The American Cleaning Institute (ACI)

Laundry Basics

  • How to Wash

    From sorting to detergents and beyond. Get your washday tips and keep your clothes clean and fresh.

    Sorting it out

    There's more to the sorting game than just keeping dark garments away from the gleaming whites. The secret is mixing and matching items into loads that need similar soaps or detergents, wash cycles and water temperatures. It's the time to check those garment care labels for special cleaning instructions. Without a doubt, smart sorting is the way of insuring clean results - wash, after wash, after wash.

    First, sort by color

    laundry colors

    Wash all whites separately; pastels and medium colors together; brights and darks by themselves. Pay special attention to white and lightly colored synthetics; they can pick up dark dyes from other fabrics during washing. Check trimmings and decorations for colorfastness too.

    Second, sort for soil.


    Sort out those heavily soiled items away from the lightly soiled ones, since lightly soiled items can pick up the extra soil from the wash water. Whites will slowly get grayer or yellower; colors will become duller and duller.

    Third, Specialty Sorts.

    specialty sort

    The Unmatched Set: Mix small and large items together in each load. This lets clothes move more freely, resulting in better washing.

    The Fabric Types: Consider the fabrics and how they are constructed. Separate loosely knitted garments and delicates from regular wash loads, then wash on the gentle cycle.

    The Lint Losers: Fuzzy sweat shirts, chenille robes, flannels and new towels have a tendency to share their lint with other garments during washing. Wash them in a load by themselves - away from corduroys and permanent press garments, which attract lint easily.

    The Fluorescents: Hot pinks, bright greens, electric blues are often much less colorfast than other fabrics. Wash them separately or test them first before washing with other colors. For safety's sake do not pretreat with stain removers unless you have tested them for colorfastness first on an inconspicuous area. Fluorescent colors may fade over time--------------


    laundry machines

    The space age has entered today's wash-a-day world. Just sort and pretreat your laundry ... touch the right buttons or dials on your washer and dryer ... match up the wash loads to the right laundry products ... then walk away - and let your laundry problems wash away! All it takes is the know-how of sorting it all out, and that's exactly what this information is all about. Let it help you get clean results - wash cycle, after cycle, after cycle.

    The Soap and Detergent Solution

    How does your water affect your laundry? The answer is in the water's softness or hardness. Soft water aids cleaning. Hard water poses some obstacles to cleaning.

    Hard water contains minerals (mostly calcium and magnesium) which react with soap to form a curd. This soap curd can show up on clothes as a white powder, make fabrics feel stiff and attach to the inside of washing machines. The forming of the curd uses up some of the soap and reduces its cleaning power.

    Detergents are less sensitive to the hardness minerals in water; therefore, they perform better and do not form a curd. Because of these features, detergents, instead of soaps, are used for laundry products.

    However, if you are doing laundry in hard water, even a detergent needs some help. Add slightly more detergent than the product label directions recommend. The extra detergent will help soften the water and allow the remaining detergent to do its cleaning job. You can also add a water softener or detergent booster to the wash water to increase cleaning power.

    Is Your Water Hard or Soft?

    Your local water company, public utility consumer service department or Cooperative Extension Service office can provide this information or refer you to someone who can. You probably have hard water if:.

    • There's a "ring around your bathtub."
    • Soaps and shampoos do not lather easily.
    • White residue forms around faucets and drains.
    • Fabrics feel stiff, not fluffy.


    Spot Attack

    Take care to wash away any spots and stains on your washables. Here are a few tips:

    1. Identify the spot. The more you know about what made the spot or stain, the more likely you are to treat it appropriately. This means you have a better chance to remove it, plus you are less likely to set it further by using the wrong treatment. When in doubt, rinse or soak in cold water before treating or laundering.
    2. Treat the spot immediately! The sooner you attack the spot, the easier it is to remove. Get into the habit of checking freshly washed wet clothes for stains that don't wash away. Instead of drying them, pretreat the stains and wash them again. Drying can permanently set the stains.
    3. Pretreat, plus Pretreating a stain before it is dried or set increases your chances for removing it. Use a prewash stain remover, liquid laundry detergent, or a paste made from a powdered laundry detergent and a little water. First, test for colorfastness by pretreating a seam or other inconspicuous area. Then, launder the entire garment with a detergent - plus a bleach that's safe for the fabric.
    4. Blot it out! Sponge a stain - don't rub it. Rubbing only spreads it and may even damage the fabric.

