How to Separate Laundry for the Cleanest and Brightest Clothes

So long, accidentally pink tees! Follow this simple method for how to separate laundry, and your clothes will come out of the wash the same colour you put them in.

We’ve all experienced that laundry nightmare where we discover that our favourite white T-shirt is now pink, thanks to the red sock that got mixed in the wash. That’s why it’s so important to know how to separate laundry before tossing it in the machine.

“Sorting your laundry helps minimize abrasion and colour transfer,” says Patric Richardson, star of HGTV’s The Laundry Guy and author of Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore. “It helps to make clothes last longer. Putting all colours in together will shorten the life of your clothes, and they won’t stay looking fresh and new.”

Before sorting, read clothing labels to make sure you’re grouping together items that have the same needs. If you see the laundry symbols for “hand wash” or “dry clean only,” don’t put the item in the machine, even with the best laundry detergent. Although you can fix many laundry mistakes—here’s how to unshrink clothes, for instance—it’s better to avoid them in the first place. Keep reading to find out how to separate laundry for the best results.

How to separate laundry by colour

All right: You’ve read your clothing labels, so you know how to wash silk, towels, and just about any other fabric that crosses your path. You’ve set aside anything that needs extra care and are faced with a mountain of machine-washables. It’s time to sort.

Forget the lights and darks. Richardson has a unique and more effective system for how to separate laundry colours. He separates items into four colour piles:

  • White clothes
  • Dark clothes
  • Cool-coloured clothes (blues, greens, purples)
  • Warm-coloured clothes (reds, yellows, browns, oranges)

“These groups are based on the weight of dyes, which are abrasive in the wash,” he explains. You don’t want your cool-coloured clothes, which are heavier because they have more dye in them, to bleed on the lighter, warm-coloured ones.

Can’t decide if that red-and-blue-striped shirt is red or blue? “The real trick to sorting is to trust your best judgment,” says Richardson. “Look at it, and instinctively you will know. Don’t overthink it.”

How to group laundry

Some people like to separate their laundry by category—say, sheets, towels, denim, and delicate clothes. Others sort by the amount of dirt and grime. And many make another pile for clothes they plan to dry clean at home.

According to Richardson, this is unnecessary for most items. “I do not sort any laundry based on the specific item, and I put delicate clothes in mesh bags in with their respective colour category,” he says. “I even toss my black satin sheets in with my black jeans.”

Aside from the extra time it takes, there’s no downside to separating laundry by fabric type. But heed this laundry day tip: Further separate each clothing category into the four colour groups, Richardson says.

How to separate laundry by fabric type

The only exception to sorting by colour rather than fabric type, according to Richardson, is activewear. This includes items made of spandex, polypropylene, and other high-tech fabrics typically found in workout wear. Because these fabrics are made to absorb sweat and dry quickly, they tend to hold in oil and bacteria and require an enzyme-powered detergent to wash them out. That means they should go in their own load. Consider your exercise clothes a separate fifth pile.

Here’s where reading clothes labels comes in handy again. They’ll tell you which fabrics make up a clothing item so you can launder the right way. “Reading labels allows you to know the fabric content in case you need to use a special cleaner,” says Richardson. “Once you understand the nature of fabrics, you can do laundry freely.” (This detergent trick will completely change your laundry day!)

How to wash your separated laundry

Richardson recommends waiting to do laundry until you have a full load—or at least enough items (five or six) for a small load. This keeps the clothes from tumbling too much and doesn’t waste water or electricity.

Right about now, you’re probably wondering what temperature to wash clothes. You may be surprised to learn that Richardson doesn’t buy into the idea of washing white clothes in hot water and dark clothes in cold. He’s adamant that the water temperature and washing cycle should remain standard, no matter which kind of laundry you’re doing. “It should always be warm water, cold rinse, express cycle,” he says. “No variations.”

Richardson acknowledges that his way of sorting is not traditional, but it’s faster and better for your clothes. As he explains in his book, new washing machine technology and colourfast dyes have changed the way we do laundry. “We continued sorting our clothes just like our parents and grandparents did back in the day, into whites, lights, and darks,” he says. “Until now.”

Next, check out these brilliant laundry hacks you’ll wish you’d known sooner.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest