How to wash clothes in a washing machine

Laundry in the drum of a washing machine
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Knowing how to wash clothes in a washing machine may seem pretty basic, but there are some instructions you should follow depending on what you’re cleaning. When it comes to delicate fabrics, heavily soiled items, or dark colors, throwing everything together in the same load could risk damaging your clothes and ruining much-loved items.  

Tools & requirements

- Washing machine 

- Laundry detergent

- Fabric softener (optional) 

- Stain remover

- Mesh bags for delicate items

- Measuring cup (if needed)

It’s also important to know the correct way to load your washing machine, select the right detergent, and choose the best cycle and washing temperature. It can save you money on your energy bills, ensure your laundry is hygienically clean, and keep your clothes looking and feeling new for longer. The best washing machines can help with energy efficiency, but washing clothes properly according to fabric instructions helps remove dirt, bacteria, and sweat that can degrade fibers over time.

Our step-by-step guide will help you save time, money, and effort while extending the life of your wardrobe. It's an essential domestic skill that gives you convenience and control over your laundry habits. 

Quick steps: How to wash clothes in a washing machine

  1. Sort your laundry
  2. Check pockets
  3. Pre-treat any stains
  4. Load the washing machine
  5. Add detergent and fabric softener
  6. Choose the water temperature and washing cycle
  7. Start the machine
  8. Remove and dry the clothes

Step by step guide: How to wash clothes in a washing machine

1. Sort your laundry

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Keep your clothes and other household items, such as towels, looking great by sorting them into different piles for washing, depending on the following criteria:

  • Whites: Include white items like undershirts and socks.
  • Lights: Group light-colored items together.
  • Darks: Sort dark items like black, navy, brown, and red.
  • Delicates: Separate fragile items that need gentle washing, such as silks, lace, fine knits, and delicate underwear (pop these into mesh bags first to avoid tearing or damage).
  • Denim: Wash sturdy jeans and denim jackets separately from other clothes.
  • Towels/linens: Wash towels, sheets, and other linens together.
  • Heavy soils: Separate extremely dirty items like gardening clothes.
  • Colors that bleed: Group brightly colored items or brand-new clothes you’re not sure about.

Properly sorting laundry takes a bit more time upfront but helps your clothes last longer and look their best in the long run. Once you’ve sorted your laundry loads, you’re ready to wash!

2. Check pockets

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Before placing your clothes into the washing machine, check all pockets where small items may be hiding. You’d be surprised at what can end up in pockets - loose change, crumpled receipts, forgotten grocery lists, old tissues or pens, and more. 

Coins, keys, and other hard objects can bang around violently during the washing cycles, creating fabric holes or rips. Tissues left in pockets will disintegrate into a mess of paper fibers that can clog drains and jam internal components. Pens will leak ink everywhere, ruining an entire load of laundry with indelible stains. 

Washing clothes with items still in the pockets can damage your laundry and the washing machine itself, so this step is vital to ensuring a longer life for both.

3. Pre-treat any stains

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Check your clothes thoroughly for any stains, especially whites and lighter-colored fabrics.

If you have any stubborn stains, apply a stain remover or a bit of detergent directly to the stained area and rub it in gently. Let it sit for a few minutes before adding the stained item to the wash.

You can also purchase stain-removing treatments to add to your detergent. These can help to break down stubborn stains during the wash itself. There are also many natural ingredients that can help break down stains, such as baking soda, white vinegar, salt, and lemon juice. Make sure you choose the right ingredient for your stain, though!

4. Load the washing machine

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Open the washing machine door or lid and place your sorted clothes inside. Be careful not to overload the machine. Leave enough space so that your laundry can agitate and move around. An overloaded machine won't clean clothes properly, and an underloaded machine can waste energy and detergent.

Your washer will come with a weight guide on how much laundry it can take, but it’s not easy to weigh your laundry! As a good rule of thumb, try to leave three to four inches of space at the top of the drum. 

5. Add detergent and fabric softener

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Measure the right amount of detergent based on your laundry load and the detergent's instructions. Most washing machines have a detergent drawer or compartment where you can pour the detergent. Or you can pop detergent pods or powder directly into the drum.

You may also want to add a fabric softener, especially if you’re washing towels or stiff denims. 

6. Choose the water temperature and washing cycle

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This is where it gets tricky. Many washers offer specific cycles with pre-set temperatures, such as delicates, whites, heavily soiled items, or wools. If yours doesn't, here are some general tips:

  • Hot water (usually 130°F or 54°C): For whites and heavily soiled items.
  • Warm water (around 90°F or 32°C): For most colored clothes and lightly soiled items.
  • Cold water (around 70°F or 21°C): For delicate items, dark colors, and energy savings.

Next, select a wash cycle for your laundry. Most washers offer whites, normal, delicate, and heavy-duty cycles, while others may even give you the option of sportswear or towels. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the specific machine you're using.

