When it comes to best practices for washing clothes, there are some traditional rules of thumb. But according to some recent insight from the experts over at Consumer Reports, the rules have changed. 

The importance of water temperature 

With all the different options for detergents and machines available today, many people have forgotten how water temperature impacts the effectiveness of washing clothes.

According to Consumer Reports experts, washing in cold water is a much more effective option than it used to be. Traditionally, detergents required higher water temperatures in order for them to be most effective.

Read more: Three things you should probably clean more often

But that's no longer the case. Detergents are made differently today, in a way that allows them to be more effective at lower temperatures.

Today, “detergents are formulated with enzymes that kick into action even at 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Pat Slaven, a chemical engineer who has worked as a detergent tester for Consumer Reports for 10 years. 

Cold water works just fine

So what does that mean exactly? You can wash your clothes on a cold cycle and the detergent will do its job and clean your clothes just fine. The only exception is for people who live in areas where tap water is typically colder -- places like Maine and Alaska, where tap water can run at temperatures of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you're one of those people, experts says it's better to have a newer machine "that automatically adds some hot water to your cold cycle or your detergent won’t dissolve properly."

Removing stains

If you're trying to remove a stain, cold water is still a better option, according to the experts. Once the water temperature reaches above 75 degrees, detergents becomes less effective, and the heat can actually help stains set into the clothing. Hotter water can also damage some fabrics and colors.

Read more: Why you should never wash dishes by hand

When to use hot water

Cold water will clean dirty clothes just fine, but it won't sanitize them. And sanitizing clothes and other items is necessary in certain situations, for example, if someone in your home is sick -- and potentially contagious -- or if you use reusable diapers.

In order to properly sanitize sheets, clothes and items like cloth diapers, you need to use very, very hot water. Even the warm and hot cycle settings on new washers don't use water that's hot enough.

How to properly sanitize laundry

  • If your washer has a "sanitizing" cycle, that will work. Washers with this setting use a built-in heater to raise the water temperature high enough, and for long enough, to sanitize.
  • Chlorine bleach: This will work, but it can wipe out a fabric's color, so you can't use chlorine bleach on everything. And while non-chlorine bleach won't ruin colors, it will not sanitize.
  • Other options: Consumer Reports experts say you can also sanitize items by placing them in a boiling pot of water or by ironing them.

Final tip

According to Consumer Reports experts, “As long as you’re using a decent detergent and a decent machine, almost anything washed in water at 65 degrees Fahrenheit is fine."

 

Image of Alex Thomas SadlerAbout the author: Alex Thomas Sadler

Alexandra Thomas Sadler is the Managing Editor of Clark.com and Clark Howard Digital Products at Cox Media Group. She graduated from the University of Georgia with bachelor's degrees in French and journalism, and she has a master's degree in business journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Alex is a self-proclaimed cat advocate, red wine enthusiast and loves finding new ways to stretch a buck. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @TheAlexSadler. View More Articles

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