laundry temperature: hot, warm or cold?

Washing machine with clothes filling up with water.

How important is the right laundry temperature? 

It directly affects how well your laundry detergent (and any disinfecting or sanitizing additives) clean, and it also affects the life span of your clothes. 

So it's essential to follow the care labels. Faded care tags, missing tags? No problem.

This laundry refresher will have you setting the wash water temperature like a pro in no time. 

Why the Right Laundry Temperature Matters

Sure, the quickest way to do the laundry is to separate the whites, lights, and darks and then wash each load in cold water.

But the time you save using the "everything in cold" routine (ostensibly to prevent color transfer) may not be worth the cost to your wardrobe.

Cold water doesn't clean some dirty fabrics nearly as well as warmer temperatures. It can leave them looking dingy and worn instead of bright and clean.

And you'll be back in the store looking for new chinos or Oxford shirts sooner than if you had taken a few moments to wash them at the proper water temperature.

Clothes Captioning:  Laundry Labels

Look to the care label on your clothes for guidance on the optimal laundry temperature for the fabric.  

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires manufacturers and importers to attach a label with proper care instructions to garments.

They will be either solely symbols or symbols and words. Clothing care labels tell you all you need to know about how to wash, dry, and iron your favorite dress or work uniform.

Read your clothing care label: it's the secret to successful laundry. After all, we've all heard those stories of ruined silk thought to be washable or that wool sweater that came out of the dryer three sizes too small.

 Here's how to decipher what you see, along with a shortcut chart below.

Washing Method

A clean tub-like icon means safe to machine wash. Hands in the tub? Hand-wash recommended. If the tub is crossed out, the item can't be washed. Circle? Dry-clean. If the circle is crossed out, dry-cleaning is not an option.

Wash Temperature

A tub-like icon with dots tells you the recommended wash temperature. Translate as one dot for cool/cold, two for warm, three for hot.

If the label is not legible, remember that hot water works well on ground-in and hard-to-remove dirt on sturdy fabrics. Still, few clothing care labels recommend regular hot-water washing. Don't mix lights and darks, however, as hotter temperatures can cause some fabrics to bleed. 

Hot Water

Colorfastness Test

How can you tell if an item is 'colorfast'? Do the cotton swab test. Place the inner seam of a shirt or sweater on a paper towel then soak a cotton swab with cold water and press down firmly on the seam. If no color appears on the swab, it's colorfast and safe to wash.

Use hot water to sanitize seriously soiled clothes (gardening or children's clothing) and to regularly disinfect clothes, dish towels, washcloths, bath towels, bedding, and pillowcases.

Generally speaking, whites, very dirty or greasy clothes, and sturdy colorfast fabrics that retain their dye can be washed in hot water (Whites warrant the solo treatment, no matter what the temperature.)

Warm Water

Warm temperature minimizes color fading and wrinkling. A  warm water wash temperature is (90 degrees F.; 32 degrees C). Choose it to wash regular and sturdy fabrics, towels, jeans, cottons, sheets, sturdy playwear, school uniforms, 100 percent handmade fibers, and  moderately soiled stuff.

Cold Water

Use cold water (80 degrees F.; 27 degrees C.) for dark or bright colors that may run or fade; delicate fabrics, including washable silk, swimsuits, activewear; and delicate lingerie. Cold water will minimize the shrinking of washable woolens. It's also okay for lightly soiled clothes. 

Always use cold water for clothes stained with blood, wine, or coffee. Warm water could set these stains. When doing a cold-water wash, check clothes first for visible stains and pretreat with a laundry stain remover before washing.

Laundry detergent doesn't clean heavily soiled areas as well in cold water. If you do lots of cold-water washes, consider using a cold water laundry detergent

Always Chill on the Rinse Cycle

For the rinse cycle, cold water is excellent for all types of loads. A cold-water rinse saves the energy used per load by up to one-third and minimizes wrinkling in synthetic and permanent press fabrics.

Now that you know how to choose the right temperature, wash-day blues are a thing of the past!

Laundry at a Glance

Laundry symbols

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.