What Do the Settings On Your Washing Machine Actually Mean?

Got dirty clothes? Here’s 4 steps to washing a load of laundry … and an explanation of what the settings on your washing machine actually mean!

Laundry is one of the inevitable parts of life. As long as you have clothing – or use towels or sheets – you need to wash them.

But knowing how to wash a load of laundry doesn’t come naturally. It’s something that needs to be learned.

Thanks to a mother who did all of the housework (and without complaint!) I never knew how to wash a load of laundry until I moved away to college. Just like learning to cook or pay bills, I needed to figure it out quickly.

I’ve been fortunate to not have too many huge laundry mishaps in my life – so I’ll share my tips just in case you need to figure out the process.

Got dirty clothes? Here's 4 steps to washing a load of laundry ... and an explanation of what the settings on your washing machine actually mean!

4 Steps to Washing a Load of Laundry

1. Gather your laundry.

The first step in washing a load of laundry is to find your dirty laundry. Get it all in one spot.

2. Know what you’re washing.

Once you’ve gathered your dirty laundry, figure out how everything needs laundered. The easiest way to do this is by looking at the tag:

  • Does your laundry require hand washing?
  • Line drying?
  • Hot water?
  • Cold water?
  • Tumble dry?

Chances are, a lot of your laundry will start to fall into the same categories. Separate your laundry into those categories.

Note: Unless I have a piece of clothing I know is delicate, I tend to wash all my clothing at the same temperature. I’m more careful about line drying vs. tumbling dry, if that’s required. But to make laundry easier for me, I stick to washing mostly everything at the same temperature.

3. Sort your laundry.

Once you know how your laundry needs washed, sorting your dirty laundry is next. The easiest way to sort laundry is by color:

  • Whites together,
  • Reds/oranges/pinks together,
  • Darks together, etc.

If you have a lot of laundry, you also may want to divide your laundry based on type:

  • Denim in one load,
  • Towels in another load,
  • Sheets in another, etc.

If water temperature is important to you, you’ll also want to separate your laundry based on that.

Got dirty clothes? Here's 4 steps to washing a load of laundry!

4. Wash your laundry.

Now that you know what needs washed, how it needs washed, and you’ve sorted it by color and type, get washing.

If you have a top loading washing machine, choose your water temperature and cycle, add your detergent, start the water, add your dirty laundry, and shut the door of the washing machine.

If you have a front loading washing machine, put your dirty laundry in first, shut the door, then choose your cycle, start it, and add detergent.

Choosing cycles

Choosing a cycle for your laundry may be confusing – I’m not always sure what the cycles mean.

A cycle simply describes how quickly the laundry is agitated and how fast the machine spins the water out of the laundry.

Got dirty clothes? Here's 4 steps to washing a load of laundry!

To help your confusion, here are some of the basic cycles:


Use the regular setting (also may be Normal or Cotton) when you’re removing stains and dirt or washing durable fabrics like whites, sheets, towels, underwear, socks, and heavily soiled clothing. This is the longest washing setting.

Permanent Press

The permanent press setting should be used for clothing that wrinkle easily like dress shirts and slacks, or synthetic items.


Use the delicate cycle when you need to gently wash items like silk, lingerie – or anything that says delicate or hand wash on the tag.

Choosing temperatures

Your laundry may include laundry instructions. But sometimes you might have laundry without instruction. Here’s a basic guide on choosing the right temperature:


Cold water is most gentle on clothing. Choose it for anything that might shrink or bleed dye.


Warm water cycles can be used for linens like sheets and towels.


Hot water sanitizes laundry. Use it for cloth diapers, gym wear, or if anything else needs sanitizing. Hot water also is great for washing a load of whites.

Got dirty clothes? Here's 4 steps to washing a load of laundry!

Choosing the load size

When adding your laundry and choosing the size of your load:

  • If the washing tub is one-quarter full, choose small.
  • If it’s half full, choose medium.
  • If it’s more than half full, use large.
  • And if the washing machine is filled, use extra-large.

Just a word of warning – don’t cram your washing machine full of dirty laundry. Even if you have a lot. Gently toss it in, making sure nothing is wrapped around the agitator (if you have a top-loader).

Now when you need to wash a load of laundry, you’ll know what to do – and understand what you’re doing.

(If you need to know the basics of drying laundry, check out this post!)

When you’re washing a load of laundry, are your steps the same … or different? Please share your process!

Disclosure: Links in this post may be affiliate links. This means that, at no added cost to you, I may make a commission on products purchased through these links. Thank you for supporting this website!

All images courtesy of Unsplash.

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