How to Do Laundry Like a Pro

woman washing clothes in soapy water
Photo: iStock
14 tips for doing the you never let them see you shrink.

1. Take Your Temperatures
First and foremost, follow the item's care label. Generally, the rules are as follows:
Cold is for fine fabrics, items that might shrink, and sensitive dark colors.
Warm is for moderately soiled stuff and man-made fabrics.
Hot is for whites, really dirty clothes, and colorfast items.

2. Keep Whites Bright
When your whites start going gray (or yellow), consider these factors: You might not be using enough detergent to get clothes clean; the water temps might be too low (whites do best in hot water); and you could be contaminating the laundry with really dirty clothes that are making the mildly soiled clothes even dirtier! Make the contaminated load a do-over and try a bleach product that's safe for the fabrics in the wash.

3. Prevent Fading
It's a sad day when your perfect black pants don't look so black and crisp anymore. Turn dark-colored clothes inside out before washing and drying to reduce abrasion and dulling. Also, check the water temperature -- it might be too hot for your richly colored pieces. Check the care label to see what the manufacturer suggests.

4. Prevent Shrinking
Stop blaming your dryer. Most shrinkage happens in the washer when fabric relaxes (usually about 1 to 3 percent). The best way to avoid turning your large into a small is to follow the care label. If it permits machine washing, use a cold water setting and either hang the item to dry or turn the dryer down to its lowest setting. Be careful -- once something has shrunk, you're stuck with it.

5. Avoid Bleeding
Never turn your clothes an icky shade of pink again. To find out if something is colorfast, drop a little water on an inside corner or seam, and see if the dye runs. To be safe, wash it alone the first time and check if the water has turned a different shade.

When a red article of clothing infects the load, there's not much you can do. You can opt to run the load again and add bleach, but the damage is usually permanent. Enjoy your new wardrobe!

6. Do the Delicates
Don't subject your dainty brassieres to the aggressive agitation of the machine (unless there is a special “delicate" cycle, in which case it's best to place them in a mesh lingerie bag to limit tossing that can weaken and pull the fabric). When in doubt, washing by hand is always a safe alternative. To wash delicates, fill the sink with cool water, add a capful of mild detergent such as Forever New, and swish it around with your hand for about 3 to 5 minutes. Allow the bra to soak for an additional 10 minutes and then rinse with cool water. Finish by laying it flat on a white towel. If you're in a hurry, roll it up and lightly squeeze it to extract excess water.

7. Limit the Suds
Less is more when it comes to detergent. Follow the recommendations on the bottle. It might seem like too little, but trust us, your clothes will not get cleaner -- in fact they might get dirtier. Too many suds at one time can actually trap soil, redepositing it on clothes and even in the crevices of the machine (like the space between the basket and tub). Sitting in that warm place all alone, the body soil has nothing better to do than turn mildewy and stink up the washing machine. Didn't listen? Escape from a sudsy overflow by setting the washer to run on a short rinse and spin cycle without detergent.

8. Sort!
You should sort by color, water temp, soil, and sometimes fabric.
Whites: Keep them separate, otherwise dyes from darks could bleed on to them.
Lights: Divide into groups of colorfast pastels, medium colors, and light print pieces.
Darks: Same as lights
Heavily soiled: Separate items or the dirt might transfer to innocent pieces of clothing, making the whites gray and the brights dull.
Fabrics: Use the above rule but if you want to get ambitious, sort by fabrics that might transfer lint, such as towels, flannel, and fleece items. And always check pockets for tissues.

9. Find the Right Detergent
If you like the scent of a country meadow, then choose the brand that fulfills your sensory needs. For function first, read this:
Liquid detergents are good for pretreating stains and removing food.
Powder is nice for general loads (it's also really good at lifting out ground-in dirt).
Ultra versions are concentrated liquids or powders in small packages designed to give you more bang for your buck. Since you need less for each use, they last longer and the packages take up less space.
HE, or high-efficiency detergents, reduce the level of suds and prevent color transfer in high-efficiency machines or machines with low-water modes (those that hold 8 gallons of water as opposed to 12 to 17).

10. Don't Forget to Add the Fabric Softener
Do you want dry, wrinkle-free clothing? Then use a fabric softener either in liquid or sheet form. Nowadays, some detergents add in their own touch of softener. Before you add the liquid to your wash, you'll need to dilute it first before it mixes with the water. Be sure to avoid pouring it directly onto clothes as it might stain. (Some fabric softeners can lessen the effectiveness of flame retardancy on fabrics, sometimes found in clothing like children's sleepwear.)

11. Don't Let Your Laundry Linger
It's best to take the laundry out of the machine right away, but phone calls, nail polish, the game, and crying kids can impede even your best efforts. The longer clothes sit, the more they wrinkle in the dryer or get moldy in the wash. Aside from paying close attention to the time, opt for the automatic cycle versus the timed cycle on the dryer so things don't get overly dry (the auto function senses when the load is dry and shuts off). Also, choose the tumble press or wrinkle guard option. When the cycle ends, the machine will tumble at timed intervals to prevent the setting in of wrinkles.

12. Keep Stains From Setting
Act now! If you pretreat as quickly as possible, you might prevent the stain from becoming a permanent addition. Rinse or soak the garment in cold water, apply a stain remover, and get it to the washer. Don't put the shirt in the dryer if the stain remains or it will set. Instead, pretreat, wash, and repeat.

13. Static Cling Stuck on You?
Not to get technical on you, but that cling is caused by a buildup of electrical charges when clothes rub against each other in the dryer. Drying on too high a setting doesn't help. Use a fabric softener sheet to sedate the sparks and select the lowest temperature setting possible that will still get the job done.

14. Save the Socks
Missing socks are an age-old mystery. Frankly, there is no solid answer on how to keep socks from disappearing. Some experts suggest that socks can get sucked under the agitator and down the drain when the water empties. Others say the missing sock probably never made it to the laundry room in the first place. If you don't pay close attention when you load up the basket (and really, do we have time?), small pieces like single socks can fall and get kicked under the bed, stuck in the hamper, or adopted by the dog as a toy. Keep track of socks by counting them after they come out of the wash and before they find their way into the dryer. We'd never suggest you handle stinky socks more than needed.