Cleaning up your laundry

Wait… isn’t laundry already clean? Well, maybe.

Americans do a lot of laundry. We go through pounds of clothes and towels every week. And we use a LOT of laundry products: detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, stain remover, bleach. And we use a ton of energy to wash and dry our clothes. And that lint catcher in your dryer? That lint has to come from somewhere….

So what’s the solution? Here are a few easy steps for anyone to take when cleaning up their act in the laundry room.

  1. Ditch the dry cleaning. Or at least do it a lot less often. Wool clothing that is not lined can be washed by hand and laid flat to dry. Linen clothing can be machine washed and even some wools and silks can be washed on the gentle cycle in your washing machine. Always check the label. Labels that say “dry clean,” can usually be hand-washed. Clothing manufacturers often just say “dry clean” because it’s easier than explaining hand washing. “Dry clean only” is generally put on items with more than one fabric (like lined clothes) and while they can sometimes be washed at home, sometimes they need professional help. The best bet is simply just to not dryclean that often. Wool clothing especially and be worn many times without cleaning, especially if it is something like a coat, jacket, or skirt – just air it out. Wool has naturally antibacterial properties. How cool is that? Read more about wool here.
  2. Buy fragrance-free laundry detergent. As Tereneh noted yesterday, “fragrance” is an unregulated ingredient in just about anything and companies don’t have to tell you what’s in it because it’s “proprietary.” And those “proprietary” ingredients? Usually derived from petroleum, and generally carcinogenic, endocrine disrupters, or just skin irritants.
  3. Use less soap. Especially in high-efficiency front-load washers. I use like a tablespoon or two on most loads of laundry and our clothes come out just fine. To test if you’re using too much soap, wash a load of towels without any soap and watch to see if they create suds. If they do, cut back! Too much soap can also lead to smelly front-loaders, so keep the door open when you’re not using them. Not sure how much soap to use? Use the least recommended amount (usually the “1” level on the lid). The smaller the load of laundry, the less soap you should use.
  4. Ditch the fabric softener and dryer sheets. If your clothes are made of natural fibers (cotton, wool, linen) they don’t need much in the way of anti-static products. And anything acrylic, even sweaters, dries much faster than clothing made of natural fibers and can easily be hung up to dry. And that “fresh from the dryer” scent? Yeah, probably actually carcinogenic.
  5. Ditch the bleach. Unless you’ve got a super-bad stain, gentler products like “Oxy-Clean” type products are better for the environment and your clothes. You can also use salt and club soda on fresh stains to spot-treat before washing. Just be sure to blot the salt up from the stain before washing.
  6. Wash with cold water. Most clothes do not get dirty enough from everyday use to justify using hot water and hot water can be harsh on clothes, shrinking or weakening them in the wash. Plus, cold water does not use additional energy like hot or warm water does.
  7. Line dry when it’s sunny out. If you wash clothes in the morning and get them on the line before noon, a sunny breezy day will dry your clothes (even towels) before supper. If the stiffness bugs you, use vinegar in your rinse cycle (see below) or pop the clothes in the dryer with something damp for a minute or two to soften them back up. But if you live in a place with a Housing Authority, beware of clothesline bans.
  8. Use vinegar. Not only does it disinfect and prevent mold (especially good for front-loading high-efficiency washers), it also helps soften clothes and may help whiten whites. Pour it in with the rinse cycle in a top-loader or try putting it in the fabric softener compartment of your front-loader.
Okay, so you’ve tried all that and want to take the next step? Try these ideas to clean up your laundry even more:
  1. Get a high-efficiency, front-loading, Energy Star rated washer. Yes, they are often twice as expensive as top-loaders, but they use 30-50% less energy and half the water of top loaders. Just leave the door open in between washes to prevent mildew-build up (since the door creates an airtight seal).
  2. Line dry all your laundry. Outdoors or in, line or rack drying is better for your clothes and saves energy. And check out this awesome European ceiling dryer! You could also do what I’m going to do and build your own hanging sweater drying rack with some plastic mesh, a staple gun, rope, and some 2×2 pieces of lumber.
  3. Make your own laundry detergent.
  4. Wash your clothes less often. This one is probably scary to most people, but I find this especially useful for jeans/pants, skirts, and sweaters/sweatshirts. If you haven’t spilled anything on them, you can wear jeans and sweaters several times before washing them. Socks and underwear should never be worn more than once (just, ew.) and shirts will depend on how much you sweat and what you’re comfortable with.  Towels can also be reused several times before washing. After all, you’re clean from the shower when you’re drying off, so why make more laundry? Just hang them up properly to dry and you can reuse them the next day.
Readers – got any other ideas for making your laundry cleaner and more eco-friendly?
5 Responses to “Cleaning up your laundry”
  1. Irma Elaine says:

    What great tips! We only have cold water for our washer and our towels never seem to get washed as good as I would like them, and I hate bleach, do you think vinegar will do the trick, how much do you use? I have oxy-clean as well, but I never seem to get results from that either and last time I put the washer on soak, I broke it! I probably loaded it too full or something….This is a great post! Thanks Sarah: )

    • vintagejenta says:

      Hey Miss Ashley! I do occasionally bleach our white towels and dish towels and wash them with hot water, although I hate how the smell stays. I tried vinegar in this latest batch of wash and not only did it not smell like vinegar, it definitely made the clothes softer as they dried on the line! Towels were still a little crispy, but the clothes are still damp, so they’re going to spend a few minutes in the dryer, which should solve the crispy problem. I’m finding that even if the clothes can only dry on the line for a few hours, it still really saves on electricity because they spend way less time in the dryer.

      Yes, I did not add that to the list, but overloading washers is hard on the motor that turns the tumbler. With my front-loader I always make sure that there is at least 6 inches in the top of the drum when loading laundry (also means the clothes can tumble properly). With top loaders you can generally have bigger loads, but they should be balanced, weight-wise. Unbalanced loads can lead to rocking and banging dryers.

      My grandma has had her washer for over 20 years and she swears it’s because she never overloads it.

      Also, as per yummy-smelling, softer clothes in the dryer, I want one of these for Christmas: Apparently you can add essential oils to them for added yummy scents that are non-toxic.

      • V says:

        Another option for de-crispifying line dried clothes besides throwing them in the dryer is to iron them. No need to be fussy since you’re not actually trying to get wrinkles out, just quickly run a warm iron over each item. I’m not positive, but I suspect using the iron for a couple minutes takes less power than starting up the whole dryer. Plus, there’s something kind of amusing about telling people you iron your towels 😉

  2. idiadega says:

    This is awesome awesome Sarah!!!

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