You're Probably Washing Your Laundry at the Wrong Temperature—Here's Why

A one-temperature-fits-all approach may not be the best option for your wallet, your clothes, or the environment.

When it comes to doing laundry, most of us simply toss our clothes into the washing machine without giving much thought to the water temperature. However, water temperature can significantly impact the cleanliness and longevity of your clothes. Water temperature can also spell major costs for your budget and the environment. Depending on the type and color of the fabric, choosing the right temperature for your wash can mean the difference between pristine, fresh-smelling clothes and shrunken, worn-out items. So, we asked laundry experts to weigh in on the right temperatures to keep every load of laundry looking and smelling its best. Here's what we found out.


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When to Use Hot Water

There’s a reason your laundry machine has different water temperature options. The best temperature to use when doing laundry can depend on the type of clothing or materials you're washing—and how clean you need them to get. Hot water (130 F or above) is most effective in removing dirt and stains. “We always advise ‘the hottest water possible’ as you keep in mind the different needs of different fabrics," Mary Gagliardi, Clorox's in-house scientist and cleaning expert says. "The higher the temperature, the better the cleaning.”

Hot water works best to remove stains, dirt, and germs for whites, diapers, and heavily soiled clothes, like uniforms or athletic wear. However, it can also cause some fabrics to shrink or fade. If you’re unsure whether a certain item of clothing can be washed in hot water, check the clothing tag for specific washing instructions.

It's also important to note that hot water uses the most energy, so it has the largest negative impact on the environment and your wallet.

When to Use Warm Water

For most other clothing items, warm water (90 F to 110 F) is a safe bet. Warm water can still effectively clean clothes without damaging them, and is suitable for most cotton, linen, and synthetic fabrics.

Warm water can be a good middle ground for most clothes, as it doesn’t result in as much fading or shrinking—but it still provides a good clean. “As temperature increases, thermal energy increases, contributing to improved cleaning,” Gagliardi says.

Still, you’ll want to check the labels on your clothing and measure the detergent to make sure that you’re correctly calibrating for the material, soil level, water temperature, and type of washing machine you own.

When to Use Cold Water

If you’re particularly concerned about the environmental impacts of doing laundry, consider washing more cycles in cold water. Isabel Aagaard, founder of LastObject, says washing your laundry in cold water is the best choice for reducing energy consumption and minimizing your carbon footprint. “Around 90 percent of the energy used to operate a washing machine is consumed by water heating,” she says, so washing in cold water can make a big environmental difference over time. According to the American Cleaning Institute, by washing four out of five loads of laundry in cold water could potentially cut 864 pounds of CO2 emissions in a year, which is equivalent to planting 0.37 acres of U.S. forest.

Cold water (80 F or lower) also prevents colors from bleeding and fabrics from shrinking, Aagaard adds. So, utilize cold cycles for more delicate items, like lingerie or wool fabrics. (Gagliardi notes that wool clothes can permanently shrink if washed in warm or hot water.) Cold water is also the best choice for bright or dark-colored items, to prevent fading. Dark colors may still fade or bleed on the first wash, but they lose the least amount of color in a cold water cycle.

However, there is a disadvantage to washing clothes in colder water. “It’s that [clothes] don’t get very clean," Gagliardi says. Soap or detergent won’t perform as well if the water is below 60 F, so it's not always the best choice for clothing that is stained or particularly dirty.

Cold water also varies seasonally and regionally. “Cold tap water in some parts of the country will be too cold for adequate cleaning,” Gagliardi adds. Though, some newer washers add enough hot water along with the cold to compensate for this, which allows the machine to still properly clean your clothes. But if your clothes aren't getting a proper clean on cold cycles, they could turn dingy over time, Gagliardi warns. If you prefer cold wash cycles, she recommends adding bleach or a color-safe stain remover to improve your laundry detergent performance. 

More to Consider

Laundry experts agree that washing your clothes with cold water makes the greatest environmental and financial impact, but each piece of clothing may have its own care instructions and needs. So, it helps to sort loads of laundry based on similar temperature and material needs, rather than throwing all your dirty clothes into the same load.

If your clothes call for warm or hot water or they need a deeper clean, then you’re not doing yourself any favors by cutting corners on temperature. But, instead of running a full load of laundry on a higher water temperature, consider hand-washing and treating stains on individual items for a gentler clean.

Last, if you need to go with a hot or warm setting, but still want to watch your finances, consider running the wash at night, when utility costs are lower. According to Energy Sage, in most states, energy costs are least expensive between midnight and 6 a.m., so try washing a higher temperature load before bed or first thing in the morning for a more affordable cycle.

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  1. American Cleaning Institute. Cold Water Saves. Accessed April 7, 2023.

  2. Energy Sage. What are off-peak electricity hours? Accessed April 7, 2023.

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