Illustration of hand-washing clothes in soap suds
Clotheslines are a cheap, sustainable and modern laundry tool. (Illustration by Daisy Daniel's, Loyola Marymount University)

Why Hand-Washing Your Laundry Is Better Than Using the Machine

Washing your clothes by hand may be the solution to preserving your garments and saving the environment.

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Illustration of hand-washing clothes in soap suds

Washing your clothes by hand may be the solution to preserving your garments and saving the environment.

If there’s one good thing about being a college student at home, it’s the laundry situation. There’s no need to worry about rush hour in the laundry room, whether the dryer is powerful enough or if the machines will even take your quarters. The comforts of home wipe away these worries. That’s because, at home, hand-washing and air-drying clothes take precedence.

My home laundry routine is vastly different from my school regimen. At home, the washing machine only takes in half of the clothes we wash. The other half — undergarments, delicates and workout clothes — are all washed by hand. The dryer is almost never on. Wet clothes hang on a clothesline instead.

When I was in elementary school, my neighbor knocked on our door to tell us that she had noticed our clothesline. She offered us the use of her dryer since ours “was broken.” We graciously declined. The dryer wasn’t broken; we explained that we preferred air-drying because it was gentler on the clothes and also more sustainable for the environment. My neighbor left perplexed. Her reaction wasn’t too different from the other friends and neighbors who have questioned my family’s clothesline throughout the years.

To this day, I don’t think I’ve operated the dryer at home more than 10 times. I’ve simply spent most of my time relying on air-drying. After all, air-drying, and for that matter, hand-washing, isn’t just better for the longevity of clothes. This practice also helps with protecting our environment.

Delicates

Delicates include clothes made of lace, velvet, silk and other specialty materials. Hand-washing these garments probably makes sense, although most people likely use the gentle cycle on the washing machine or pack them off to the dry cleaner.

But using the gentle cycle is even more unsustainable than a regular cycle. Gentle cycles use more water to protect the garments from the spinning of the machine; twice as much water is used than in regular cycles.

Gentle cycles also release 800,000 more plastic microparticles than a regular load. Plastic microparticles are plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in length. We don’t know much about the effects of plastic microparticles yet, but evidence shows that they are potentially harmful to aquatic life. Laundry — specifically the washing machine — is one of the major contributors of plastic microparticles.

Dry cleaning isn’t a perfect solution either. In fact, in some ways, it’s much worse. Perchloroethylene, or PERC, is a common ingredient in dry cleaning solvent. Almost 50 years ago, in the 1970s, studies found that PERC was a carcinogen. Today, PERC is classified as a neurotoxin.

Acute exposure to PERC can lead to “dizziness, blurred vision and loss of coordination.” These symptoms can show up even if you’re just picking up your clothes when they haven’t been properly dried. Although regulations on PERC have increased over the years, the chemical is still legal to use. An estimated 70% of dry cleaners in the U.S. still use PERC.

But the health risks don’t even take into account the environmental impacts. PERC is so dense that a single spilled drop can sink through building infrastructure and into groundwater. From there, it’s very likely to turn into a gaseous toxic byproduct. Between 80% to 85% of PERC produced later ends up in the atmosphere, where it slowly degrades.

So far, only California has attempted to regulate PERC past the current federal level, and the dry-cleaning solvent will be phased out completely in the state by 2023. Even still, PERC will be around for another two years in California, and there’s no telling which dry cleaners are using it, and which ones aren’t. Until more regulation is put on PERC, it’s important to consider the consequences of going to the dry cleaner.

In general, depending on the type of delicate clothing you’re washing, soaking and gentle rinsing in cold water is all you need. Use a bit of mild detergent when you’re soaking the garment. After about an hour, rinse and rub the fabric as necessary until there are no more soap suds. If the garment is too delicate for the washing machine, then it’s definitely too delicate for the dryer. So hang it up to air-dry after you squeeze out as much water as you can.

Bear in mind that if the garment is wool, cashmere or another similar material, it’s better to lay it out flat to air-dry to prevent the clothing from stretching out. Depending on how the material is woven into the clothing, these garments might need to be kept folded and flat even when it’s completely dry to prevent gravity from stretching it out.

Undergarments

My family almost always washes underwear by hand — or otherwise launders them separately in a hot water cycle. Mixing underwear with other garments of clothing is a surefire way to transfer germs. Every pair of dirty underwear “contains about a tenth of a gram of poop,” and that has nothing to do with incontinence or being unhygienic.

That fecal matter can contain all sorts of germs, from hepatitis A to norovirus to E. coli. When dirty underwear is in with all the other clothes in the wash, the germs are also with the rest of the clothes. Even worse, some of the germs remain in the washing machine to transfer to the next batch of clothes that you throw in.

Cold water and detergent can’t kill the bacteria. Instead, your options are to use bleach, very hot water (140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) or air-dry. Air-drying might actually be the most effective out of the three, assuming that you’re air-drying them under the sun, which kills the germs with its ultraviolet radiation.

As for bras, hand-washing is the best way to go. Bras are expensive as it is, and they’re specially designed to be well-shaped, comfortable and supportive. Throwing them in the wash pretty much guarantees a short lifespan as they can be easily misshapen and stretched out, and the bra hooks can snag onto other clothing.

Hand-washing bras doesn’t have to be difficult. All you need is some cold water and a bit of liquid detergent. Soak the bras for an hour and then rub the fabric together to get rid of any residue. Rinse them a few times until the water runs clear and you’ve washed away any soap suds. Skip the dryer for the bras, though. The heat will destroy the elasticity quicker than even the washing machine will. Just squeeze out the water by pressing your hands against the cups and hang them up to dry.

Washing machines and dryers will definitely continue to be an integral part of people’s lives. But it’s important to remember that, although they might be efficient machines, they don’t always get the job done. Hand-washing is economical, easier on the clothes and much more environmentally sustainable.

I will admit, I’m not perfect. I’ve had days when I felt lazy and simply chucked my laundry into the machines without bothering to look at labels. School simply reinforced that laziness. But at the end of the day, I’m glad that I’m at home, occasionally running the laundry machine while hand-washing at the same time.

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