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How to do laundry: a step-by-step guide to fresh, clean clothes

Are your whites looking more like 50 shades of grey? We're here to help with a step-by-step guide to sorting, washing and drying your laundry using Mumsnet users' best tips and tricks.

By Victoria David | Last updated Mar 14, 2023

A picture of a woman wearing a red bandana putting clothes into the washing machine.

Whether researching how to do laundry after moving out for the first time or looking for sage advice to optimise your existing laundry routine, our step-by-step guide has everything you need. From the quickest ways to sort your clothes to how to dry your washing effectively, we want to help you save time, money and energy in your pursuit of a totally empty laundry basket. So, if you’ve ever wondered what the symbols on your clothes labels mean, how to keep your whites white or even which is the best washing machine to buy - you’ll find the answer to how to do laundry here. 

To make sure we're bringing you the very best advice, we drew on the wealth of knowledge from our Mumsnet users to find out their top life hacks, tips and tricks and consolidated them all into this handy guide. After all, laundry and parenting go hand in hand, so who better to listen to than the experienced parents on our Housekeeping Talk board? They’ve seen it all, from lifting ketchup stains to dealing with a baby’s poonamis; they know their stuff.

From whether you really need to invest in a dehumidifier to guidance on choosing the best cycle for your clothes, here's how to do your laundry.

Understanding your washing machine and tumble dryer

A picture of an integrated washing machine.

Unless you happen to prefer washing by hand and have an old scrub tub, the best tumble dryer and washing machine (or a washer-dryer if you prefer an appliance that does both) are essential laundry equipment and taking care of them should be top of your laundry to-do list. 

1. Machinery maintenance and cleaning 

Taking the time to clean your washing machine should happen at least once every three months or more if you know it is used heavily. Over time, detergents, bacteria and debris left in pockets (think used tissues and empty sweet wrappers) accumulate inside the machine leading to horrible smells, mould growth and reduced efficiency. It can even dramatically reduce the lifespan of your washing machine and affect your health if your washing machine is allowed to become a breeding ground for bacteria and other microorganisms. Whilst, in the short term, this might not seem like a priority, if it is left, you’ll begin to notice the signs of a washing machine desperately in need of cleaning, like: 

  • Nasty smells and odours: An unpleasant odour caused by a build of bacteria and mould. Aside from smelling awful, mould can cause respiratory problems and trigger allergies. 
  • Residue: Around the door seal and inside the drum will be a black, slimy residue formed by laundry detergent and fabric softener that hasn’t rinsed away. 
  • Black marks: Due to the residue, mould and even limescale, your clothes will have black spots. 

Scary stuff! However, cleaning and maintaining your washing machine is actually pretty straightforward: 

  • Check the owner’s manual: We’d recommend this step in case your machine has any specific instructions, requirements and recommended cleaning products to avoid accidentally damaging it. 
  • Check if you live in a hard water area: Limescale can leave your laundry stiff and itchy and cause long-lasting damage to your machine. We recommend checking if you live in a hard water area; if you do, you should install the best water softener to combat it. 
  • Wipe it down: Using your standard anti-bacterial spray, wipe down the outside of your washing machine, not forgetting the control panel and knobs to remove any dust, dirt or stains. 
  • Clean the detergent drawer: We don’t blame you for not knowing about this step, but we’re here to tell you the drawer is removable (you may want to consult your manual on how to do this for your model). Pull it out, and using warm soapy water and an old toothbrush or scrub brush, clean away any build-up, not forgetting to clean inside the compartment the draw slots into too. 
  • Clean the filter: Usually found inside a compartment on the outside of your machine will be your filter (again, check your manual to locate it if you aren’t sure). To clean it, you’ll want to lay down a towel as it will release stagnant water (it should stop after a few seconds) and remove the filter. Before putting it back, you can gently clean this using warm soapy water and a scrubbing brush (not forgetting to clean inside its compartment). 
  • Clean inside your machine: Using the best washing machine cleaner (and following the instructions), run a 60-degree cycle. When finished, you may want to use a damp cloth and some anti-bac spray to remove any still visible build-up. 
  • Wipe down the door and seal: Using an anti-bac spray or the best mould remover (if needed), wipe down the inside of the rubber seal and the washing machine door. 

