How to Choose the Best Laundry Temperature for Your Clothes

Water Temperature Guide
 Hot Water Warm Water Cold Water
Whites Light colors Dark or bright colors
Items that need stain removal Cotton Delicates
Heavily soiled clothing Linen Wool
Diapers Nylon/Spandex Lingerie
Athletic wear Polyester
Towels and linens Rayon

When to Use Hot Water

There’s a reason your laundry machine has different water temperature options. The best temperature to use when doing laundry can depend on the type of clothing or materials you’re washing—and how clean you need them to get. Hot water (130 F or above) is most effective in removing dirt and stains. “We always advise ‘the hottest water possible’ as you keep in mind the different needs of different fabrics,” says cleaning expert Mary Gagliardi. “The higher the temperature, the better the cleaning.”

Hot water works best to remove stains, dirt, and germs for whites, diapers, and heavily soiled clothes, like uniforms or athletic wear. However, it can also cause some fabrics to shrink or fade. If you’re unsure whether a certain item of clothing can be washed in hot water, check the clothing tag for specific washing instructions.

It’s also important to note that hot water uses the most energy, so it has the largest negative impact on the environment and your wallet.

When to Use Warm Water

For most other clothing items, warm water (90 F to 110 F) is a safe bet. Warm water can still effectively clean clothes without damaging them, and is suitable for most cotton, linen, and synthetic fabrics.

Warm water can be a good middle ground for most clothes, as it doesn’t result in as much fading or shrinking—but it still provides a good clean. “As temperature increases, thermal energy increases, contributing to improved cleaning,” Gagliardi says.

Still, you’ll want to check the labels on your clothing and measure the detergent to make sure that you’re correctly calibrating for the material, soil level, water temperature, and type of washing machine you own.

When to Use Cold Water

If you’re particularly concerned about the environmental impacts of doing laundry, consider washing more cycles in cold water. Isabel Aagaard, founder of LastObject, says washing your laundry in cold water is the best choice for reducing energy consumption and minimizing your carbon footprint. “Around 90 percent of the energy used to operate a washing machine is consumed by water heating,” she says, so washing in cold water can make a big environmental difference over time.

According to the American Cleaning Institute, washing four out of five loads of laundry in cold water could potentially cut 864 pounds of CO2 emissions in a year, which is equivalent to planting 0.37 acres of U.S. forest.

Cold water (80 F or lower) also prevents colors from bleeding and fabrics from shrinking, Aagaard adds. So, utilize cold cycles for more delicate items, like lingerie or wool fabrics. (Gagliardi notes that wool clothes can permanently shrink if washed in warm or hot water.) Cold water is also the best choice for bright or dark-colored items, to prevent fading. Dark colors may still fade or bleed on the first wash, but they lose the least amount of color in a cold water cycle.

However, there is a disadvantage to washing clothes in colder water. “It’s that [clothes] don’t get very clean,” Gagliardi says. Soap or detergent won’t perform as well if the water is below 60 F, so it’s not always the best choice for clothing that is stained or particularly dirty.

Cold water also varies seasonally and regionally. “Cold tap water in some parts of the country will be too cold for adequate cleaning,” Gagliardi adds. However, some newer washers add enough hot water along with the cold to compensate for this, which allows the machine to still properly clean your clothes. But if your clothes aren’t getting a proper clean on cold cycles, they could turn dingy over time, Gagliardi warns. If you prefer cold wash cycles, she recommends adding bleach or a color-safe stain remover to improve your laundry detergent performance. 

Some washers have a specific setting for the rinse cycle, which you can set to cold and leave it. Cold water rinses away soap effectively, is safe for all fabrics and colors, and can even reduce wrinkling in some fabrics. Using a cold water rinse will reduce your energy usage slightly as well.

Tips for Choosing the Best Water Temperature

If you still need to figure out what water temperature to use on your clothing, here are a few more tips for determining your laundry temperature.

