getting flushed away. Finally, pick a detergent that contains optical brighteners, like OxiClean or Nellie’s Oxygen Brightener. These products bend UV light waves to showcase blue light and reduce the amount of yellow light your eyes see, making the fabrics appear much whiter. When you move whites to the dryer, skip the fabric-softener sheets and pick the lowest heat setting. Too much heat can cause any stains or residual soil to yellow.”

Mary Marlowe Leverette

I shrunk my favorite shirt! Can it be saved?

“Did you notice the size difference after pulling it from the washer or the dryer? Dryer shrinkage is much harder to reverse. But if the item is still wet, try gently stretching it and laying it flat to dry. How successful you are will depend a lot on the material. Cotton is particularly forgiving, and polyester is pretty promising. Wool, in general, is not reversible.”

Mary Gagliardi

Tools of the Trade

Distilled White Vinegar
This multipurpose household staple can be used to soften fabrics, reduce body odor on clothes, and even clean the washing machine, says Leverette. Add one cup to the rinse cycle of every load.

Lint Roller
Use one to remove as much pet hair from clothing as possible before tossing the item into the wash. If you don’t, the wet fur could stick to the side of the washer drum or even clog drain pumps, says Kimberly Janeway, home and appliance reporter at Consumer Reports.

Color-Safe Bleach
High-efficiency machines bounce garments through the washing solution rather than submerging them like a traditional top loader does, so Gagliardi suggests pretreating stains with this detergent booster to ensure your garments emerge as clean and vibrant as possible.

Drying Rack
Install a hanging rack or clothing rod in the laundry room to air-dry delicate fabrics or finish drying still-damp garments, says Hood.

Appliance Pedestals
Create extra storage in a small laundry room or raise front loaders to a more comfortable height by placing them on pedestal drawers, says Hood. Use them to stash laundry necessities and keep the space tidy.