Do You Really Have to Sort Laundry by Color? See What an Expert Says

Here's the nitty-gritty on sorting laundry by color, the best water temperature for mixing loads, and more.

We've all been there: Your laundry room is nearly spic-and-span aside from two tiny piles that are far too small to warrant their own loads. The only problem is that one mound is made up of white clothing and the other is not. While it can be tempting to wash white and colorful clothing together, there are a few hard and fast rules to abide by, according to Clorox's in-house scientist and cleaning expert Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry.

Let's start with perhaps the most important: Unless a colorful item can handle hot water, it has no business going in with whites. According to Gagliardi, whites require the wash temperature to be at least warm, if not hot, in order to get them as clean as possible. So if your colored linens can't take the heat, leave them out of the load. "And if you're thinking of adding a single white item to a dark load, don't," she says. "There's just too much dye transfer potential for this to be worth it."

mudroom laundry striped black white floor open shelving bench hooks
Jason Donnelly

Another tip to keep in mind is that whites shouldn't be washed with new items that contain color without first checking for colorfastness. "Even darker items you've had for a while may still lose dye each time they are washed," Gagliardi warns. "It's generally not a good idea to mix dark items (navy, black, dark brown) with other lighter colors in addition to whites."

Here are the rules for washing whites with colors so you're not left with gray (formerly white) socks all for the sake of a spotless laundry room.

How to Sort Laundry Colors

Gagliardi recommends sorting all laundry into three categories: bleach-safe whites, mixed light colors, and dark colors. "Sorting into these groupings makes it easier to select a warm or hot wash temperature, add the appropriate [laundry] product, and avoid dye transfer," she says.

What you might not know about these basic groupings is that there are outliers. For one, spandex should never be bleached, but that doesn't mean that white spandex items should be thrown in with the color load. Instead, Gagliardi advises sorting them into their very own white load, which can also include items that feature white and color together (think stripes and gingham).

Once you start regularly reading the fabric composition found on your garment label, you might find that many of your clothing items (or much more than you realized) contain spandex, which means you could wind up with a larger load than expected. "Getting to know which of your items are the exceptions is key to knowing when to break the sorting rule," says Gagliardi.

When Is It Safe to Wash Whites with Colors?

Now, the reason we're all here—when is it truly okay to wash whites and colors together? According to Gagliardi, there are always exceptions and "there will be times when it's safe to add an item with color to a white load." In general, however, adding a single white item to an otherwise colorful load is always going to be a no-no due to transfer potential.

On the flip side, the opportunities for adding a color item to an otherwise white load will come once you determine that the item is colorfast to bleach, which requires (you guessed it) a colorfastness-to-bleach test. It's not quite as easy as just throwing the whites and colors in together but if your colorfastness test proves your items are bleach-safe, then have at it. "Testing helps you add an [color] item to a bleach load with confidence," says Gagliardi, so the effort is well worth it.

Screen-printed tees, white dishtowels with colorful stripes, and kids' fleece pajamas are typically bleach-safe as well, but consult the item's care label for best results. And, finally, if your item is not safe for bleach and is not dark (navy, black, dark brown), it is likely a good candidate for your spandex white load.

How to Wash Whites with Colors

The type of item you're washing will determine the best procedure for washing whites with colors. If you're washing a load of colorfast items with your whites, you can proceed as you would with any other white load. But if you're washing a load of white garments that contain spandex or have mixed color patterns, you'll need to treat them as colors—meaning no bleach.

If all this has your mind in knots, you aren't alone. Gagliardi says you might be better off just sticking to like colors regardless. "Since today's high-efficiency washers adjust the amount of water added to a clothes washer based on the size of the load, washing a few items grouped together by color is actually pretty efficient."

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