A Rookie's Guide to Laundry

Eight laundry-day lessons from a single guy who once washed a leather jacket—before, that is, he got a crash course in CR's lab

Pile of dirty laundry in a laundry basket sitting in a hallway Photo: Getty Images

Time to come clean. With laundry, single guys tend to mix whites and darks, own very few delicates, and think permanent press is a complex NFL defense.

I know it’s a cliche, but I am one of those guys—at least I was, before I got a crash course in Consumer Reports’ laundry lab. You might be, too. A college student, career climber, confirmed bachelor or divorced dad. But whether you’re a pajama lounger like The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” or a high-fashion laundry lunatic like Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho”—or, hopefully, somewhere between these extremes—perhaps I can help you ramp up your game.

Is this guide exclusive to single guys? Of course not. Women can be just as bad at these things, and I won’t presume that marriage suddenly makes a man learn laundry.

It contains information that can help any laundry novice handle the chore with ease. But I’ve witnessed the damage dudes can inflict upon washing machines, dryers, and their clothes. I’ve survived college roommates and mountains of dirty, smelly laundry.

So I’m clearing the air. What might be obvious to some may be revelatory for laundry bunglers too embarrassed to admit they’ve washed a leather jacket. (Don’t do that, by the way.)

Over the past year, I’ve picked the brains of CR’s test engineers, chatted with experts, explored washer and dryer settings, even decrypted appliance manuals. Here are eight lessons I’ve learned along the way, starting all the way back, with the basics.

Lesson 1: Read Your Manuals

I know, I know. Dig ’em out of your junk drawer or search for a PDF online. Every washer and dryer is different, and yours may have features you’re not aware of. Did you know you can control some washers and dryers with your smartphone? Or that you can program some washers to delay the start time so the load starts when the dishwasher finishes its cycle?

Lesson 2: Don’t Blow Up Anything (in Other Words, Operate the Machines Safely)

Some of us imagine casually walking away from explosions like action movie heroes. But in the laundry room, safety rules. Those occasional headlines about exploding washers and dryer fires remind us that these are complex machines. So handle with care, like Mom always did. Here are a few basic tips for safe operation.

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Never load flammable fabrics in your washer or dryer (like paint thinner-splashed pants or an oily rag that wiped down your lawn mower). Air-dry those outside—away from your house, out of the sun, and not in piles. Store dried rags in a metal container and break down the oils with water and detergent before consulting with your town about proper disposal.

Don’t overstuff your washer—this can knock it off-kilter, turning the washtub into a violent zombie stomping across your laundry space. Beyond that, you should know modern washers have built-in safeguards that generally protect us from failing mechanisms, and sometimes, our worst instincts. For instance, some machines will add more water and tumbling if they sense an unbalanced load. If that fails, they will shut down because of an error.

Clean your dryer lint screen after each load and your dryer vent every three to six months, depending on usage. Clogged dryer vents increase drying time, energy use, and at worst, can cause a fire. Avoid flexible aluminum dryer vents where dust, fibers, and lint get trapped in the accordion-like crevices. If your dryer has a clogged vent indicator, keep an eye on it.

Lesson 3: Separate Your Clothes

You’ll be sorry if you wash your new red Air Jordan sweatshirt with your white work polo—unless you like faint pink polos. Mixing colors can bleed dye into other clothes, especially in hot water. And mixing fabrics, like jeans and less durable cottons, causes friction that degrades clothes and releases microfibers into waterways. So take these steps.

Separate clothes by type—cottons, delicates, denims, etc. This is gentler on clothes; it dodges fiber fallout; and it keeps your clothes looking fresher, longer.

Wash darks and whites only with like colors, or the whites will inevitably lose their brightness.

Wash abrasive jeans separately and rarely (only to refresh them). Typically, care labels recommend turning jeans inside out to protect the color and finish.

“I recommend reviewing care labels, especially when you buy something new,” says Rich Handel, CR’s lead test engineer in the laundry lab. “They have tiny print to guide you, but also cool symbols that are easy to follow once you decode them.”

Lesson 4: Don't Overdo It When Loading the Washer

Shoving 10 towels into a washer just prevents fabrics from circulating during the wash—especially with top-load agitator washers (those center-post machines that scrape our knuckles while loading). An overloaded washer cleans poorly and usually leaves excess residue on your clothes, which can cause itchiness or rashes, especially if you have allergies or sensitive skin.

Generally speaking, leave room for your clothes to swish around for better cleaning. “The clothes need some room to move around to allow the water/detergent solution to circulate and then the water to rinse away the detergent,” Handel says.

Large-capacity washers (4.5 cubic feet or more) can handle your oversized comforters. High-efficiency models (HE) and front-loaders are generally bigger (up to 5.8 cubic feet), with more than enough space to effectively wash bulky towels or multiple pairs of jeans. If you have an oversized load that doesn’t fit in your machine, consider a trip to the laundromat.

