Lydia and Marcus Washington, parents of three young kids in Salisbury, North Carolina, are a house divided. Not over religion, politics or parenting strategies — but over the proper way to do laundry.
Lydia is a separator. She does a load of whites, a load of delicates, then a load of “everything else.” Marcus tosses everything in together. Although his family taught him to separate his laundry into darks and lights before he went away to college, he has since abandoned the practice.
“Once I realized that my whites didn’t change colors, I never went back to separating,” he says. “It takes much less time, and I don’t understand the need to ever separate again.”
Although the Washingtons differ in their methods, most millennials do not sort their laundry — at least that seems to be the case from perusing Twitter, where a recent viral tweet proclaimed: “yall wanna talk about generational divides? i dont know anyone under 40 who separates laundry into lights and darks.”
The responses explaining why cited everything from money (it’s cheaper to do fewer loads when you’re using coin laundry machines) to time (it’s quicker to jam everything into one load, and the blurring of work-life lines means we are always short on time).
Some millennials certainly disagreed, but it’s clear that many of us do things differently than our baby-boomer parents. We dump everything into the washer on cold, then go about our day. And it’s working just fine for us.
But is it, though? We talked to three laundry experts to sort out the mystery behind, well, sorting.
If your parents taught you to separate your laundry by color before washing, they probably told you it was so dyes on natural fibers didn’t bleed onto one another.
“If you’ve ever washed a white dress shirt with a new red sock and ended up with a pink dress shirt, you might take separating laundry loads more seriously,” says Jessica Zinna, a senior scientist at Tide.
But she understands why younger generations might not realize that. We aren’t being willfully ignorant; we’ve just grown up with a different type of clothing than our parents. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester, acrylic or nylon, which have become more popular over the past few decades, behave differently than natural fibers, such as cotton, and can be more durable and bleed less onto other fabrics when washed together, Zinna says.
“Consumers may not worry as much about sorting their laundry as previous generations did, because they may not have experienced as many laundry failures,” she says. Still, she washes her clothes in two loads: lights and darks, with cold water.
Patric Richardson, known as the Laundry Evangelist and host of Discovery Plus’s “The Laundry Guy,” cites “fast fashion” as a main reason millennials are less likely to properly care for their clothes. Unlike previous generations, which kept clothes for years, we were raised on clothes that were practically disposable. We might not notice how our clothes wear down over time from mixing colors in large loads in the wash, but they do.
“A few things happen, and they’re subtle enough over time,” Richardson says. Your clothes “are dingier from when you started washing them until now. It’s happening a little bit at a time. Because you didn’t sort at all, everything becomes abraded.”
His strategy? Five loads of laundry per week: whites; blacks (“My black cashmere sweater and black bedsheets go in together,” he says); cool colors (turquoise, aubergine); warm colors (red, orange, yellow); and athleisure. Performance knits need their own load, because they tend to be water repellent and require an enzyme booster or special booster to remove oils. (Many laundry brands sell specific detergent for activewear.) Towels can be added to a regular load without causing harm, he says.
All of these loads go into the washer on the express cycle with 2 tablespoons of detergent on a warm-water setting. Richardson says he has learned through the years that there is no need to use a longer cycle; a short, warm cycle with just enough soap is extremely efficient.
Valerie Stewart, owner of a Mr. Appliance franchise in Littleton, Colorado, is a boomer mom of a millennial daughter. “I asked my daughter why she doesn’t sort her laundry,” she says. “Her first answer was: ‘I’m busy and want to get it done as quickly as possible. I think I wash fewer loads this way. It must be eco-friendly, right?’ “
Although it may seem better to condense your laundry into fewer, larger loads, the water you save probably won’t offset the wear and tear on your clothes. Worn-out clothes clog up landfills around the world. Sorting results in cleaner clothes that bleed less, last longer and look better, Stewart says.
In addition, stuffing your washing machine to the brim is not good for its mechanics, and doing so can lead to the machine wearing down sooner. Stewart’s technicians at Mr. Appliance tell clients to separate heavy items from delicate items to keep the drum on the machine balanced as it spins.
Stewart says that, as a mom, she knows there’s a good chance that younger folks won’t listen to her advice: “In that case, we advise using cold water and trying not to overload the washer.” Zinna adds that choosing clothing made from synthetic fibers and washing them on a cold, delicate cycle will help prolong their life.
That said, the consensus from these pros is clear: Take the time to sort your laundry, because it will keep your clothes looking nicer for longer. “Don’t tell your mom she’s right, though,” Richardson says. “Not yet. Save it for Mother’s Day as a gift.”