How to Separate Laundry

Separating laundry isn't about being fussy or fastidious. It's simply proper maintenance. Clothes last longer and look better if you sort them before washing. Most adults know about sorting laundry by color, usually thanks to an instructive disaster or two. But given the variety of fabrics out there, it also helps to separate different types of fabric and garments so that the tougher, rougher items aren't pummeling the more delicate pieces in the washing machine scrum.

Laundry room with a pile of dirty clothes
credit: mariakraynova/iStock/GettyImages
Washing all clothing together may be quicker, but often leads to problems.

Sorting by Color

The conventional approach to sorting laundry by color includes three loads: dark colors, light colors and whites. This is to prevent dark colors from bleeding into light colors and to allow for the use of chlorine bleach or other brighteners in a white load, if desired. Color sorting also relates to wash temperature: Dark colors do best in cold water, light colors in warm water and whites in hot water.

While these familiar rules still apply, consider a few tweaks to the old system. First, laundry seldom needs hot water to get clean; in most cases, warm water works just as well. And it never makes sense to rinse any laundry in warm water. Cold rinses just as effectively as warm. Second, if you have a lot of black items and jeans, consider adding a blacks (and jeans) load to the color separation spectrum. Pulling out the really dark stuff keeps it free of light-colored lint and prevents the gradual graying of light colors caused by washing them with jeans (which bleed a bit with every wash). You can also wash new dark-colored garments with blacks without fear of darkening the black stuff.

Sorting by Fabric Type

Different fabrics don't always play well together in the washing machine. Heavy, highly textured things like towels can abrade lighter, smoother items like bed sheets, leading to pilling of the smooth stuff. Sturdy clothing, such as jackets and jeans with their chunky zippers and metal rivets, can be hard on most other items. High-tech workout clothes, swimsuits and anything made with Lycra usually come with delicate-care instructions (cold water, no harsh detergents or bleach, line drying, etc.) and should be separated accordingly.

Women's cycling jersey.
credit: Pearl Izumi
High-tech activewear needs delicate care.

This doesn't mean you need a spreadsheet cataloging the fiber components of every item, but it's a good idea to follow a few basic rules:

  • Wash towels in their own load. They won't hurt one another and they can be dried for a long time without damage or risk of excessive shrinkage.
  • Separate workout clothes and other fancy synthetics, or wash these in a hosiery bag in a cold wash with regular laundry.
  • Group sheets and other smooth fabrics, and don't wash them with towels, sweatpants, sweatshirts and other heavy, pilly items.
  • Don't dry really heavy stuff with light or synthetic stuff, to prevent over-drying of the light items.
  • Wash jackets with jeans or similarly durable items.

What to Do With Delicates

If you're not the type who finds hand-washing to be a therapeutic escape, a hosiery wash bag can be your best friend. It's like a protective skin around your finer fabrics, and it keeps clasps, strings and straps from getting wound up and pulled on by the rest of the laundry. A hosiery bag also helps prevent accidental drying of delicates, since the bag is easy to spot when you're transferring the load to the dryer. All of this means that you can wash "washable" delicates with ordinary clothing loads, saving you from many a hand-washing over the years.

Hosiery bag.
credit: Amazon
Hosiery bag.

That said, for anything that's really delicate or has "Hand Wash Only" on the label, wash the item by hand with a mild detergent like Woolite. Don't wring it out, which is hard on the garment. Just ball it up and squeeze it for several seconds. Then, if desired, place it in an empty washing machine and turn on the spin cycle for a minute or two. This won't damage the garment, and it will remove much of the remaining water. Finally, hang it or lay it flat to dry, as appropriate.

Does Detergent Type Matter?

Detergent type can matter in a few different ways. First, if you have a front-loading or high-efficiency top-loading washing machine, use only "HE" (high-efficiency) detergent, which is formulated for low suds. Second, don't use fabric softener or detergents containing fabric softener to wash fire-retardant garments such as baby sleepers or children's pajamas. Fabric softeners have been shown to reduce fire-retardant properties in fabric. Third, you can use color-safe bleach (which usually has "oxy" in the name, standing or "oxygen bleach") on colors, but don't use conventional chlorine bleach on anything but white, natural fabrics such as cotton. Chlorine bleach kills colors and is hard on synthetic fabrics and elastic.

Laundry detergent bottle.
credit: Walmart
Perfume- and dye-free HE laundry detergent.

As for overall detergent performance, you can look at test results from Consumer Reports for specific performance data. But barring that, a good-quality, mild, all-purpose detergent without scent is the best bet for almost any type of ordinary laundry.


Philip Schmidt

Philip Schmidt

Philip Schmidt is author of Install Your Own Solar Panels, The Complete Guide to Treehouses, and 18 other home-related how-to books. A former carpenter, he has been a full-time writer and editor for over two decades, teaching DIYers about houses and everything we do with them.