What Mumsnet users say 

“I clean mine every six to eight weeks. I pull out and clean the drawer and clean around the lip inside. Then I stick a third of a bag of soda crystals in the drum and a third of a bottle of white vinegar in the drawer and run a 90-degree wash; when finished, leave the door open for a few hours to air.” GruffaloStick

2. Tumble dryer safety 

Tumble dryers can be a busy parent's best friend but are also dangerous when not cleaned or used correctly. Following advice from Electrical Safety First, you must follow these key maintenance steps and advice: 

  • After every use, you should clean the lint and fluff from the filter. 
  • Regularly look for any indications of scorching, burn marks and any loose or damaged wires. 
  • Have your tumble dryer serviced annually (and your washing machine too). 
  • Never overload, as air needs to be able to circulate the drum. 
  • Don’t leave tumble dryers running overnight or when you're not in the house; switch them off at the plug to avoid electrical faults causing a fire. 

What Mumsnet users say 

“My husband is a firefighter. We NEVER leave the house with any kitchen appliance left on, even if it's just to pop to a neighbour for five minutes. He has seen far too many lovely homes with fairly new tumble dryers etc., have their kitchens ruined and worse. It's just not worth the risk. We have smoke alarms everywhere too! I switch my washing machine off at the wall and pop it back on when I get in, and it carries on where it left off, a pain in the arse but no risk of the house burning down.” littlewish

Fabric care and laundry sorting

A close up picture of clothes on coat hangers.

Sometimes seen as an unnecessary step by those of the 'bung it all in at 30°C' school of thought, many Mumsnet users believe in the power of sorting laundry properly. Here's some advice on how to do it.

3. Fabric care 

It might seem obvious, but not all fabrics are made from the same material and have different care requirements. Knowing how to wash each one to avoid shrinkage, fibre damage, and stretching is critical to a long-lasting wardrobe. So, our number one piece of advice is always to check the labels! Using symbols, they tell you how to wash and dry them and whether or not you can use an iron. Do you find deciphering laundry symbols a bit like trying to read Webdings? Laundrapp has a handy PDF that you can print and stick on top of the washing machine. 

There's also a rough guide here to the appropriate washes for the most common fabric types too, but be sure to check the labels to err on the side of caution: 

  • Cotton: Wash at 30 degrees (cold wash) and separate colours. 
  • Polyester: Fine to wash in warm or cold water, but not on a hot wash. Don't go above 40 degrees. 
  • Silk/lace/wool: Delicate fabrics should be hand washed in cold water or placed in a mesh bag in the washing machine on a cold wash cycle, never above 30 degrees. 
  • Denim: Although it might seem hardy enough, you should wash denim items at 30 degrees.
  • Linen: They’re pretty straightforward to wash; you should put linen items on their own in a warm cycle (40 degrees).  
  • Whites/heavily soiled clothes: You should use a hot wash (60 degrees) to cleanse bacteria and lift stains; just double-check the label before doing so. 

A reminder that this guidance isn’t gospel, always check the label for the most accurate garment information to avoid damage. 

4. Sort, sort and sort again 

Sorting your clothes into piles is a tedious but essential step in your laundry routine to avoid fibre damage leading to shrunken and stretched clothing. Most commonly, they are separated by: 

  • Fabric type: Split your coloured washes by fabric type to avoid damage to your clothes.
  • Colour: Split your washes into darks, brights, pastels and whites, as the last thing you want is one red sock colouring your laundry pink. 
  • Stains: Heavily stained items should always be separated as they may require a hot wash that could cause shrinkage. 

Some experts advise you to sort your clothing piles three times based on these criteria, but we’d suggest that time-strapped parents focus on what is achievable rather than trying to sort perfectly. Many Mumsnet users confess to only separating their delicates or their whites and lights from their darks (and others don’t even bother and are sure it hasn’t made a jot of difference!). Whichever camp you fall into, using the best laundry basket with compartments can be a streamlined solution to prevent laundry accidents and keep your clothes looking great. It also makes the whole task seem more manageable, which you will surely appreciate.