    Beverage stains:
    Beverages containing sugar, such as wine or ginger ale, may seem to disappear. But don't be fooled - they may still be there! Once the stain has been exposed to air, the sugar oxidizes and leaves an invisible stain, which ultimately turns yellow or brown. The stain never left .. it was there all along. To remedy? Treat even those light stains you can't see immediately - before they dry.

    Using a bleach? Prevent uneven color changes by bleaching the entire garment - not just the stain.

    Old stains rarely fade away- but it's possible! Try pretreating or soaking in a product containing enzymes, then launder.

    Wash it away! After treating a stain, launder the complete garment to remove any residue left from the stain or stain remover.


    detergent icons

    All-purpose laundry detergents that are especially effective on food, greasy and oily soils. Since they are liquids, they are good for pretreating spots and stains.

    All-purpose laundry detergents which are ideal for general washday loads. Especially effective on lifting out clay and ground-in dirt, thus ideal for children's play clothes.

    Ultra Detergents
    Most liquid and powder detergents are now concentrated. They come in much smaller packages - yet offer the same amount of cleaning power as the familiar products in larger packages. You need less ultra detergent than with an unconcentrated product, so follow the label instructions and use the measuring cap or scoop that comes with the product.

    Combination Detergents
    One detergent that does two jobs. Look for: Liquid or powder detergents with built-in fabric softeners Powders detergents with color-safe bleach

    Fragrance or Dye-Free Detergents
    Many laundry products are now fragrance-free and/or dye-free. Read product labels for specific details. Liquid detergents with bleach alternative.


    Light Duty Detergents

    Laundry Liquids and Powders
    Designed for hand or machine washing those lightly soiled items and

    Dishwashing Liquids
    Designed for washing dishes, but some can be used for handwashing delicate fabrics. Do not use in automatic washers!

    Washday helpers

    Attack those difficult laundry problems with the right laundry aids. There are products to solve every kind of wash problem, attack every kind of stain, work in every type and temperature of water. Which products should you choose? Here's a quick review to help you find the ones best for you.


    Convert soils into colorless, soluble particles which are easily removed by detergents, then carried away in the wash water. Brighten and whiten fabrics; help remove stubborn stains.

    Sodium hypochlorite bleaches (also called chlorine or liquid household bleach) are the more powerful laundry bleaches; they disinfect, as well as clean and whiten. They work on many whites and colorfast washables - but not on wools or silks. Oxygen (color-safe) bleaches are more gentle, working safely on all washable fabrics. They work best in maintaining whiteness, not in restoring it.

    For Sodium Hypochlorite Bleach, read the label and dilute as directed. For best results, add 5 minutes after the wash cycle has begun to agitate in order to avoid destroying enzymes and fluorescent whiteners in the detergent.

    For Oxygen Bleach, add directly to the wash water before the clothes are added. Do not pour powdered bleach directly on wet clothes. Most effective in warm-to-hot water.

    IMPORTANT: Have doubts whether a garment is safe to bleach? Don't guess - you may be sorry! Read the garment's care label for specific instructions. Test first for colorfastness in an inconspicuous area by following the instructions on bleach package label. 

    Enzyme Presoaks

    Especially effective in removing protein stains, like baby formula, blood, body fluids, dairy products, eggs and grass. When added to the wash water, they also boost the cleaning power of the detergent.


    Presoak laundry in the washer, sink or a pail before washing. Follow the label directions.

    Fabric Softeners

    Decrease static cling, which is especially useful when washing permanent-press and synthetic fibers. Make fabrics softer and fluffier... reduce drying time ... reduce wrinkling ... make ironing easier.

    Liquid fabric softeners go into the final rinse water; one type can also be used on a cloth and tossed into the dryer. Follow the label directions.
    Softener sheets go into the dryer.
    Packet-type softeners attach to the fin of the dryer drum.

    When adding liquid softeners to the rinse water, be sure to dilute first. Do not pour directly on fabrics, because this may cause staining or spotting.

    IMPORTANT: Fabric softeners may reduce the effectiveness of flame retardancy on fabrics, like those used in children's sleepwear.

    Prewash Soil and Stain Removers

    Effective in pretreating heavily soiled and stained garments, especially those made from polyester fibers. Work well on oil-based stains like animal fats, body soils, cooking oils, cosmetics and motor oils. Soap bars work well on fabric softener, perspiration and tobacco stains.