Lesson 5: Pour Only a Shot of Detergent

Today, most laundry detergents are concentrated—thick, like a pint of Guinness. So go light. Excessive detergent becomes a hangover pollutant that doesn’t go down well, for your clothes, your wallet, or Mother Earth.

“People tend to overdose detergent,” says test engineer Rico de Paz, who led CR’s laundry detergent testing for four years. “That’s environmentally irresponsible because the extra detergent is being dispersed into water systems. It also wastes money because you’ll end up buying additional detergent unnecessarily.” 

 Here’s what de Paz recommends:

Strictly use the recommended dosage, which is typically 1½ ounces for a normal load. Use twice as much for large loads or very soiled clothing. But never eyeball it. Ignore the faint lines of the detergent bottle measuring cup. Instead, raid your cocktail cabinet for an extra shot glass or jigger to measure and pour the correct amount of detergent into your washing machine dispenser. A full shot glass is about 1½ ounces.

Never use the washer dispenser’s detergent level indicator, because it represents the maximum amount of detergent the washer can handle (too much!). In other words, do not throw away your shots.

Pretreat those olive oil splatters on your shirts with a dab of detergent before washing. Inspect before drying because dryer heat can set stains like a greasy bull’s-eye if they aren’t fully removed.

Lesson 6: Don't Get Into Hot Water

Unless, that is, you need to. Hot water kills germs, cold water is eco-friendly, and warm water is a safe choice. Temperature settings should be dictated by the type of fabrics and colors you’re loading.

Hot water is typically recommended (but rarely necessary) for heavily soiled clothes like whites, washcloths, towels, and even sweaty workout clothes. Hot water ranges from 120 to 140° F—that’s hotter than Death Valley in August.

Warm water is a go-to temperature for washing colored clothes, no matter the fabric type. It’s ideal for natural fibers like cotton and denim because it reduces shrinking, wrinkling, and fading.

You may have seen Tide’s “Cold Callers” commercials promoting cold water use via rapper-actor Ice-T and retired pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Cold water is popular because it uses minimal heat to clean lightly soiled clothes. (That saves on energy.) Clothes take longer to clean, but cold water also keeps your bright-colored clothes from running, fading, and shrinking, including wool fabrics.

Lesson 7: Take the Cycles for a Spin

Modern washers offer up to 14 settings—far more than most of us need (like TV channels). But explore beyond the default Normal cycle for more efficient cleaning. Here’s a rough breakdown of when to use four typical cycles.

Regular/normal cycle: Recommended for soiled whites, socks, underwear, and towels, this setting agitates clothes faster and uses more heat than gentler options.

Permanent press: This casual setting mildly agitates in lower temperatures, and injects cool water before spinning to prevent creases and wrinkles. It works best for clothes that are often dry-cleaned—colored clothing, slacks, button-down shirts, etc.

Delicate cycle: Delicate puts less stress on fabrics—like wool sweaters or the bright orange dashiki that collects dust in my closet—using cold water and light agitation while washing at 65 to 70° F, preserving our fashion relics for many years.

Soak cycle: If you’re a Tough Mudder competitor, this cycle might wipe the slate clean. Soak is a prewash setting that loosens dirt or grime before the main wash. It’s ideal for guys who take showers after work, not before—mechanics, farmers, construction workers, etc. This includes recreational weekend warriors and athletes who sweat for a living.

Lesson 8: Dry Right

Dryer settings are simpler than washer settings. Here’s a quick tour.

Automatic dry is an energy-efficient option (compared with timed drying)—it automatically shuts off when sensors detect all clothes are dry.

Regular/heavy dry is the fastest and hottest setting, ideal for heavier fabrics and bath towels.

Delicate dry relies on lower heat, so drying time is longer for those delicate items.

Permanent Press dry works well for business-casual types (just like the wash cycle) and uses medium heat.

“Fluff air” doesn’t really dry at all. Sans heat, it draws in room temperature air to freshen up stiff, delicate, or shrinkable fabrics like linen pants, down coats, drapes, and pillows. It’s also useful for technical fabrics like wicking sportswear or soft-shell jackets that would be damaged by a heat setting.

I wouldn’t want you to ruin your coolest jacket because of a foolish laundry mistake. Take it from me—the guy who once washed his leather jacket.


BW Headshot of Consumer Reports author Keith Flamer

Keith Flamer

As a kid in Delaware, I lived a few blocks from Bob Marley, who once said, "It is better to live on the house top than to live in a house full of confusion." At CR, I'm psyched to help readers navigate this cluttered, hyper-commercialized world we live in. I've covered luxury real estate, interior design, and culture—reporting on everything from smart home technology to racial hypocrisy at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate. Since the pandemic started, I cherish simplicity, covering accessible topics like decorating, cooking, and cleaning. Give me a smoothie blender over a mansion any day. Blenders are slightly easier to clean.