What Mumsnet users say

“I do towels separate as they make the bobbling on clothes worse!” reckoner

“We have a triple [basket] on a frame and a separate wicker one, but you can buy quad ones. One for darks, one for colours, one for whites and one for reds and delicates. They are open bags, which you fill and then remove and carry (full) to the washing machine and empty into there. It means you don’t lose socks or whatever on the way. We keep ours in our bedroom, and everyone’s laundry goes in them, but I’d keep it in the bathroom if I had space. A bag only gets washed when it is full.” WellTidy

Washing your clothes

A picture of a person setting the programmes on a washing machine.

Now you’ve sorted your clothes and optimised your dirty laundry storage, you can start to think about washing your loads. Truly the critical step, this is where you can achieve your ultimate goal of reaching the end of your clothes-related to-do list. 

5. Pre-wash stain removal 

Stains are bound to happen at some point. Whether your toddler liberally spreads tomato pasta sauce down their face and top or you drip coffee on your white work shirt, you’ll need to know how best to lift them, and Mumsnetters have tons of advice like: 

  • If you can, put it straight in the wash as soon as possible, so it doesn’t have time to dry. 
  • Soak clothing or form a detergent paste and leave it to get to work before washing. 
  • Spray white clothing with white vinegar and hang it in the sunshine to brighten and lift yellowing.  
  • Not just for dishes, it turns out that a bit of Fairy (or your chosen brand) is magic on stains – especially grass and grease. Grrreat.

What Mumsnet users say 

“I never remove stains because I never let them set. Straight into the wash and comes out every time. If out with no washing facilities, soaked, straight into a nappy bag, sealed tight, and washed ASAP when home.” BristolMum96

“Use Fairy washing up liquid on it. Wet the affected area and put neat Fairy on it, and press it into the fabric with a cloth. I use an old toothbrush on T-shirts. Then put it in the wash as normal with your usual detergent but put a good squirt of Fairy liquid in the dispenser drawer too. It might take a couple of washes like that, but I find it usually sorts it.” AutisticLegoLover

6. Pick the perfect laundry detergent and fabric softener

Getting the best laundry detergent is crucial to your laundry’s success. Whilst your decision mostly comes down to your personal preferences on scent and its eco-friendly credentials, you should consider the following: 

  • Hard water: If you live in an area that suffers from hard water, it can reduce the efficacy of your laundry detergent, so choosing a suitable one is a must. 
  • Bio vs non-bio: A hot topic on our forums, the key difference between these two types is the presence or absence of biological enzymes. Whilst some claim bio is not kind to sensitive skin and is harsher on clothing (heavily disputed by others), others think that non-bio’s neutral formulas are less effective at cleaning clothing. 
  • Detergent type: Powder, pods, or liquid detergent have their strengths and weaknesses, but Mumsnet users generally argue that powders are kinder to your machine, have tonnes of cleaning power and are more cost-effective. 
  • Family’s laundry needs: Every family is different, so their preferences won’t be the same. For example, a family with a newborn baby might find that a non-bio detergent from our list of the best laundry detergents for babies is right for them, but an eco-conscious family might prefer one with eco-friendly credentials like Smol

Once you’ve decided on and bought your laundry detergent, you’ll want to think about additional products, and whilst buying the best fabric softener is optional, we know that many Mumsnet users love how it makes their clothes feel and smell. Designed to work by coating fibres and reducing static cling, they prevent fibre damage and leave behind a delicious scent. However, a word of caution: fabric softener is unsafe to use on certain fabrics like gym wear, flameproof children’s clothing and water-resistant items because it damages the protective coating and reduces its effectiveness, so we would avoid using it on these items.