  1. Your laundry detergent matters. Cheaper detergents work best in warm or hot water, but they tend not to fully clean clothes in cold water because they lack the appropriate ingredients. Choose a heavy-duty detergent to get the best outcomes with cold water.
  2. Don’t overlook the importance of reading your garment care labels. These labels provide specific instructions on water temperature and cycle settings. By following the manufacturer’s recommendations, you can significantly extend your clothing’s lifespan and prevent any potential damage.
  3. Consider your fabric type. Different types of fabric have different temperature needs. While warm water works for many fabrics, some more delicate fibers require colder water.
  4. Sort your laundry loads. When sorting your laundry, you should think about the type of fabric, the colors of your clothing, and the soil levels. Washing similar fabrics together on the appropriate cycle will help preserve the color, control the lint levels, and remove dirt most effectively.
  5. Pre-treat stains. Washing clothing without pre-treating stains can help the stains set, which can ruin your clothing. Make sure you treat stains first, then wash at the temperature recommended by the manufacturer.
  6. When in doubt, go cold. If you’ve followed all the tips listed and are still trying to figure out what temperature is right, opt for cold. Cold water is less likely to cause color fading, bleeding, damage, or shrinking to your clothing. If using cold water doesn’t adequately clean the clothes, then you can make adjustments.

How to Check the Temperature of Your Wash Water

Though cold, warm, and hot are universally used to describe laundry settings, temperatures vary based on the outdoor temperature or the specific washing machine. As a reminder, on cold, the water should be between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, warm should be 90 to 100 degrees, and hot should be 130 or higher. Water below 60 degrees is too cold for most detergents and won’t clean your clothing well enough.

A kitchen thermometer is your best bet for testing the temperature of your wash water. Grab a meat or candy thermometer and a cup, and head to your washer. When it’s full, stop the cycle and scoop out some water with the cup, then use the kitchen thermometer to test the temperature. You can also just stick the thermometer straight into the wash water. Either way, you’ll get an accurate read and can adjust from there if necessary.

More to Consider

Laundry experts agree that washing your clothes with cold water makes the greatest environmental and financial impact, but each piece of clothing may have its own care instructions and needs. So, it helps to sort loads of laundry based on similar temperature and material needs, rather than throwing all your dirty clothes into the same load.

If your clothes call for warm or hot water or they need a deeper clean, then you’re not doing yourself any favors by cutting corners on temperature. But, instead of running a full load of laundry on a higher water temperature, consider hand-washing and treating stains on individual items for a gentler clean.

Last, if you need to go with a hot or warm setting, but still want to watch your finances, consider running the wash at night, when utility costs are lower. According to Energy Sage, in most states, energy costs are least expensive between midnight and 6 a.m., so try washing a higher temperature load before bed or first thing in the morning for a more affordable cycle.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What laundry temperature is best for sheets and towels?

    The best laundry temperature for sheets and towels is hot. Sheets and towels absorb a lot of soil and oils from the body, which need warmer water to dissolve them. For sheets used while someone is sick, washing them with hot water is exceptionally important to kill all bacteria or viruses. For sheets where the manufacturer’s instructions designate warm water washing (such as bamboo or microfiber), make sure you use heavy-duty detergent so they get fully clean. 

  • What stains should never be washed in hot water?

    Avoid using hot water to wash any protein-based, sticky, or water-based stains, as it can cook the stain into your fabric. Protein-based stains include foods, blood, and vomit; sticky stains are substances like toothpaste, glue, or sticker residue; and water-based stains are things like water-based paint and urine. Always use cold water to avoid setting the stain on your clothes for these types of stains. 

  • What laundry temperature is best for oil-based stains?

    You should use hot water when dealing with oil-based stains. Hot water emulsifies oils, which can help to lift the stain out of fabric. Some examples of oil-based stains include sweat, butter, and, of course, cooking oil. But always make sure you check your clothing’s tags first to make sure you don’t ruin your fabric in the process of trying to lift a stain. If you can’t use hot water, use the warmest water allowable on the manufacturer’s label to lift oil stains.

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