Clothing Care

Not To Start a Fight, But This Is the Correct Water Temperature for Your Washing Machine

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: Getty Images / Ridofranz
Not unlike loading the dishwasher, washing machine temperature is a controversial topic. Some people exclusively use cold water. Others swear by hot temperatures for the grimiest loads of laundry. But there’s an art to choosing the right washing machine temperature, and it greatly impacts the longevity of your clothes.

“I love to use all of my different temperature settings,” says Katie Jennings, manager of consumer technical insights at Seventh Generation. To know when to keep it cool and when to turn up the heat, Jennings says to pay attention to the care instructions, the level of soil, and how much you care about an item.

But before those items even touch your washing machine, Jennings says to try to get a decent number of wears out of it. “For the environment, it is better to not wash your clothes until they are really dirty,” she says. “So obviously your kids’ clothes are really dirty, but if you’re just sitting at your office and you haven’t really spilled anything, probably that pant and shirt combo has life left in it.”

Cold water

While there is a time and place for warmer settings, Jennings says that you’ll want to use cold water for most of your loads. “Cold water helps protect, especially, your colors,” she says. “It’s gentler, it’s much better for the environment. And most detergents are formulated to be equally efficacious in cold water.”

Note: Two items that should always be washed on cold are your delicates and your denim.

“Any sort of delicates or lingerie, all of that should be done in a cool or cold setting,” she says. When it comes to denim, wash it sparingly, inside out, and on cool “absolutely all the time, because you want to maintain that color.” Jennings says to choose a delicate cycle so the drum of your machine isn’t spinning too fast. “I tend to do lower spins on things that I really care about.” Lastly, you should only air dry your denim.

Although you may be tempted to wash your sweaty leggings and sports bras on hot, Jennings says that’s a big no-no for items with spandex. “Those are better on the cooler settings. They’ll maintain their elasticity over time,” she says. If you’re noticing odor, she says it’s better to double rinse them with cooler water than to rinse once with warmer water.

Warm to hot water

For bright whites, Jennings says hot water is your friend as long as the fabric can withstand it. “Hot water will help if your whites are a little dingy,” she says. “It can be used with cotton, or if you have a particularly tough set of stains, but it is more trying on your fabric type. Warm-to-hot water is also great for stain removal, say if you get eat barbecue in a white T-shirt.

If you have a sanitize function on your washer, that’ll provide super hot water that’s great for germ and dirt removal.

“The sanitize function is really fascinating, especially given our time. There’s this particular group of washing machines on the market and the [National Science Foundation], which is a third-party accreditor, and they have validated the sanitize function to actually correlate with germ removal. And so you wouldn’t want to do that on every load of laundry, but say your kid is in school and you wanted to sanitize their clothing at the end of the day, or the bedding and linens I send to daycare, I often use the sanitize feature because my daughter’s been napping on them all week. And then with just the hot water temperature, you get some germ removal. You don’t need any special additives or whatnot.”

Be mindful of care instructions

And no matter what the circumstances are, always pay attention to your manufacturer’s care instructions and keep that in mind when wearing your clothes. Even if you get super sweaty and smelly while wearing a linen dress, chances are the sanitize function will shrink that item. Cold water is often enough to get your clothes clean and anything warmer brings an added bonus.

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