17 Ways You're Washing Your Clothes All Wrong

Don't let these common laundry mistakes ruin your wardrobe—or your appliances.

For most people, tossing a load of laundry in the washing machine is such a standard part of their weekly routine it's practically done on autopilot. After all, how difficult is it really to pour in some detergent and press a button? However, it's the deceptive simplicity of this everyday task that can cause serious problems in the long run—and not just for your clothing, but for your appliances themselves. From the products you use to the way you load your machine, these are the laundry mistakes that mean you're washing your clothing all wrong.

You wash spandex items in the washer.

striped bikini on clothing line outdoors

Think you can safely toss those bike shorts and bathing suits into the washer with the rest of your clothes? Think again.

"It may be a real pain in the neck, but hand washing them in cold water instead will always help them retain their stretch," explains cleaning expert Sean Parry, director of UK-based cleaning company Neat Services. However, if you don't have time to hand wash them, Parry says a delicate or hand wash cycle can do in a pinch.

You don't turn delicate clothing inside out before washing it.

inside out pink and white t-shirt
Shutterstock/Victoria 1

If you want those graphic t-shirts and delicate sweaters to last, it's time to start turning them inside out before you toss them in the washing machine.

"The thousands of rotations in each wash cause friction between the clothes. This friction can cause printed graphics to fade and also cause pilling on certain fabrics such as wool and cashmere," Parry explains. If you turn them inside out, however, this damage becomes imperceptible to others, but your clothes still get clean.

You don't clean your lint trap frequently enough.

white hand holding dryer lint
Shutterstock/David Smart

While some laundry mistakes will leave you with less-than-spotless clothes, this one could lead to major damage to your home.

"Not cleaning this filter can contribute to lint flowing through your dryer and getting clogged in the dryer vent," eventually causing a fire, cautions Paul Berry, franchise owner of Mr. Appliance of San Antonio, who recommends having your dryer vents cleaned professionally at least once a year.

You wash memory foam items.

white hand on memory foam pillow
Shutterstock/Africa Studio

While you should wash most traditional fill pillows from time to time, you're better off spot cleaning your memory foam ones.

"The washing machine can cause memory foam or weaken, or even break into pieces," explains Ron Shimek, president of Mr. Appliance.

You wash embellished items.

embellished sweater

If you want to keep those sequined or rhinestone-adorned items—and your dryer—in tip-top shape, make sure you keep them out of your traditional laundry load.

Any form of plastic or metal embellishment "can get too hot and break off or damage your dryer" when it becomes dislodged, Shimek explains.

You don't check your pockets thoroughly enough.

coins in the pocket of jeans
Shutterstock/Constantine Pankin

You'll need to give those pockets more than just a cursory check if you want to protect your clothes—and your washing machine.

While items like coins can dent the interior of your washer or block a drainage hose, even items you assume would break down in the water can cause some serious annoyance, according to Norma Capin, operations manager at Dallas Maids. For instance, "when we leave tissues and we are washing darks, they come out covered in white fuzz," she says.

You don't clean your washing machine.

woman's hand wiping down inside of washing machine

Just because your washing machine cleans your clothes effectively doesn't mean it's a self-cleaning machine. Some of the residual bacterial from your clothing can stick to the inside of your machine and a dirty washer can leave your clothes smelling anything but fresh.

So, how should you go about cleaning your machine? "Once or twice a year, you need to run the washer on the hottest water setting with a quart of chlorine bleach to kill the bacteria," says Harriet Jones, cleaning supervisor for Go Cleaners London, who recommends following this up with a hot cycle that contains a quart of white vinegar.

You fill your washer to the brim.

Front loading washing machine overloaded with colorful dirty clothes, close up view - Image

Waiting for bigger loads means you can put off laundry day longer, but overstuffing the machine could work against you in the long run. When dirty clothes are jam-packed against each other, they can come out wrinkly and dirty, says Lily Cameron, cleaning professional and supervisor at Fantastic Services.

If you want your clothes to get thoroughly clean, "you should lighten your load because that helps the clothes move around freely," she says. Adding too many clothes to your wash and dry cycles also puts undue wear and tear on your appliances, which can shorten their lifespan, she adds.