7. Start the machine

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Close your washing machine’s lid or door and start the cycle. Some machines have additional options like pre-soak, extra rinse, or a delayed start, so again, follow your specific washer’s instructions. 

8. Remove and dry the clothes

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Wait until your washer’s cycle has finished and the door or lid has unlocked. Trying to force it open before it unlocks runs the risk of flooding your laundry room and can break your machine.

Remove your laundry and, depending on how you want to dry your items, pop them in your dryer or on a drying rack. Give them a good shake to smooth out any wrinkles or creases. Hang delicate items to air dry or use a low temperature in your dryer.

How to wash clothes in a washing machine: FAQs

How to remove stains from clothes in a washing machine

The sooner you treat a stain, the better your chances are of removing it completely. Here’s a quick guide to removing stains and stubborn marks from clothes: 

  • Don’t leave that stain to sit! This can make it more stubborn. As soon as you notice a stain, get to work on removing it.  
  • If you can identify the stain - that’s a good start. Different stains require different removal techniques and different temperatures. For example, oil-based stains need hot water to shift them, while blood stains should be sponged with cold water before washing.  
  • Pre-treat: Use the right treatment for your stain before washing. You can buy lots of stain-removing solutions for different types of stains or use a natural alternative. For example, baking soda is great for sweat stains, while salt can help to remove red wine stains. Whatever you use, let it sit on the stain for a few minutes before bundling your item into the washer. 
  • Always check the garment’s care instructions: Check the clothing care label before treating the stain to ensure that the stain removal method and the temperature you plan to use in the washing machine are safe for the fabric. 
  • Adjust washer temperature: Hot water is best for stubborn stains, oil, or grease marks; otherwise, warm water can manage most other stains. If your fabrics are delicate, don’t be tempted to go for hot - you could do more harm than good! 
  • Use a heavily soiled cycle: If your washer has a pre-soak or heavy-duty cycle to tackle stubborn stains, use it. 
  • Check the stain after washing: If the stain persists, repeat the removal process, wash it again, then dry the garment outside in direct sunlight, as this can help to fade certain stains. Don’t pop stained garments in the dryer, as this can set the stain.  

How do washing machines work?

Washing machines use a combination of water, detergent, agitation, spinning, and rinsing to lift dirt and refresh your laundry. Although the basic mechanics are pretty simple, they’re very effective. Here’s a simple overview of how washing machines work: 

  • Water enters the washing machine through inlet valves, mixes with the detergent, and fills the inner drum of the washer to the correct level for the washing cycle you’ve chosen.  
  • Your clothes are moved around inside the washing machine - this is called agitation. The washer uses an agitator or an impeller to move them around inside the drum. This movement, the water, and the detergent all help to loosen dirt and break down stains.  
  • Once the washing cycle is finished, the drum spins to push out water, detergent, and residue. The washer then pumps out the dirty water through the drain hose.   
  • The drum fills up again with fresh, clean water, while the drum itself spins and tumbles clothes to remove traces of detegent.   
  • A final high-speed spin extracts any excess moisture from clothes so they are ready for the dryer.  

How to clean a washing machine

It’s common for washing machines to develop unpleasant odors and musty smells after prolonged use. When the inner drum is not properly cleaned and maintained, residues of dirt, bacteria, mold, mildew, and soap scum can build up over time. 

If you begin to notice even a faint foul or damp smell coming from your washer, it means the time has come for a thorough cleaning of the drum. 

Start by running an empty sanitizing cycle using either bleach or a commercial washing machine cleaner to kill bacteria and break up residue. Then, follow our guide to cleaning the drum of a washing machine thoroughly. 

Don’t forget to remove the detergent drawer and rinse it out with hot, soapy water to remove any build-up of detergent or fabric softener. You may need an old toothbrush to get into any tight spots. 

You can also run an empty cycle with a washing machine cleaner every month or use your machine’s self-cleaning cycle if it has one.

Final thoughts

Sorting laundry by color, fabric, and soil level before washing is a key step to keeping your clothes looking great for longer. Pre-treating stains, checking pockets, loading the machine correctly, and using the right detergent amount and wash cycle are also vital. 

Regular washing machine cleaning prevents odor and residue buildup. You can do this monthly or whenever you notice damp or unpleasant odors coming from your washing machine.

Following these proper techniques will help keep your clothes clean, undamaged, and in great condition for years to come.

Joanne Lewsley
Customer Advisor, Vacuums, Cleaning and Air Quality

Joanne Lewsley is a UK-based freelance writer and editor, covering health and lifestyle news and features. She creates evidence-based health and parenting content and has worked with some of the world’s best-known brands and websites, including BabyCentre UK and Medical News Today. 

You can read more of Joanne's work and get in touch via her website: