Know Your Stuff is a new column that unlocks the hidden secrets about the everyday products you own.
Like nearly every item in your house that you take for granted, the humble washing machine has a long, weird history. The basic concept of a spinning drum dates as far back as the late 1700s – we’ve since seen versions powered by horses, hand cranks, and even a children’s see-saw.
Electric washers are modern marvels, carefully balancing four basic principles – time, temperature, chemistry, and agitation – to remove stains without destroying fabrics. In short, it ain’t easy, and our clumsy intercessions usually don’t help.
Likely because the pace of innovations exceeds the pace of our understanding, we often know less about the things we own than we ought to – the washing machine is no exception. Myths and miscalculations swirl around our laundry day habits, often resulting in dirtier clothes and wasted time.
Before you do your next load, here are a few popular myths, and how well they hold up when put to the test.
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Myth #1: Using more detergent and water makes for a better clean
False. Modern washing machines are marvels at achieving maximum results while using minimal energy and water. But many people continue to believe, erroneously, that adding extra water or detergent will get clothes cleaner.
In fact, the opposite is true. Detergents work by chemically interacting with water, your fabrics, and the stains that plague them. Their formulations are endlessly tinkered with – as often as twice per year – to keep pace with changing fashion trends and appliance redesigns.
When you add extra water, you’re just diluting the detergent and making it less effective. Plus, if you’re adding water to a top-load washer, you’re making the clothes float higher in the tub and thus further from the agitator.
Adding extra detergent causes its own problems. The final rinse cycle of a washer is calibrated with the expectation that you’ve used the correct amount of detergent. If you exceed that, chances are the excess detergent will stay in your clothes, potentially triggering a skin reaction. Too much detergent can also build up in the washer and cause odors.
The professional advice: Follow the directions on the detergent and let the washer decide on the water.
Myth #2: Only hot water gets clothes truly clean
Mostly false. If by “truly clean” you mean sanitized, then yes, you’ll need hot water (very hot, in fact). If you’re serious about sanitizing, look for NSF certification, which verifies that 99.9% of microorganisms are killed in a wash cycle.
For most situations, though, sanitization is probably overkill. Because Energy Star restrictions have caused the median temperature of a laundry cycle to drop as much as 20 degrees in the last few years, appliance and detergent makers have been forced to get creative. Over time, the enzymes in detergents have changed and the physical design of the washtub has evolved. As a result, colder cycles are more effective than ever before.
The professional advice: Follow the directions on the laundry tag. Those symbols all mean something, you know.
Myth #3: Detergent alternatives and dryer balls work just as well as traditional products
Mixed truth. Laundry is no stranger to the convoluted, often pseudo-scientific world of green alternatives that carry vague promises of being “natural” and “safe.”
It’s not that their criticisms are without merit – laundry wastewater contains chemicals that can be hazardous to microorganisms that play a vital role in the ecosystem – but it’s understood that standard detergent is effective, while alternative solutions largely miss the mark.
Crystal Wash, for example, is a reusable plastic ball that claims its bioceramics clean as well as traditional detergents for up to 1,000 washes. Our own tests in the Reviewed labs, however, found that it worked no better than plain water.
Similarly, alternatives like Eco Nuts and all those DIY detergent recipes that make the rounds on social media also fell far short of store-bought detergent in our testing.
Dryer balls made from natural wool are yet another alternative. They’re meant to replace dryer sheets – certainly an item worthy of replacement, as they coat your newly-cleaned clothes in an unnecessary layer of film.
The wool balls too, however, failed to live up to their claims and did not reduce drying time or wrinkles. One point in their favor: The balls can be spritzed with essential oils before you toss them in, adding a fresh aroma to your clothes without all the added chemicals and waste of a dryer sheet.
The professional advice: As with everything you own, it’s your laundry, so you should wash your clothes however you like. As long as you remember to clean your dryer vent, you’re not hurting anyone.
Happy laundry day!
David Kender is the editor-in-chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at [email protected].