There’s no denying it: Doing laundry is a chore and a bore. Factor in a trip to the dry cleaner's, and it becomes an expensive chore, at that. The tags on our clothes are full of detailed instructions for how we should wash them, which range from “Machine Washable” to the dreaded “Dry Clean Only." But which of the washing instructions on our clothes do we really need to pay attention to? And which laundry rules were just made to be broken?
First, there’s a big difference between the “Dry Clean” and the “Dry Clean Only” tag. According to the Martha Stewart website, you really should pay attention to your “Dry Clean Only” tags. While you might be able to get away with carefully hand-washing some of your “Dry Clean Only” clothes, it's risky: That tag really does designate particularly delicate clothing. But, for the most part, clothing with a “Dry Clean” tag (sans "Only") can be safely washed by hand with a gentle detergent.
As you might know, garment manufacturers are required to include washing instructions on each article of clothing. But they’re only required to list one way to clean a garment. In the case of the “Dry Clean” tag, manufacturers indicate that dry-cleaning is the safest—but not the only effective—way to wash that garment.
For the most part, acetate, velvet, wool, taffeta, and anything with sequins or beading should be dry-cleaned. Cotton, linen, cashmere, polyester, acrylic, and nylon can generally be washed at home. Silk, according to some sources, is a toss up: Light colored silks, or silks with colors that won’t bleed, can generally be washed by hand. Real Simple recommends checking the “colorfastness” of your clothing by moistening a cotton swab with detergent and gently wiping a seam to see if any color comes off.
Now, what about hand-washing versus machine-washing? After all, it’s way easier to just throw your clothes into the washing machine than soak them by hand. Here’s the deal: In general, your washing machine (even on a delicate setting) is harsher on your clothes than a gentle soak. If you have clothing that feels delicate, needs to retain its shape (bras fall into this category), or that you just hope will last a long time without wearing out or losing its color, hand-washing is definitely the safest bet. Your clothing will wear out faster in the washer and dryer.
Obviously, hand-washing all our clothes isn’t feasible for most of us. It’s way more time consuming and labor intensive. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about what can and cannot be machine washed. One trial and error test by a writer at the Daily Mail found that even some so-called “Dry Clean Only” clothes could be machine washed in cold water without damage. How To Clean Stuff recommends testing out clothing on the lowest settings to see what it can handle.
But, as a general rule, putting your washing machine on its highest heat and speed settings is the most likely to shrink or damage your clothing. It’s also the most energy-wasting. There are plenty of cold water detergents that will get clothes just as clean on cold settings. Hot water settings are generally only necessary for especially dirty, durable clothes (think outdoor work clothes and gardening clothes), or clothing you’d like to shrink intentionally (new jeans sometimes fall into this category). Otherwise, colder and gentler settings are the safest and the most environmentally friendly. The same goes for the dryer: Skip the dryer completely for delicate, shrinkable clothes. For everything else, lower settings are safer.
Finally, a few fast and simple takeaways from this whole spiel: If you want to be super safe, just follow the recommendations on your clothing labels and you can’t go wrong. Check out the mental_floss breakdown of all the symbols on your clothing tags if you’d like to be truly fastidious. If you’re willing to take a few risks in the name of saving time and money, colder and slower settings are always safer, especially if you’re not sorting your clothes before washing.