What Mumsnet users say 

“I use a matching laundry liquid and softener and some scent beads. My washing always smells amazing.” ObjectionSustained

7. Less is more, so use the correct measurement 

Do your clothes look dull, and your whites, well, not particularly white? You could be using too much detergent. While free pouring may sometimes be the answer (e.g. the bartender making your margarita), it's not the case with laundry detergent and using too much can seriously damage your machine and even stain clothing. Confident as you might be that you know how much to put it, always read the detergent label and measure it out using the cap or a standard measure. If all else fails and you’re still unsure, remembering that old cliche, ‘less is more’ is vital, as even with a little bit of detergent, you’ll still get an effective clean. 

What Mumsnet users say 

“I find most boxes suggest a dosage depending on the hardness of water, size of machine and dirtiness of load. I always use close to the maximum amount because I live in a hard water area, have an 8kg machine and always do full loads. I think I'd gauge if I'm using the correct amount of powder by one: sniffing the armpits of my t-shirts or the toes of my socks after they're washed and dry(!); and two: making sure there isn't a slimy, stiff or unrinsed feel to my clothes when they come out of the machine.” Nextphonewontbesamsung

8. Select your water temperature and cycle 

Whilst this appears self-explanatory, a lot can go wrong if you aren’t mindful with this important step. When selecting, you must carefully consider the optimum temperature, spin RPM and programme for your wash load. Too hot and your clothes will shrink; too cold and stains won’t lift. As a general rule of thumb, remember baby clothes, underwear, bed sheets, and towels are the only items that need a hot wash to eliminate body oils, kill bacteria and remove heavy soiling. For all other fabric types, a cold wash is your safest bet and is the least likely to lead to laundry mishaps. However, nowadays, you don’t have to spend much time guessing, with washers able to recommend settings using their drum sensors, pre-set guidance via their app, or just by picking the setting to match your fabric type. 

9. Final checks 

It may seem obvious, but check, check and check again before starting your wash cycle to avoid nasty surprises. Here are some tips to prevent laundry mishaps from ruining your day: 

  • Check colours are correctly sorted to avoid the dye running and staining your clothes. Alternatively, chuck a colour catcher sheet in for peace of mind. 
  • Tempting as it is, don’t overfill your machine, as putting too many clothes in is counter-productive and can prevent clothes from being cleaned. 
  • Check your pockets for used tissues, spare change and any other small items that can cause damage to your machine.
  • Close zippers, buttons and velcro and turn clothing with embellishments like sequins inside out to prevent snagging scenarios. 
  • If you’re a bung-it-in kind of person, protect your delicate clothing by putting them in wash bags - such as this set of three from Amazon.

What Mumsnet users say 

“I love them [colour catchers] as they save doing small loads and wasting ~ well, everything! P.S, the cheap ones work equally well (Poundland etc.).” GoresHairKnickers

“I do [turn clothes inside out]! Do it out of habit but later found out it can prevent buckles and zips from catching on other clothes, make them last longer, and also then they are ready for ironing (if you iron!).” cheeseandchive

Drying, decreasing and storing

A picture of clothes drying on an airer.

Now your clothes are freshly washed and smelling divine, we need to discuss drying, decreasing and storing away your clothes. Falling at this final hurdle can un-do all the hard work you’ve put into your laundry routine, leaving you with creased outfits, messy drawers and ineffective drying techniques. 

10. Unload your washing machine immediately 

Whether you’ve suffered a momentary bout of forgetfulness or simply put off unloading your laundry from the washing machine, leaving your clothes to ferment can make them smell musty, create more wrinkles and generally add extra time to your laundry routine, rewashing items. So, if you want to save time and effort and have smooth, clean-smelling laundry you’re proud of, do your best to hang clothes up to dry immediately. 

