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Are you making these 10 common washing machine mistakes?

Lift your laundry game and save money, energy and water.

man holding a shrunken sweater in the wash
Last updated: 23 October 2023

Putting on a load of laundry is certainly easier than using the manual washboard of yesteryear. But there are still some common mistakes many of us unknowingly make that can affect not only the quality of our wash, but also the efficiency of our washers.

Our resident whitegoods expert Ashley Iredale knows a thing or two about washing machines – he and our lab team have been testing them for years to determine the best performing and worst performing models on the market. 

When it comes to doing laundry, he knows what works and what doesn't. So here are Ashley's top 10 washing machine mistakes to avoid.

Ash Testing washing Machines

Ashley Iredale puts washing machines through the wringer in our labs.

1. Picking the wrong program

Depending on your washing machine's brand, model, style, size and capabilities, it will have particular settings for various types of loads. 

So it's best to read the instructions rather than use the same old setting out of habit. Otherwise you may not be getting the most out of your machine – or the best wash!

"If you use too gentle a program for a full capacity or heavily soiled load, your clothes won't come out clean," says Ash. 

"Typically there are only one or two programs that are capable of washing to the full capacity of the appliance – gentle or quick programs might only be capable of washing a couple of kilos at a time.

"Conversely, if you use too robust a program, you might damage delicate materials, reduce garment life and shrink woollens." 

2. Washing in warm water

Think you're getting a significantly better clean by washing your laundry in warm water? Think again, says Ash. 

"A warm wash will be more effective than a cold wash, but the difference is marginal – and getting smaller given our modern, enzyme-based detergents," he says. 

"It's also worth noting that in global terms, the 'cold' water in Australia isn't really all that cold. Given the marginal benefit of warm over cold, you're better off saving the energy used to heat your wash water."

A warm wash will be more effective than a cold wash, but the difference is marginal

Ashley Iredale, CHOICE washing machine expert

As for your woollens, it's always best to stick to cold water. 

"When fibres like wool are spun and manufactured, they tend to stretch out a bit (like a spring) and will stay that way while in a stable, sweater form," says Ash.

"The heat in a hot wash will reactivate the springiness of the fibres, which will contract back into their pre-manufactured, pre-stretched form.

"The good news is you may be able to salvage a shrunken sweater by packing it out with material to re-stretch it, and leaving it to dry slowly in the shade."

accidently putting red clothes in with white laundry

Separate your whites to avoid colour run.

3. Mixing whites and non-colourfast items

When you're in a rush, it's tempting to chuck all your whites and colours in together. But if the colours run and ruin your load, it can be a massive hassle to fix – assuming the affected items are even salvageable.

"There are products that claim to draw the colour out of your inadvertently dyed white clothes – though these are hardly a miracle cure," Ash says. 

"Your other options are repeatedly washing the clothing in the hope that the colour will come out of it eventually, or 'leaning into' the stain and dying the items black." 

4. Paying extra for features you won't use

Before you splurge on the latest washing machine with all the bells and whistles, or one with a super-large capacity, ask yourself whether you actually need it.

"Everyone's needs will be different," says Ashley. "If you're a chef or mechanic, you may need a 90℃ steam program to get your work gear clean. 

"If you have challenges with mobility or dexterity, you may benefit from an auto detergent dosing system (to save you from having to fill your machine with detergent every time) or if you have multiple loads to do in a day, you might need a very fast cycle.

"Think about what you will and won't use – and don't pay for what you don't need."

Ashley adds that you're unlikely to need a large-capacity washer if you live on your own – and it could continue to cost you. "It will use more water and electricity than a more suitably sized one," he says.

5. Using too much detergent 

Are you guilty of adding an extra dash of detergent to a particularly dirty load of washing? Or are you a stickler for the rules and always apply exactly the recommended amount? 

Either way, says Ashley, you may just be doing your clothing – and your machine – more harm than good.

"We've found you can get a great wash with a fraction of the recommended detergent dose," he says. 

You may end up with an overload of suds in your washing machine, causing it to lock up or sustain other damage

But using too much detergent can cause problems, too: "Not only are you wasting money, you may end up with an overload of suds in your washing machine, causing it to lock up or sustain other damage," says Ashley.

"You may also end up with detergent residue in your clothes, which looks bad and can cause skin irritation."

But it's not just your skin that could suffer if you overdo the detergent.

"It can also contribute to the buildup of scrud in your machine," explains Ashley. "And pumping more chemicals down the drain can contribute to algal blooms and other problems in our waterways."

6. Assuming a pricier detergent will get your clothes cleaner

Not all detergents are created equal. But the results of our laundry detergent reviews suggest that their recommended retail price has very little to do with their performance.

"Look for a detergent that does a good job," Ashley says. "As with many products, we've found price doesn't correlate with performance, and if you shop wisely you can get a great wash for a fraction of the cost of the leading products."

7. Using fabric softener

Fabric softener can leave your clothes smelling fresh and feeling soft. But, according to Ashley, that's where any benefits stop.

"It doesn't contribute to cleaning because, for it to work, it has to remain behind in the fabric," he says. "So it's technically re-soiling your clothes with petrochemicals, which you'll then wear against your skin." 

Fabric softeners also have three other nasty side effects. 

"They reduce the water absorbency of fabric, which is really bad news for towels and cloth nappies," says Ashley. 

Fabric softeners reduce the effectiveness of fire retardancy on clothes, so they're an absolute no-no for children's sleepwear

Ashley Iredale, CHOICE

"Worse still, they reduce the effectiveness of fire retardancy on clothes, so even though they all have pictures of cute babies on the bottles, they're an absolute no-no for children's sleepwear. 

"Fabric softeners also contribute to scrud build-up in your washing machine, potentially causing damage to it." 

8. Not loading the washing machine properly

Do you overload your machine with dirty laundry? Or put too little in for the program? If so, says Ashley, your efforts may backfire.

"Too little and you're wasting detergent, water and energy by not using your machine efficiently," he says. "Too much and your clothes might not get clean, or you may reduce the lifespan of your machine.

"However, we've found very few people actually fill their machines to capacity. You'll know when you have because you can barely get the door shut. But most people only wash three to four kilograms of clothes at a time." 

using a garment bag for delicates in laundry

A laundry bag will lengthen the lifespan of your delicates.

9. Not putting delicates in a laundry bag

If you aren't putting your delicates (such as bras) into a separate washing bag, you may want to start. That's because delicate clasps, clips and underwires take a beating in the wash and can get misshapen and damaged. 

"Those same clips can also damage other items in the wash, or get caught in seals," says Ashley. "It can also cause damage to underwire and moulded cups and you'll definitely reduce the lifespan of these undergarments." 

10. Closing the door between washes

This may go against your instincts, but our washing machine expert recommends leaving the door or lid open between washes to give the washer some much-needed air. Otherwise you run the risk of letting mould build up – and a stinky, musty washing machine will hardly leave you with the freshest load of laundry. 

It can also damage your washer. "Rubber seals may deteriorate over time and not seal as well," says Ashley, "and it can lead to bad smells, discolouration and mould spores spreading throughout your house."

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.