Washing machines have evolved to a point where you can toss in your laundry, add some unspecified amount of detergent, hit start, and generally expect to get clean clothes out of the deal. But if you want your clothing to look its best and last as long as possible—that is, without fading prematurely or pilling like some thrift-shop fleece pullover—there are best practices you might want to follow.

That's right: We're going to tell you how to do your laundry. And you'll thank us for it. Because in addition to preserving your wardrobe and linens, our expert advice on how to do your laundry will extend the life of your washer, and probably even lower your energy bills. 

Step 1: Sort It Out

You know to separate lights and darks, and you’ve probably also learned (the hard way?) that red fabrics are notorious bleeders of load-ruining dye, especially on their first wash. Just as important, however, is to sort by fabric type. Items that shed lint, like towels and sweatshirts, should be washed separately from smooth fabrics that pill, like sheets and dress shirts. That's because pilling is typically caused when materials with short, weak, fuzzy fibers, such as towels and sweatshirts, rub against fabrics with long, strong fibers, like sheets.

We also recommend washing jeans inside out to prevent streaky lines (Listen up, Bon Jovi). Always zip up zippers—on jeans or any other garment—lest the exposed teeth snag other garments. And heavily soiled items, such as funky dishrags or the kids' mud-covered soccer uniforms, should be washed alone.

Step 2: Pretreat Stains

Time is of the essence with any stain. Our testers see good results with pretreatment products such as Shout and Resolve. Liquid detergent applied directly to the stain will often do the trick, too. Partial to powder detergent? Mix it with water to form a paste and gently rub it into the stain.

Soaking is another effective strategy for removing stains. Most washers have a soak cycle, or you can fill the tub manually if you have a top loader. To treat tough underarm stains, try soaking shirts in OxiClean. (Check out the Samsung Activewash feature, a built-in sink in some of that brand's washing machines.)

Step 3: Add the Right Detergent

About 60 points separate the top picks in our laundry detergent tests from the worst performer. That tells you just how much it matters what detergent you use in your laundry. It’s also important to follow dosage instructions. In addition to being a waste of money, using too much detergent can leave residue in your clothes, and oversudsing is not great for your washing machine, either.

High-efficiency top- and front-loaders in our washer ratings dispense detergent automatically (check your manual for specific instructions). If you have a conventional top-loader with an agitator, it’s best to fill the tub with water first, then add the detergent, and finally the laundry. This allows the detergent’s cleaning agents to be released at the right time. If you’re using bleach, which is best reserved for white cottons, including sheets and undershirts, add it a few minutes after the washer starts agitating.  

Step 4: Don’t Overstuff the Washer

Given the longer wash times of high-efficiency machines, it might be tempting to cram all your laundry into the washer at once. But steps 1 through 3 won't be much help if you overstuff the washer. Conventional top-loaders hold 6 to 16 pounds of laundry; high-­efficiency top- and front-loaders hold 20 pounds or more. See the manual or manufacturer's site for recommendations for your model.

Step 5: Choose the Proper Setting

For most laundry loads, the normal wash cycle is best. But if you haven’t experimented with cold-water washing, give it a shot. Many detergents have been reformulated to work better at lower temperatures, so we think you’ll be happy with the results. And since you'll no longer be paying for the energy needed to heat the water, the drop in your energy costs will be an added bonus.    

How to Wash Your Clothes Like a Scientist

Want to protect your favorites clothes from fading and shrinking in the laundry? On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, Consumer Reports' Chief Scientific Officer James Dickerson reveals tips for prolonging the life of your wardrobe.