White folded towels, for a story on keeping white laundry white.

Doing laundry is so routine that it's only when it goes wrong that you give it much thought. White T-shirts gone gray and streaks of detergent crisscrossing clothes fresh out of the dryer are two wash woes mentioned in user reviews for washing machines.

Compared with agitator top-loaders, the front-loaders and high-efficiency (HE) top-loaders that Consumer Reports has tested typically clean better while using less water. These machines work differently, too, and that plus the water efficiency means you have to use them differently. 

Consumer Reports' laundry pros offer the following advice.

Problem: White Laundry Turns Gray

Soil from dirty clothes transferring to other items in the washer is usually the culprit, along with not using enough detergent.

The fix: Even though new washers have much larger capacities, sorting laundry is still a must. Wash whites separately, and wash very dirty items with other messy things. Instead of dumping a basket of clothes into the machine, add a few items at a time, to reduce tangling.

"Load the washer, but don’t pack it," says Rico de Paz, the engineer who oversees our tests of laundry detergents. "This will allow all the items to tumble freely in the water, giving the soil the best potential to disperse into the water."

Most detergents contain agents that help keep soil from redepositing on other clothes, so it’s important to use the amount recommended on the container. 


If you're shopping for a new washing machine, check our washer buying guide. Then see our ratings of front- and top-loaders, and use the filters to help narrow your options.
 

MORE ON LAUNDRY

If graying is still a problem, use a detergent with bleaching components, say our laundry experts. Tide HE Plus Bleach Alternative is impressive among our tests of dozens of laundry detergents.

Or try a mild oxidizing agent in powder form, such as OxiClean. It’s milder than chlorine bleach and you can use it for most whites, including cottons and cotton blends.

And don't forget the sun's bleaching power. Use it to whiten sheets and clothes by line-drying these items.

Open washer with a pile of dingy white laundry.

Problem: Detergent Streaks or Clumps

Streaks jump out on dark clothes but the reason they occur can affect white clothes too, even though the streaks might not be as noticeable. Using too much detergent or water that’s too cold is the probable cause. Detergent typically doesn't dissolve well in very cold water and can leave streaks, and powders can clump and leave patches of powder on clothes. 

The fix: Measure the detergent—no winging it. Mark the fill line on the detergent cap or cup that comes with the powder detergent with a Sharpie to make it easier to get it right.

The detergent’s enzymes start to work when the water is at least 60° F. Most cold tap water is around 60° F to 75° F, but it may be around 40° F in colder regions in northern states and Canada. Automatic temperature control can help. This washer feature adjusts the water to the optimal temperature for the selected setting.

"If the incoming water is too cold the washer will add some hot water to raise the temperature to an appropriate level," says Richard Handel, who oversees Consumer Reports' tests of laundry appliances. All full-size front-loaders and most top-loaders we tested have this feature. Even some compact washers do. Click the Features & Specs tab in our washing machine ratings to find out which models have this useful feature.