How to Wash Cotton Clothes

Jennifer Blair

With its durability, comfort and coolness, it's really no wonder that cotton is king when it comes to clothing. But if you want your cotton pieces to last, your washing routine has to consist of more than just throw and go.

A father and son sorting laundry in the laundry room.

Reading the labels in your clothes is a good place to start, but some general guidelines apply to all cotton items. Take a little extra time to clean them to get the most bang for your clothing buck.

Separate Your Loads

While all cotton clothes are highly durable, they all don't belong in the same load. In fact, separating your cotton laundry can help prolong the life of your items. Separate your cotton clothes according to weight and color. Heavy, dark pieces such as denim, canvas or corduroy should be washed together in cool or cold water. Wash lightweight cotton materials and items in light colors -- think classic white T-shirts --by themselves in cool water.

Banish Stains

The complexity of spot removal on cotton depends on the type of stain you're dealing with. In most cases, though, you should pre-treat it. When you catch a stain just after it’s happened, such as ketchup or ice cream dripping onto your cotton dress, do a quick pre-treat by applying a little water, seltzer or an ice cube to the spot. If you notice a stain on your cotton clothing just before you’re about to put it in the washing machine, presoak it your usual detergent before starting the cycle.

Get Wet

Before throwing your cotton clothing into your washer, read the manufacturer’s instructions for care and temperature suggestions. Cotton materials may be durable, but finely woven cottons may require hand washing or a mild detergent to keep them in good condition. However, most cotton clothing usually does well in your washer with an all-purpose detergent on a normal wash cycle. When caring for brightly colored cotton, turn the pieces inside out before washing to help maintain the vibrancy. If you want to keep sturdy white cotton fabrics bright, you can use a detergent with bleach to get rid of any dinginess or yellowing.

Dry Off

Cotton can shrink easily if it’s not pre-shrunk, so take care when drying it. Tumble-dry items on low just long enough to remove moisture and smooth wrinkles. To prevent additional wrinkles, remove your clothing and fold as soon as the cycle finishes. If you're worried about your clothing shrinking, line dry it -- but place it in the shade because sun can yellow the fabric. With finely woven cotton, lay pieces flat for drying to prevent them from stretching, and place them in your dryer's air-only cycle to soften them again.