You let your clean clothes sit in the washer.

laundry basket

Want to wait until your TV show is over to unload your washing machine? It's tempting, but clean clothes won't stay clean if you let them sit.

"If your clothes are sitting wet in the washer, bacteria and mold are thriving in them," Cameron says. Unless you want to walk around in "clean" clothes that smell like mildew, you'd better get them into the dryer or onto the drying rack pronto. If you have accidentally left your wet clothes in the washer, Cameron recommends putting them through a hot rinse cycle and drying them immediately afterward.

You add fabric softener at the beginning of the wash.

pouring detergent into washing machine

If your washing machine has a specific fabric softener dispenser, feel free to pour the softener in before you start the laundry. But if it doesn't, adding it at the beginning with the laundry detergent will make the softener useless. That's because it will wash away with the rest of the dirty water. "A washing machine has two rinse cycles, and softener should be added in the second one," explains Alberto Navarrete, general manager of Emily's Maids in Dallas.

You buy the wrong detergent for your machine.

white hand putting powder detergent in washing machine

Those warnings about only using high-efficiency (HE) detergents in your HE machine should be heeded—or else. High-efficiency machines use as little water as possible by monitoring the suds levels in the wash, explains Mary Johnson, principal scientist for Tide and Downy. That means that the wrong kind of detergent can cause major problems.

"When an HE machine senses too many suds, it may add an extra rinse, causing 25 minutes to be added to the total cycle time," she says. "You're wasting time, energy, and, ultimately, money." If you're unsure about what kind of machine you have, play it safe and stick with HE detergents—they work in traditional washers, too.

You judge load size by how full the washer is.

white hand adjusting washing machine knob for express laundry cycle

Those little marks on the detergent lid that tell you how much to use can be confusing. Seriously, how big is a "big" load anyway? For a bit of guidance, Johnson recommends looking at the size of your laundry pile before you toss it into the machine, as well as paying attention to how soiled it is.

"Drums in the larger [high-efficiency] machines can hold up to 32 pounds of laundry—that's the equivalent of 30 plush bath towels," she says, noting that what's technically a large load can look positively little once inside the machine. If you underestimate and don't put enough detergent in, even clean-looking clothes could be carrying invisible soil like sweat and dead skin, Johnson says.

You use too much detergent.

Filling detergent in the washing machine dispenser compartment - Image

You can have too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to your detergent. "Adding too much detergent can lead to residue on fabrics, excessive soap in the washer, mold, and possibly even damage to your machine," says Drew Westervelt, founder of Hex Performance. When in doubt, stick to the letter of the law when it comes to detergent, or you might just have to wash those clothes again.

You use fabric softener on workout clothes.

woman going through gym bag full of dirty clothes

If you want those moisture-wicking clothes to be effective, you're better off skipping the fabric softener. "Fabric softeners leave a wax-like film on the fibers," which can block the tiny holes in moisture-wicking clothing that makes it effective, Westervelt explains.

When this happens, instead of the moisture moving away from your body, it stays against you, making you (and your clothes) feel grosser and smell worse.

You put sweaty clothes straight in the hamper.

Dirty clothes in hamper

Ever dig out a gym bag only to realize your sweaty workout clothes have been sitting there for days, getting even smellier? That same thing will happen in your hamper if you pile in clothes that are still sweaty or damp.

"Always let gym clothes and towels air dry before throwing them into a hamper," suggests Johnson.

You keep your shirts buttoned.

white button down shirt hanging up

If you want those button-downs to look pristine for years to come, make sure to unbutton them before you toss them into the washing machine.

"The force produced by the machines can be put directly in the buttons, putting stress on the stitching," Navarrete says. However, if you keep that shirt open, those holes are safe from stretching.

You leave zippers undone.

zipper jeans fly

Leave button-downs open, but do the opposite with zippered clothing—or you could risk serious damage to your machine.

"Zippers get caught in the drums and cause problems," Cameron explains. "If you have a front-loading washing machine, zippers can scratch the glass and may even contribute to the glass panel exploding."

Additional reporting by Sarah Crow.

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