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Washing machine cycles explained—and how to choose the right one!

Posted by AMH Team

6m read time

Jul 1, 2024

The washing machines of yore were far more primitive than what we have today. While it’s comforting to know we don’t have to use a rotary machine with a hand crank, today’s options lead to another issue: decision paralysis. With so many different functions and features, knowing how to choose the right laundry cycle can be challenging. Luckily, learning these settings isn’t too tricky, and we’re here to help. Dive into our guide on washing machine cycles and when to use each one.


Benefits of choosing the right laundry cycle


Choosing the right laundry cycle is helpful in both the short and long term. Here’s how it can benefit you:


Your clothes will get cleaner.


Your clothes will last longer.


You’ll save on your energy bill. For example, changing temperature settings from hot to warm can cut your washer’s energy consumption in half. Those savings quickly add up.


You’ll conserve water, which is excellent for the planet!


While every washing machine is different, many share similar settings. Let’s break down what you’ll find.


Load Size


Some washing machines use sensors to measure load size and adjust accordingly. If yours has an option for load size, choosing the right one will inform the machine how much water and agitation it needs to use.


Your washer manual will be the best source for delineating load sizes. Can’t find the manual? Breaking the sizes into fourths based on how much clothing you’re washing generally works well and can prevent maintenance issues.


Small: About a quarter full

Medium: About half full

Large: About three-quarters full

Super Large or Extra Large: Filled to the top of the drum


Water Temperature


Beyond saving on your energy bill, choosing the proper water temperature for your laundry can extend the life of your clothing. Shrinking a t-shirt in the wash is not a good feeling.


Whether you’re washing clothing, sheets, pillowcases, or other linens, you’ll likely find cleaning instructions on the tag. You’ll save a lot of frustration by grouping similar items.


Many machines have two temperatures listed, such as “Hot - Cold.” The first relates to the cleaning water temperature, while the second is the rinse water. You always want the rinse water to be cold. There’s no benefit to a hotter rinse temperature—it’ll only add to your bill.


If you’re still unsure when to use which temperature, follow these guidelines.


Cold Water


This temperature is ideal for dark colors, delicate fabrics like wool, swimwear, and outerwear you don’t use as often, such as a light jacket. It’s also a strong choice if you’ve spilled a drink on your clothes, like wine, coffee, or milk—though you may need to pretreat and soak the clothes before tossing them in the wash. Cold water won’t harm clothing fibers and can be used in any size load.


Warm Water


Warm water helps detergents dissolve, so it’s a good choice for blended materials or those that have been lightly soiled. For example, cotton, linen, and manufactured or synthetic fibers do well in warm water.


Hot Water


Hot water is the best choice for white clothing and for treating heavily soiled clothes or stained materials, as well as clothes that hug your body, like undershirts, underwear, and socks. The hot water loosens debris and washes away several types of stains. If you or someone in your house has been sick, washing their clothes in hot water can help prevent bacteria from spreading.


Washing machine cycles explained


The final choice is the cycle, which impacts the speed and level at which the machine washes and spins your clothes. Again, you’ll choose this based on the type of materials you’re washing. Be sure to check your clothing labels for recommendations, too.


Hand Wash/Delicates cycle


As the name suggests, a delicate wash cycle is for your most fragile items. The machine uses the shortest and gentlest cycle, followed by low or no spin, which prevents your clothes from shrinking or stretching. Some machines have both of these settings; Hand Wash is usually the gentler of the two cycles. Consider using a delicate or specialty detergent, as well. 


What’s good for this cycle: Wool, silk, lace, vintage shirts,


Normal cycle


Some wardrobes may be able to survive exclusively on the Normal cycle—consider this the “everyday” setting for many items. It uses a high-speed wash with a high-speed spin, so you might hear your washing machine vibrating as it chugs along. Unless you’re looking to dye a white shirt pink or red, keep items sorted by color.


What’s good for this cycle: Cotton, linen, polyester, synthetic fabrics. Think everyday t-shirts, shorts, and socks.


Permanent Press cycle


When synthetics and wrinkle-free clothing became more popular in the mid-1900s, the Permanent Press cycle was born. You might also see this as a “Dark” or “Wrinkle-Free” setting, but they all produce the same result of a medium-speed wash with low-speed spin and additional cooling to eliminate wrinkles.


What’s good for this cycle: Dark and colored clothes, synthetic and blended fabrics like nylon or athletic wear.


Quick/Speed Wash cycle


When you need to head out to work or an event in less than an hour and your outfit is dirty, this cycle is a dream. You won’t use it often because doing a full load of laundry is more practical, but for a quick wash of one or two items, the shortened wash cycle and high spin speed make for a strong choice.


What’s good for this cycle: A top (like a work uniform) or bottom (like a pair of shorts) that needs a little TLC before you wear it that day. Avoid using this cycle with heavily soiled clothes or delicates.


Heavy-Duty cycle


This cycle is the ultimate challenge for someone who likes to watch the washing machine spin around. The Heavy-Duty cycle puts in a lot of work to remove sweat, dirt, stenches, and other unpleasant elements from clothes. It typically uses the highest heat and fastest spin settings to get the job done. 


What’s good for this cycle: Heavier materials such as jeans, coats, towels, or heavily soiled or smelly items.


Bulky Wash cycle


If you have a very oversized onesie, you might also choose this setting, though it’s typically reserved for non-clothing items. The Bulky Wash penetrates the fabrics of these materials, giving water and detergent time to soak and do their thing. The wash and spin are both medium settings, which keeps the washing machine balanced.


What’s good for this cycle: Comforters, blankets, mats, towels, and pillows.


Additional cycles


The above cycles are the ones that come on just about every washing machine, though yours might have additional options that are usually hyper-specific. For instance, a Sheets cycle helps prevent sheets from balling up, while you can use a Whites setting for bleachable white clothing.


You may also find options such as Steam, which reduces wrinkles without washing clothing, and Rinse and Spin, a good choice if you just need to freshen up some items.


Now that you know about your washing machine cycle settings, you can approach laundry with confidence. Enjoy those fresh clothes! 

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