A woman wringing out an article of clothing as she's hand-washing clothes in warm water

Looking at the array of washing temperature choices on your washing machine can be confusing, especially if you’re concerned about the safety of your clothes. Cold, warm, hot—what’s the difference, and do you need to be precise about it? 

With such thoughts, you may anticipate shifting from cold to warm water. However, the question in your mind will be, “What happens if you wash clothes in warm water?”

This article will cover the pros and cons of washing your clothes in warm water and the factors to consider. It’ll also discuss the benefits of using cold water washing technology for your clothes and the environment.

Let’s get started!

What Happens When You Wash Clothes in Warm Water? 

Washing clothes in warm water helps remove stains and dirt from some fabrics more effectively than in cold water. This effectiveness is because the heat helps relax fibers in the fabrics, making it easier for detergents to penetrate and remove dirt. However, warm water can also cause some materials, like wool, to shrink or fade.

Pros of Washing Clothes in Warm Water

It’s common to reflexively turn on the warm cycle when washing clothes since most people consider it effective. 

Washing your clothes in warm water has the following benefits:

Removing Dirt and Stains Effectively

Warm water takes the lead when removing stains and dirt from your fabrics. According to Science ABC, warm water activates detergents better and helps remove dirt and grime more effectively.

Moreover, warm water is excellent at dissolving stains. For instance, you’ve probably seen people soaking their clothes in warm water when they get soiled in oil or juice to make it easier to wash. 

Clothes pre-soaking in buckets before going into the washing machine

The reasoning behind this technique is that warm water will dissolve it, loosening the stain. Consequently, it becomes easier to wash the cloth.

Reduced Wrinkling

You’ve probably seen people hanging their wrinkled clothes in a shower while running hot water. Why do you think they do this? They want to use the steam from the hot water to smoothen the wrinkles on their clothes. The same applies to washing clothes in warm water.

The heat of the warm water relaxes fibers, making them easier to smooth out. It’s also effective at getting rid of tough wrinkles. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about ironing all your clothes.

However, the catch is it depends on the type of fabric—washing clothes in warm water can cause more wrinkles on delicate fabrics like silk and wool.

Killing Germs

Some garments in your home attract a lot of germs and bacteria.

Examples of such realia include:

  • Workout clothes
  • Bedsheets
  • Socks
  • Gardening clothes
  • Diapers
  • Underpants

Warm water can help kill these germs and bacteria to keep you and your family healthy. The heat from warm water damages the structural components of bacteria and germs, disrupting their crucial life processes. As such, many people turn to warm water when it’s time to wash these types of clothes.

The Cons of Washing Clothes in Warm Water

Washing clothes in warm water can also have some drawbacks, including:

It Can Damage Fabrics

Not all fabrics are meant for warm washing. As mentioned, warm water relaxes fibers in clothes, a characteristic that helps smoothen wrinkles. However, this is a double-edged sword since it can cause some fabrics to shrink or fade.

a women looking inside a washer dryer unit stainless steel tub looking frustrated at the clothes inside

For instance, silk is particularly prone to shrinking when washed in warm water. This outcome is because the heat of the water weakens the fibers in such fabrics, causing them to break down faster than usual.

High Utility Bills

Washing clothes in warm water requires more energy than cold water washing. Most washing machines consume between 400 and 1,400 watts of electricity when set on the warm cycle.

Let’s consider a real-life situation to help you understand how much you pay for energy bills for the washing machine alone. On average, a typical washer uses 5.24kWh of electricity per washing load. The average cost of electricity in the US is 16.09 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Therefore, your washing machine costs you approximately (16.09 • 5.24) = $84.31 per load of laundry. Remember, the higher the temperature, the more energy is consumed. Thus, you’ll pay more than this if you turn to the hot cycle.

Washing your clothes on the cold cycle can save you up to $214 annually in electric bills. You can also consider shifting to solar-powered washing machines for a greener home. These washing machines rely on the sun’s renewable energy for power.

