The 7-step laundry system everyone should know

Here's your guide to doing your laundry fear-free.

Alina Bradford CNET Contributor
Alina Bradford has been writing how-tos, tech articles and more for almost two decades. She currently writes for CNET's Smart Home Section, MTVNews' tech section and for Live Science's reference section. Follow her on Twitter.
Alina Bradford
6 min read

This is part of CNET's #adulting series of stories to help you figure out how to live, work and play now that you're all grown up. 

"Laundry Fundamentals" isn't a class that's offered in school. Like cooking or personal finance, it's just one of those things you figure out along the way. Problem is, your self-taught methods might be ruining your wardrobe. 

Signs of bad laundry-doing include (but aren't limited to): discoloration, fading, shrinking, a general "meh" look and fabrics losing their softness. If this sounds familiar, don't worry. Laundry is easy to master. You just need a few guidelines to get you on track.

Step 1: Make 3 piles 

Before you go shoving dirty clothes into your machine, take a minute to separate them by color. Darks go together, whites go together and lights go together. Then, each pile gets its own load in the washer. 

Here's why: Keeping your colors separate will keep your whites and lights from getting dingy. Every time you wash a dark item, a little bit of its dye goes floating around in the washer. This dye can settle on other items. It isn't noticeable on other dark items, but if the dye settles on a white or light item, it could change its color. (And, no, bleach doesn't always fix it.)

Step 2: Check the label (don't skip this!)

Always check the labels while you're making piles. Some clothing needs a delicate cycle. Some items can't be washed at all and are dry clean only. Follow these labels or else you may just ruin your favorite shirt or destroy a pair of pants. 

Step 3: Zip, unbutton and clear the pockets

Go through each pile and do a little prep:

  • Zip zippers to protect them during the wash
  • Unbutton buttons to prevent pulling that can damage the button threads or the button holes
  • Check all the pockets

From now on, when you take off an item make sure to zip it, unbutton it and check the pockets before you toss it in the hamper to avoid doing it all at once on laundry day.

Step 4: Load, but don't stuff

Now that you have your loads separated and prepped, it's time to load. Choose which pile you want to wash first, and stick it in.

Now, it's important not to stuff your washer -- this isn't Build-a-Bear. The load needs a little room for water and for swishing your clothes around. Don't pack your clothes in there, make sure they are evenly distributed and leave a gap between your clothes and the door, at least 5 inches.

Next, choose the setting that corresponds with your load size:

  • If your washer is one-quarter full, use the small load option
  • If your washer is one-half full, use the medium load option
  • If your washer is one-half full, choose the large load option
  • If your washer is full, use the extra-large load option

If your washer doesn't have a load size option don't freak out. Some washers have sensors inside that can tell just how full it is and will adjust the water level accordingly.

Step 5: Choosing the right detergent 

When it comes to your detergent, you usually get what you pay for. Cheaper detergents typically don't clean as well as the pricier brands, I've found, but everyone has a favorite. Get small bottles of different brands and try them out until you find one you like. Also, if you have sensitive skin, be sure to look for brands that avoid artificial dyes and perfumes.

How much detergent? 

Well, it depends on the brand. Always read the directions label and use the appropriate amount. Too little can leave your clothing dirty and too much can leave a residue.

What about fabric softeners and bleach?

You've probably seen fabric softeners, which come in liquid and crystal forms. They do what they say -- make your fabrics softer. Softener-treated clothing comes at a price, though. The chemicals (which coat your clothing) are bad news for those with sensitive skin (and anyone who avoids added chemicals, in general.) Also, don't use it if you're doing a load of towels. Fabric softener can leave a residue on towels that will make them less absorbent. 

An all-natural alternative to fabric softener is baking soda. Dissolve 1/2 cup in four cups of water, then pour it in the fabric softener slot. 

If your whites are on the dingy side, bleach (preferably chlorine-free) in the load can brighten them. Make sure to check the label so that you use the right amount.

No matter what detergents you use, add everything to the load right way, rather than pouring them on your clothes. If your washer has slots, use them. Otherwise, your best bet is to add the detergent to the bottom of the drum, fill the drum with a bit of water, then add your clothes. 


Settings look complicated, but you don't need to worry about most of them.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Step 6: Ignore the 'warm' and 'hot' settings

It used to be that you needed a certain temperature of water for different types of loads. Thanks to modern washer technology and detergents formulated to clean clothing well in cold water, you really only need to set your washer to cold and then forget about it, according to Consumer Reports.

The only exception is when you need to kill germs. Towels, bed sheets and cloth baby diapers all fall into the exceptions category. In these cases, choose the hot water or sanitize option on your washer.

Step 7: Consider a longer cycle, then hit start

The soil setting allows you to wash your clothing longer based on how dirty they are. Before starting a load, choose the soil setting based on how dirty you think your clothing is, overall.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Light soil, express or quick options: These settings are for clothes that haven't been worn, that were worn for just a little while or just came out of storage.
  • Normal setting: Use this for clothes with normal wear.
  • Heavy soil, heavy duty or deep wash options: These options are for clothes covered in mud, dirt or other debris. We're talking extra dirty items. You may opt for an extra rinse cycle, too, if your washer has that option.

OK, now that you have your settings set, your load in and the detergent added -- hit the start button.


There isn't a whole bunch of prep for drying. In most cases, you just throw everything from the washer into the dryer, set it to normal heat, set the timer to around 60 minutes for a full load and tap the start button. There are some exceptions, though.

Skip the dryer

Anything that has spandex or elastic, like bras, bathing suits and yoga pants, should be hung up to dry. The heat from the dryer can wear down stretchy materials until they no longer hold their shape. Here is a list of other things you shouldn't put in the dryer.

Blast it dry... or don't

The higher the heat, the faster your clothing dries, right? Well, technically, but if you use a high heat setting on clothing, you could end up with items that are suddenly three sizes too small. High heat settings should only be used on items that need to be sanitized, like towels, cloth diapers and bedding.

Banish static

If you live in an area with low humidity, static cling can be a problem. Tossing some balls of aluminum foil into the load can stop the static problem. A dryer sheet also works. Plus, you can use dryer sheets for a bunch of other things around the house.


Make sure to clean the filter after every load.

Alina Bradford/CNET

Don't forget the lint trap

After each load, don't forget to clean out the lint trap. Keeping it lint-free helps your machine dry more efficiently and prevents dryer fires.

The lint trap can be found right beside the bottom door seal and usually slides out. Just scrape the lint off the screen and push it back into its slot.

OK, that probably seems like a lot to remember. Once you start putting these tips into practice, though, they'll get easier.