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Solutions to a laundry list of washing dilemmas

Need some help with your dirty work? Lifestyle expert Elizabeth Mayhew shares helpful advice on how to sort laundry, pretreat stains, avoid wrinkles, use proper machine settings and more.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Face it — laundry is a fact of life. But like any household chore, dealing with it can lead to tremendous satisfaction — at least until it builds up again. Getting clothes really clean has less to do with the brand of cleaning agent you use — detergent, whiteners, stain treatments — than it does with following basic washing steps and precautions. Among the most important: sorting, pretreating stains, load size and using proper machine settings. Despite the dread that a huge load of laundry elicits, look on the bright side: Unlike other types of cleaning, the machines do most of the dirty work.

Basic wash and dry
Read: Always read labels and tags on clothing for washing and cleaning instructions.

Sort: Sort dirty clothes into piles of whites, darks and bright colors. If you mix whites with colors, the colors might bleed and permanently tint your whites. Also separate clothes that pill or produce lint, like towels, flannel and chenille. Be particularly careful of red clothing because it is known for losing its color and bleeding into other fabrics. Properly adjust pant legs and shirt arms, separate socks and turn them right-side-out, close zippers and empty all pockets.

And what if a red article of clothing slipped by? The first thing you do when a red piece of clothing turns your whites baby pink is separate the whites and rewash them using one cup of white vinegar or nonchlorine bleach. Whatever you do, don’t put them in the dryer because the heat will set the stain.

Pretreat: Pretreat stains with a stain remover or detergent. Wet stain with cold water, then spray stain remover. The sooner you treat a stain, the better. Let the solution work on the stain for at least 20 minutes.

Add detergent: Add the right amount of detergent, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and take into account the type of machine you have, i.e., a top-loading or HE front-loading machine (HE washers require a specially formulated low-suds detergent because they use significantly less water).

Look for concentrated detergents like Method’s, which are better for the environment: Every year more than 400 million gallons of water are wasted to dilute laundry detergents. More water means more plastic wasted on giant plastic bottles that eventually find their way to landfills.

Set cycle: Choose the correct water temperature for the wash cycle: hot, warm or cold. In general, you want to wash colors and darks in cold water to prevent bleeding, fading and shrinking. You want to use warm or hot water for durable fabrics and whites.

But, you need to know your washer. If you have an older top-loading machine, you will probably want to wash your clothes — no matter the color — on a warm cycle because detergents won’t work in water colder than 65 degrees. However, opting for a cold rinse cycle will save energy. Newer high-efficiency front-loading machines have automatic temperature controls that mix hot and cold water to 70 degrees for the cold setting, so your clothes are sure to get clean.

If you have the option to control the spin cycle of your washer, then choose a slower spin to reduce wrinkles and prolong the life of your clothes. Set your load size, too: small, medium or large. This will determine how much water your machine will use. You need to have enough water so that the washing solution is able to circulate through the clothes to loosen and carry away soil. Newer machines have a built-in sensor that measures the size of a load and then adds just the right amount of water.

Start: It's best to start your washer before you add your clothes so that the detergent has a chance to dissolve in the water. If you are adding bleach, you should let the machine run for a few minutes before doing so and wait until the washer is half full with water before adding clothes.

Load: Don’t overload your washer. Sometimes it’s tempting to stuff as much as possible into the washer, thinking that you are saving time and water, but overfilling is not good for your clothes or your washer. Clothes get clean only when there is enough room for them to agitate during the wash cycle. A full load of laundry depends on the capacity of your machine.

Typically a small-capacity top loader can hold 6 pounds of laundry, a medium-capacity top loader can hold 7-8 pounds and a large-capacity top loader can handle 12-15 pounds. Front-loading machines hold usually as much as 18 pounds of laundry. Also, it is best to mix items of varying sizes because it allows clothing to move more easily in the washer, thus washing and rinsing better.

Dry: Remove clothes from washer and transfer to the dryer. Make sure you remove any items that need to air dry. Also check items for stains. If a stain has not disappeared in washing, then treat the stain again and rewash, but do not dry; dry heat will permanently set a stain. Set the correct drying temperature: low for delicates, medium for most fabrics and high for cotton.

To avoid wrinkles in clothes, choose the permanent-press setting, which has a cool-down time at the end of the cycle (the normal setting stays at one heat setting and stops when the time is up, trapping heat and setting wrinkles). Add an antistatic sheet if you wish. Before starting the dryer, check and clean the lint tray. Do not use fabric softeners or dryer sheets on your towels; they will coat the terry fibers with silicones that will in turn make your towels less absorbent.

Fold: Remove clothes promptly from the dryer; if you smooth and fold clothes while they are still warm you will cut down on the need to iron them.

Washing machinesTraditional washing machines are top-loading agitators; they work by completely submerging clothing in water, then the machine’s agitator moves the laundry back and forth to loosen soil.

Newer HE (high efficiency) washers use a tumbling system instead of an agitator. These machines are more efficient because they use less water. HE machines require special low-sudsing, quick-dispersing detergents. Use of a regular detergent will create too many suds that can interfere with the washer’s ability to remove dirt and stains. Since excess suds are not easily rinsed away, they can also lead to residue buildup.

How to keep whites whiteAlways inspect clothing for stains before washing. Pretreating stains as soon as possible is a must. The longer a stain sits, the greater the chance is that it sets, which not only causes discoloration, but also weakens the fabric. Always wet the stained area with cold water first, then spray it with a stain remover.

Don’t wash whites with colors. The No. 1 cause of dinginess is bleeding from mixing colors with whites. The second main culprit is detergent residue, because it acts like a magnet for dirt. Make sure you add the correct amount of detergent; follow the directions on the back of your detergent bottle. Make sure you follow your machine’s instructions to ensure proper water levels and rinsing.

Use the hottest temperature the fabric can withstand. The hotter the water, the more effective the detergent, but you must check garment labels first.

Always check clothing for stains before drying. Drying a stained area will bake the stain into the fabric. If a stain does not go away after one washing, then treat it and wash it again and again until it’s gone.

Try not to use chlorine bleach. Bleach breaks down optical brighteners (chemicals that are applied to white textiles that keep them looking white) and weakens the fibers. Over time bleach will leave whites looking gray or yellow. Look for detergents that have added optical brighteners; they will replace what is stripped off in washing.

How to keep colors from fading Jeans, colored cotton T-shirts and wools are all infused with water-based dyes that wash away little by little with every wash. Synthetics such as polyester and nylon keep their color better, but more often than not call for dry-cleaning only. To keep your clothes from losing their color in the wash, take the following precautions:

Sort clothes by color group to minimize possible color bleeding and sort clothes by texture and weight to keep coarse fabrics from chafing more delicate ones.

Button all buttons, zip up zippers and turn colored garments inside out before washing.In general wash colors in cold water. Hot water opens up fibers, thereby releasing dyes.

Don’t overstuff the dryer and select shorter drying cycles. Do not overdry — that will only dull colors and weaken the fibers.

Colorfast testClothing labels sometimes claim that the garment is colorfast, which means that the dyes used in the fabric will not run when they are laundered. If a garment reads “dry-clean only,” but you want to see if you can wash it at home, then you need to test the fabric to see if it is colorfast.

To do so, place the edge of the garment’s inner seam or hem on a dry paper towel. Saturate a small area with cold water and press down on the fabric. Check to see if any color bleeds onto the paper towel. If it doesn’t, then the garment can be washed; if it does, then the garment should be dry-cleaned.