It’s Non-Eco Friendly

Warming water consumes energy that’s generated chiefly from non-renewable sources. That means if you’ve been washing your clothes in warm water, you’ve been contributing to global warming.

This conclusion isn’t far-fetched since the Australian government claims that about 25% of a household’s energy consumption is from running appliances and electronics like washing machines.

What’s more, heating water increases your carbon footprint by raising the byproducts of energy production. A high carbon footprint significantly contributes to climate change through global warming.

Discolored Fabrics

Molecules in warm water have high energy that keeps them in motion. As these molecules move around, they activate the detergents, which start vibrating while tugging on fatty molecules and breaking down the stains. However, this process is a drawback for colored fabrics.

The brute force of the moving molecules is rough on colored fabrics. As a result, it can cause them to dull or discolor over time. Some materials, such as silk and wool, are especially prone to this effect.

a woman sitting on the floor with a pile of clothes next to the all-in-one washer dryer looking frustrated

So, it’s best to give these fabrics extra attention when selecting the water temperature for washing. Cold water is usually preferred since it’s gentler on colors, unlike warm water.

Factors to Consider Before Washing Clothes in Warm Water

The safety of your clothes is of paramount importance when it comes to washing them. 

Therefore, to be safer, you must consider the following factors before washing clothes in warm water:

  • Fabric type – not all fabrics are meant for warm water. For instance, linen, nylon, polyester, silk, and wool are delicate fabrics that shrink in warm and hot water. Unfortunately, these fabrics can also develop permanent wrinkles when washed in hot water.
  • Temperature – different fabrics can withstand unique water temperatures. Using too hot water can shrink, fade, or cause misshaping on your clothes. (Check the table below for the optimum temperature ranges for various fabrics).
  • Type of stain – protein stains like blood and sweat set in further if you wash the clothes with warm water.
Water temperatureFabrics
Cold (60°- 80° F)Brights, Darks, Wool, Silk, Delicates
Warm (90° – 110° F)Polyester, Spandex, Nylon, Denim
Hot (130° F or Higher)Heavily soiled clothes, Cotton, Whites

Table 1: Optimum washing water temperature ranges for different fabrics. Source: Survival Freedom

Why Consider Cold Water Washing Technology

Cold water washing is fine for most items and clothes in your washing machine. Contrary to the popular belief that cold water doesn’t dissolve stains, it’s excellent for most.

Here is a list of stains where cold water does the trick:

  • Coffee, juice, and wine stains
  • Most food stains
  • Blood stains
  • Sweat stains

Besides removing most stains, cold water washing is a laudable, pocket-friendly option due to its energy-saving advantages. 

According to Energy Star, 90% of your washing machine’s energy consumption goes into heating the water. Therefore, shifting to the cold cycle helps you save the same percentage of energy. Besides saving you some bucks on your energy bills, this move contributes to a greener and more sustainable environment.

Now that it’s understood cold water washing is the best option, the elephant in the room remains the efficiency of detergents in cold water—will the detergent be active in cold water?

Well, over the past decade, companies have come up with a new cold water washing detergent that works efficiently in cold water. The enzymes in this detergent activate in cold water between 40-60 °F (4.44-15.56 °C). When active, these enzymes help clean your clothes, leaving them as sparkling clean as possible.

A group of coldwater washing laundry detergents on a tabletop on top of a skirt

Check out this article to learn more about cold water washing detergents and the benefits of shifting to cold water washing.

Final Thoughts

Washing clothes in warm water has its advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, it helps remove dirt, grime, and germs from clothes and smooths wrinkles. 

But on the other hand, it’s harsh on colors and delicate fabrics. This is why cold water washing is preferred for most clothes. 

With the new cold-water washing detergent, you no longer have to worry about not getting your clothes clean enough when using the cold cycle. So go ahead and use warm water if needed, or stick with cold water laundry to reduce energy consumption.

Now that you know what happens if when washing clothes in warm water, check out this article to know how much energy you save by turning off device screens.

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