Laundry seems simple: detergent, water, spin, dry. But then there are those laundry mysteries - and we're not talking missing socks. Here's what you must know about what's going on in your washer.
How many detergents do I really need?
Your regular all-in-one detergent will clean your clothes - but specialty detergents keep those clothes in better shape for longer. Do you really need a detergent for every color and fabric in your wardrobe? Some specialty detergents are worth adding to your laundry-room shelf. Here's why:
WOOL/CASHMERE DETERGENT: When it comes to your cashmere, skip the dry cleaner! Hand-washing wool and cashmere delicates maintains the soft, feel. Dry-cleaning chemicals, on the other hand, break down the yarn in wool and cashmere and strip the fabric of its natural oils (plus, the process is pricier than hand-washing!). Try The Laundress Wool & Cashmere shampoo - the formula is more like a hair shampoo than a laundry detergent, which means it effectively targets sweat and preserves the yarn. Plus, here's how to get rid of sweater pills (really!).
DELICATES DETERGENT: Enzymes can damage fine silks or wool - so these enzyme-free detergents are safe for your delicates but ineffective at removing stains (if you spill something on your silk blouse, take it to the dry cleaner).
BABY DETERGENT: Scientists have developed enzymes that attack and dissolve protein-based stains (like milk and formula) - you'll find this formulation in newer baby detergents, like Mrs. Meyer's and The Laundress baby detergents. Plus, it might help you prevent these common rashes.
DARK-WASH DETERGENT: New color-guard enzymes keep white fuzz, or lint (which is created when clothes rub against each other in the washer), from collecting on your clothes and making them look sort of gray. Tip: To keep those sexy jeans extra dark (and still soft), add fabric softener to the wash and then line-dry.
WHITES DETERGENT: These contain a small amount of chlorine bleach, oxygen bleach, or bleach alternative (like optical brighteners that give fabrics a bluish tint so they appear whiter).
HIGH-EFFICIENCY DETERGENT: These detergents are low sudsing for front-loading machines (which use less water), because excess suds can redeposit dirt and oil onto clothes. Plus, suds can build up in your washer and lead to unpleasant odors.
What makes a detergent "green"?
You can't really check the label for this answer since laundry detergents aren't regulated by a government agency that requires them to list ingredients. But for the most part, if a detergent claims to be green, it's because of the following criteria: It contains biodegradable, plant-derived soaps; it's dye free (dyes can sometimes irritate skin more than fragrance); it uses a bleach alternative instead of chlorine bleach. Look for green detergent brands like Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day, Sun & Earth, and Arm & Hammer Essentials, which are available at grocery and specialty chains for about the same price as premium mass brands. Get more easy tips to make the green leap.
Can I use fabric softener with everything?
Nope. Skip fabric softener when washing towels, athletic wear, and baby clothes. Most liquid fabric softeners use tallow, an animal fat by-product, as a softening agent, while green brands use plant-derived soybean or vegetable oils - either way, the greasy base will interfere with absorbency and flame retardance of the items mentioned above. On everything else, go ahead and use it! Softener leaves clothes feeling soft and fluffy and makes ironing easier, as it cancels out the static charge on the fabric's surface. But whether you prefer liquid or dryer sheets, use a softener only every few washes - when used every time, it can build up and cause a dingy appearance, according to Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook. Plus, here's how to fix a laundry flub!
When should I use a laundry booster?
Laundry boosters are formulated to work with your detergent to tackle stains. Use them for stain-filled loads and as a time-saver if you want to skip the pretreat step on stained clothes. A few boosters do have other cool uses: OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover powder and OxiClean Triple Power StainFighter liquid help your colors look vibrant longer by neutralizing the color-fading chlorine often found in water. "In a swatch test, clothing that was washed in water lost more color than the clothing washed in OxiClean after eight washes," says clothing-care expert Steve Boorstein. What's your laundry personality?
SORT YOUR LAUNDRY!
Fuzzy sweats, chenille robes, flannels, and new towels share their lint with other garments during washing, making for a fuzzy mess. Wash them in a load by themselves, says the Soap and Detergent Association.
HARD WATER VS. SOFT WATER
If your detergent's not performing well, check the hardness of your water. Detergents work better in softer water. 20 Mule Team Borax softens the water, which allows for better soil removal.
When treated incorrectly, stains like wine and soda do come back. A dab of water may make it look like they've disappeared, but the sugar in the stain oxidizes in the air and eventually turns yellow or brown, according to the Soap and Detergent Association. Treat it right the first time.
And for those of you just hate laundry: How to get away with wearing dirty clothes all week!
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.