    Liquids, sprays, gels, sticks and soap bars

    It's best to treat the stain as quickly as possible. Use liquid, gel and spray removers just before washing the garment. If the stain still remains, apply a second treatment, rubbing directly into the stain.

    When using the stick type, immediately rub the stick on the fresh stain, then set it aside and wash later - even as much as a week later.

    IMPORTANT: Do not use prewash soil and stain removers on neon and fluorescent colors. The colors might fade or run.

    Starches, Fabric Finishes and Sizing

    Give body to fabrics ... make fabrics more soil-resistant ... make ironing easier.

    Powders, liquids and sprays.

    Use starches on cottons and cotton blends ... use fabric finishes and sizings on synthetic fabrics.

    Water Softeners

    Help detergents do their job better by inactivating calcium and magnesium minerals which make water hard.

    Powders and liquids.

    Add powders to the wash or rinse water. Add liquids to rinse water only.

  • Guide to Garment Care Symbols

    Your guide to how to read the tags that are on all of our favorite clothes.

    Don't guess - read the product label. It's the way to get the best possible results from any product - wash, after wash. There's more on the label than you might think. Here are some important clues to look for.


    Download the guide


    Garment Key






    Machine Wash Normal
    Machine Wash Permanent Press
    Machine Wash Delicate or Gentle


    Machine Wash 80F
    Machine Wash 105F
    Machine Wash 120F
    Machine Wash 140F
    Machine Wash 160F
    Machine Wash 200


    Do Not Wash
    Hand Wash



    Bleach When Needed
    non-Chlorine Bleach When Needed
    Do Not Bleach



    Dry-Clean Any Solvent
    Dry-Clean Any Solvent Except Trichloroethylene
    Dry-Clean Petroleum Solvent Only
    Do Not Dry-Clean
    Short Cycle
    Low Heat
    Reduced Moisture
    No Steam



    Tumble Dry Normal
    Tumble Dry Permanent Press
    Tumble Dry Gentle

    Heat Setting

    Dry Normal Low Heat
    Dry Normal Medium Heat
    Dry High Heat


    Do Not Tumble Dry
    Line Dry
    Drip Dry
    Dry Flat
    Dry in Shade
    Do Not Dry
    Do Not Wring



    Iron 230F
    Iron 300F
    Iron 390F


    Do Not Iron
    Iron Any Temperature Steam
    Do Not Steam
  • Do I need to Wash this?

    ACI breaks out how often should you wash your favorite items.

    The sniff test may tell you if you wore enough deodorant, but does not always work when deciding if you need to wash your clothes. What you do, the fabric type, the wear and the weather can play a deciding factor. The American Cleaning Institute offers these tips to help determine if it’s time to wash those bed sheets, jeans, shirts, socks and underwear.

    Bed Sheets

    Bed sheets should be washed at least every two weeks, more often if you sweat a lot at night.


    Pajamas should be washed after 3 or 4 wears (if you shower before bed, you may get a few more wears before washing).

    Bath towels

    Bath towels should be hung to dry between uses and washed after 3 to 5 normal uses*. Towels need to be allowed to dry before they are used again. So, remember to hang up your towel after each use.

    *Did you cut yourself shaving? Ouch! Did you use the towel to wipe sweat from the exercise bench? Eww! If the towel contains body fluids (perspiration, blood, etc.) it should be washed after each use.

    Under Garments

    Underwear and socks should be washed after each wearing.

    Bras can be worn 2-3 times before washing. Be sure to give your bra a rest day in between wearing to give the elastic a chance to regain its shape.

    T-shirts, tank tops and camisoles should be washed after each wearing.

    Outer Clothes

    Outer clothes like dress shirts and khakis can be worn a few times before washing unless it is hot out and you are sweating or they are visibly dirty or stained.

    Jeans can typically be worn 3 times before washing.

    Leggings and tights should be washed after every wear to get rid of the baggy knees.


    Typically suits can be worn several times during normal use before dry cleaning (3-4 times for wool and 4-5 times for synthetics). Depending on your lifestyle or environment you may need to dry clean more often. Smoky bars, smog or smelly environments or if your suit gets stained may mean that you need to clean them more often. 

    Bathing suits

    Bathing suits should be washed after every wear.


    NOTE: Exceptions to the rules: whites and silks are prone to discoloration and should be cleaned after every wear.

    NOTE: If your clothes get stained, wash, spot clean or dry clean as soon as possible – this will extend the garment’s life which will be greener in the long run since you won’t need to replace the item.