11. Choose your drying method wisely 

Mumsnet users highly recommend three main drying methods. On our forums, their usage and popularity can vary depending on several factors like individual budgets, the seasons, house size and available outdoor space, and each comes with its own individual strengths and weaknesses: 

  • A tumble dryer: If you have the space and the budget, there is no more optimal drying appliance than a tumble dryer. Yes, they’re expensive and less cost-effective regarding your bills - however, they can dry your clothes in as little as an hour, which other options can’t compete with.
  • A heated clothes airer: The best heated clothes airer is perfect for those who can’t afford an astronomical energy bill and don’t have any outdoor space. Compact, easy to store away and low-cost, they’ll speed up your drying routine quicker than a standard airer, and plenty of places now manufacture them, including budget-friendly options. To get the most out of your airer, Mumsnetters recommend throwing a fitted sheet over the top to trap the heat and sticking a dehumidifier close by to absorb excess water to accelerate the process. 
  • A rotary washing line: Mumsnet users wax lyrical about the benefits of sunshine on clothes – or simply outside drying (living in the UK, you can't be picky). Hanging clothes on the best rotary washing line works exceptionally well with tough stains and whites. It's the most eco-friendly and cost-effective drying option, but it's worth noting that if it's particularly sunny (we can only live in hope), the sun's UV rays can cause fading in darker clothes – so it is best to reserve the space for your white bed sheets. 

Once you’ve put your clothes to dry, you might like to try some of our drying tricks and tips: 

  • Set yourself up for success: Pick the sunniest area in your garden and a small room in your home to optimise drying time indoors and outdoors. 
  • Invest in your clothes pegs: You’ll want to buy the best clothes pegs for your rotary washing line, so you don’t walk out to find your knickers have landed in your neighbour’s bushes (just don’t leave pegs outside in wet or cold weather as this can lead to damage and breakages). 
  • Maximise drying space: To make the most of your airer, try hanging tops from the bottom and bottoms from the top, and use octopus peg holders for extra space. 

What Mumsnet users say 

“I wouldn't be without one [a tumble dryer]. The convenience is significant. Just think of your sheets and towels alone. No damp washing hanging around, just in and out, fresh, give it a shake and hang up or fold. That alone is worth the cost to me. If you think it will be expensive, cut back on other things, but to me, it's non-negotiable.” Maireas

“I bloody love mine [heated airer]. I cover it with a king-size sheet and combine it with a dehumidifier, and a load is dry within about five to six hours. I hang the clothes over the bars like a regular airer. I'd only hang towels or knitwear across the bars.” MissisBoote

12. To iron or not to iron 

On our forums, some iron everything, including their socks, and others avoid at all costs. Regardless of which camp you fall into, we’ve got the best Mumsnetter-recommended ironing solutions. 

Traditionally, the best steam iron is every person’s old faithful when it comes to de-wrinkling appliances. They are effective, reliable and widely available in various shapes, sizes and price points. From the expensive steam generator to the basic own-brand models, they’re practical and functional. The downside? They aren’t very travel-appropriate and can be time-consuming, especially if you don’t have many items that need regular ironing. 

As an alternative, many Mumsnet users are embracing the incredibly convenient decreasing power of the clothes steamer. Although they’re not as effective as steam irons (and aren’t meant to be either), these are the perfect option for people who don’t have the time or space (nor inclination) to steam iron. Handheld, compact and easy to use, you can take a clothes steamer with you whilst travelling and use it around your home. They can also be considerably cheaper and don’t require a pesky ironing board! 

However, some Mumsnetters think life is too short for ironing (who can blame them?) but still want to feel the confidence that comes with smooth, well-laundered clothing. Here are some nifty tricks for decreasing without stepping foot near an iron: 

  • Use a crease-releasing spray like Lenor’s Crease-Releaser to get rid of wrinkles. 
  • Hang clothes on a coat hanger to dry to prevent creases ‘drying in’ the fabric. 
  • Hang clothes in the bathroom while you shower, as the combination of gravity and steam can decrease garments.

Although these will never get the same crisp results and smooth lines that a steam iron would, trying them is worth a shot to reduce creases if you don't fancy ironing.

What Mumsnet users say 

“My steamer has changed my life. I detest ironing, and I’m terrible at it, so being able to steam clothes in moments is a dream.” BangingOn

“I haven't ironed since 2013. I just put everything on coat hangers when it comes out of the tumble dryer or off the line. That crease release spray is a revelation as well.” Nat6999