Debunking The Hot Water Laundry Myth - Why Are Consumers So Superstitious & Stubborn?

laundry photo

One load of laundry before midnight. Image credit:Flickr, Average Jane

New York Times has a great piece titled A Dash of Cold Water in which they explain that most consumers still do their laundry in hot water - even in socialist countries like Germany fer Gootsake. Root cause of this silly behavior seems to come down to superstition, with a dash of stubbornness and reluctance to vary from what Ma taught us thrown in for good measure.Stubborn habits about doing laundry extend well beyond refusing to wash in cold water and these habits are bad for our budgets as well as for the environment. I have a list, presented below in rank order of importance.

  1. Refusal to use cold water.

  2. Ignoring the super-concentrated detergent sold in very small bottles (1 quart does 32+ loads) in favor of the detergent bottles and boxes that are made billboard-sized to grab our attention on the store shelf. The amount of packaging consumed and carrying required for the smaller bottles are far less but we do it anyway because we are suckers for a brightly colored bauble pitched with coupons.

  3. Buying those perfumed petro-pads to throw in the dryer so you can make your clothing smell like an old lady on a bus. A total waste of money and material. (I suspect the fragrance also makes people more attractive to mosquitoes.)

  4. Passing on to our children the belief that detergent in the washer must produce lots of suds to get things clean and that even more suds, i.e. more detergent, means cleaner clothes. That was for soap, two generations ago. See proof and explanation below*

  5. Refusing to use chlorine bleach on whites out of a belief that chlorine is bad for the environment. A little chlorine on the sheets is going to save a lot of hot water and get the job done right in one try - saving water and energy costs.

  6. Failure to consider running a load before bed, when electricity is cheaper. Avoiding the peak demand part of the day reduces the amount air air emissions at the coal-fired electricity plant, per unit of work done by the washing machine.

I've been doing laundry for our family for over 20 years and for myself when I was single, back in the early Greenocene. Gave up entirely on hot water for clothes washing in about 1995, when I shut the hot water supply valve for the washer off.
When there are stubborn stains, I add a large dose of one of the organic peroxide bleaches - Oxyclean is a familiar brand in the USA - and set the machine on extended-soak cycle. You should have one (although few people use that function I bet). Again, no one complains about clothes looking dirty.

*Proof and some explanation.
I once ran out of automatic dishwasher detergent and foolishly tried some laundry detergent. It about blew the door off and took hours to clean up. Don't do what I did.

Read your manual and it will tell you NEVER to do that because dishwashers must not be run with detergents that produce foam: e.g. foaming is an inherent property of ordinary soap like grandma used but can be achieved or enhanced in a detergent by addition of a synthetic foaming agent.

Thoughts about foam in the washing machine and the dishwasher are shaped by the part of the human brain where resides the grandma parasite making us believe we need it. Block those ancient voices on laundry day and try using, if anything, a tad less in the washing machine. It could save money and still result in clean clothes.

There is a spectrum of legitimate foam need, however.

Formulators of cleaning products in general can buy defoaming agents to suppress foam creation in dishwashers. Defoamers are also useful if there is a detergent spill that makes its way to the sewerage treatment plant, turning a settling basin into a foam pond and preventing treatment.

Foaming is useful and wanted in a shampoo, for example, because it keeps the detergent in our hair until we rinse. There are other cleaning products that have a legit need for foam. For that they add foaming agents such as sodium laureth sulfate.

Update #1: Hot water washing contributes to (but is not the sole cause) of shrinkage in cotton or wool clothing. Washing in cold water helps reduce shrinkage risk, assuming you don't put the item in a hot clothes dryer.

Hot water may or may not cause certain types of stains to "set," making removal more difficult. I've seen opinions on both sides and have no facts or opinions to report.

Organic peroxide bleach is often added to the detergent and sold in combination. Regardless, you can add more OP bleach with no risk of color loss. If that does not work on stained whites, you can up the firepower and try chlorine. I've never seen evidence that chlorine's effectiveness is enhanced by heat.

My son worked as a cook and then as a waiter and we washed his often stained, greasy clothes in cold water - no problem. Unless you are a car mechanic or a maintenance engineer in a factory, for example, I don't see the need for hot water with everyday washing.

Update #2.
Energy prices have risen substantially over the last two years. Water heating is expensive no matter what the fuel used is. With so many people out of work and having a hard time making ends meet, I am amazed at the continuing reluctance to at least try cold water washing. All you have to do is try.

Make the new normal cool: why not make the default setting on the washer "cool,", so the next user has to consciously choose the hot water washing? And, get everyone to agree that when the hot load is finished they will re-set it to cool water wash.

Making cool the default choice is not at all similar to the age-old argument over the proper default condition for a toilet seat (up or down), as there is real money at stake.

My hot water heater tank is set as low as it can be - about 114 F degrees - without making the shower uncomfortable in winter. It's set that low to save money and to prevent small children from getting scalded. As a result, water arriving at the hot water inlet to the washing machine is no where near "hot." Again, I can't see a reason why everyone wouldn't make this their choice as well (plus or minus a few degrees).

Debunking The Hot Water Laundry Myth - Why Are Consumers So Superstitious & Stubborn?
New York Times has a great piece titled A Dash of Cold Water in which they explain that most consumers still do their laundry in hot water - even in socialist countries like

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