Washers and dryers — and how they work — can vary a lot, but knowing a few general rules can help !

Mastering the Settings

There are three functions — cycle length, cycle speed and water temperature — that can help you better understand washer settings and the effect they have on your launderables. Note, though, that on some machines these functions are separate of one another, allowing for greater control and customization of your wash, while in other machines cycle length, speed and water temperature settings are linked.

The cycle length (sometimes just called "timer") is how long the machine will clean your clothes. Use shorter cycles for less soiled and delicate clothing, and longer cycles for heavily soiled and bulky items. Always opt for the shortest possible cycle to get the job done; the less time garments spend being spun around in the wash, the longer they'll last.

The cycle speed refers to the speed and force at which clothes are agitated in the wash and spin cycles. Cycle speeds are sometimes expressed using terms like "regular," "permanent press" or "delicate." Those roughly translate to:  "fast/fast," "fast/slow," or "slow/slow."A regular cycle in which both the wash cycle, when water and detergent are introduced into the drum, and the spin cycle, which extrudes water from the clothes post-rinsing, are fast. This is the right choice for bulky items.Permanent press is a fast/slow cycle, meaning that the wash cycle is fast and the spin cycle is slow, making it a good choice for fabrics that are prone to wrinkling, as the slower spin cycle reduces wrinkles. This is the right choice for the majority of your laundry.The delicate cycle is a slow/slow cycle, and the one that should be used for fine or delicate fabrics, or items with embellishments.

Then there's water temperature. When it comes to selecting the right water temperature for a load of laundry, keep these three things in mind:

Because of advances in detergent formulation and washing machine design, virtually all laundry can now be washed using cold water. Cold water offers two benefits: It conserves energy, which can save you money, and it is less taxing on textiles, so it can extend the lifespan of everything from your favorite jeans to those expensive sheets you splurged on.It can still be helpful to know the outmoded rules of laundry water temperature selection: Cold water for darks, hot water for whites and heavily soiled items, like diapers. Hot water will have a fading effect over time, which is why cold water was historically recommended for darks and bright colors. (Older detergent formulas didn't dissolve as well in cold water, which was why hot water was suggested for white and light-colored laundry.) Hot water also can offer extra cleaning power, and therefore was considered ideal for especially dirty laundry, including items like pillowcases that have been slept on by a sick person. When in doubt, use cold water.

But maybe you've been using hot water on your whites for as long as you've done laundry, and old habits die hard. Or perhaps you're still worried about germs and bacteria surviving in the cold? By all means, continue to use hot water!  If washing towels in hot water makes you feel better even though they'll come out just as clean even using cold water, go for it. (For the record, the heat from the dryer will take care of the germs.) That's exactly what I do, despite knowing it's just a psychological comfort rather than a fact-based decision. Laundry is personal, and we needn't all make the same choices or have the same feelings.

Mastering the Dryer Settings

You're probably guilty of over-drying your laundry. This can result in fading, shrinking, fraying or worse. But if you can break that habit, your clothing will thank you by lasting longer. 

But don’t internalize that dryer guilt: The problem with over-drying rests with the way dryer settings are labeled, rather than with your laundry skills. So go on and blame the machine. Then  review this breakdown of what the most common dryer settings actually mean so you can make better and more informed dryer choices, setting labels be damned.

Regular: The highest heat setting, best used only for heavy items like jeans, sweatshirts and towels. "Regular" is a terrible term for this setting, as it really shouldn't be used on the regular. 

Permanent press: The medium-heat setting, with a cool-down period at the end designed to reduce wrinkling. This is the one you want for most of your clothes and for your sheets.

Delicate: The low-heat setting, which is sometimes obviously labeled "low-heat dry." Use it for items containing Spandex or other forms of elastic, as well as for delicate cottons and shrink-prone materials like wools and linen. Low-heat drying is also great for garments that tend to retain smells even after washing, like yoga pants or sweat-wicking shirts.

Tumble dry: The no-heat setting, which is sometimes called "no heat" or "air dry." It can be used in place of the delicate setting for fine textiles or items that are prone to shrinking, or for clothing with embellishments that may melt or warp due to exposure to heat.

Air and line drying: A great choice for deodorizing and brightening whites, keeping gym clothes odor-free, making clothes last longer, and cutting back on energy usage and cost.