Answer me this: How many pounds of clothing does the average American wear in the course of one week? If you answered about 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms), you're spot on [source: Borreli]. The American Cleaning Institute estimates that equals about five or six loads of laundry each week for a family of four, assuming people are wearing their jeans and pajamas and using their bath towels three or four times before they wash them [source: Borreli].
About 16 percent) of American homes don't have a washing machine; 19 percent don't have a dryer [source: HUD]. And because of dryers that won't dry, washing machines that won't spin, oversized blankets sized too big for home dryers to handle, and on occasion simply out of convenience alone, any one of us may need to take a trip to the laundromat from time to time. And while you may never get excited about laundromat day, it does beat doing things the old-fashioned way with a bit of water and a washboard (or a rock), right? You can make it even a little more palatable by knowing the unwritten rules of the load.
The Place is Bugged
Think twice about bringing your lunch to eat as you pass the time waiting for your clothes to wash and tumble; the place is bugged — and, now, so are your hands.
Laundry is dirty before you wash it, but also after. And it's pretty gross. Let's imagine the person using the washing machine before you does a load of underwear: Each pair of underwear in that load carries an average of one-tenth of a gram of fecal matter. That translates into about 100 million E.coli released into the soapy water as the clothes are cleaned and rinsed (and that's not taking into account the other fecal-friendly microorganisms such as hepatitis A virus), bacteria that will wait around to hitch a ride on your clothes — and then onto your hands [source: Carollo]. Other potentially harmful bacteria include Staphylococcus (which may cause mild to severe skin infections as well as life-threatening conditions such as sepsis) and klebsiella (which, among other serious conditions, causes pneumonia and urinary tract infections).
Since you won't be able to refine the water temperature to anything more specific than "hot" (and most hot settings don't meet the 140 to 150 degree Fahrenheit [60 to 66 Celsius] threshold for killing bacteria), use bleach to get rid of germs. That's something most people don't do: Collectively, we use bleach in only 15 percent of all the loads of wash we do [source: Rotstein].
Also, as you wouldn't want to fold your clean clothes on a stranger's worn undergarments, refrain from placing any dirty laundry and transferring an unattended load of wet clothes to a folding table (of course you'd never do that, anyway) — they're intended for clean clothes only.
Reserving Machines: No Suds, No Save
Some will tell you it's smartest to claim your machine (or machines) with your laundry basket of dirties. Smart, sure, we won't argue that. Rude? That it is — but not all the time. When it comes to reserving machines the trick is to be reasonable. Spreading your dirty laundry across the lids of a number of machines you intend to monopolize for the entire afternoon between errands is considered inconsiderate by, well, pretty much everyone, as is trying to reserve an open dryer for your wet clothes that still have 20 minutes to go in the wash. No one likes a line jumper. Setting your laundry basket on a machine while you get your quarters or card for payment may be acceptable in some shared laundry spaces, while in others it's considered discourteous.
Consider, too, the size of the laundromat, the time of day and the day of the week. If it's a small facility with just a few machines, such as the ones apartment buildings sometimes offer, it's definitely not cool to use all the machines to accelerate your laundry chores. And of course, nights and weekends are going to be the busiest in any laundromat, so be courteous to all the other people who also need to wash their clothes, and don't hog the machines.
Sort Before You Go
One of the common themes in laundromat etiquette, you'll notice, is to be considerate of others: their time, their space, their belongings. To ensure good laundry karma, and score points with the laundromat regulars for not wasting anyone's time, sort your laundry before you go to the laundromat.
Most people begin with sorting by color, which leaves you with, potentially, four piles: white clothes, light clothes, dark clothes and any articles of clothing that may bleed (such as red socks or dark denim). Separate delicates from more substantial clothing. And depending on how thorough you like to be, also sort by similar fabrics and similar textures (such as a towels-only load), by level of dirtiness (such as workout-gear only) or by weight (keeping in mind that not all articles of clothing are equal; bulky clothing such as jeans and sweaters, for instance, weigh more than cotton T-shirts or anything made of polyester, by volume.). As you sort articles of clothing, check pockets for any stowaways, such as money or jewelry.
Similarly, make the best use of everyone's time by removing all your clothes from the dryer and then folding them — that's why there are folding tables.
Don't Overload Machines with Clothes
Here's a secret to banishing wrinkles from your laundry: Don't wash or dry so many articles of clothing per load.
If you pack so many clothes into the washer or dryer that those clothes spin as a large, cohesive ball rather than tumbling as individual articles of clothing, you're at — or over — the load capacity of that machine. (Sound familiar?) Split that load into two and you'll not only avoid wrinkles, you'll also have cleaner clothes.
Clothes need a little breathing room to move around in the washer, and without that space, each and every garment may not get the agitation and rinsing that it should. Overloading also contributes to the likelihood that your clothes may become damaged during the cycle as they become twisted and wadded up.
The same rule of space goes for the dryer. Shake each garment before you add it to the dryer, not only to untangle clothing (and release hidden socks) but to help reduce wrinkles. The added bonus of keeping your dryer loads small: Not only will your clothes dry more evenly, but they'll also dry more efficiently.
Don't Overload Machines with Detergent
The two most common laundry headaches both involve overloading the washer, either with too many clothes or with too much detergent. We just covered clothing overload, so now let's talk about suds.
Method Products Inc. found more than half (53 percent) of us aren't using the right amount of laundry detergent per load. While some pour until the liquid reaches the fill line and others just eyeball it, we're more likely to err on a surplus measurement than a scant one [source: Byron]. It seems so obvious: The more soap you use, the cleaner your clothes will be. Except that's not actually the truth. As it turns out, you need water but you don't necessarily need laundry detergent. The washer's agitation is often powerful enough to clean your clothes [source: Byron]. Too much laundry detergent in a washer load can actually lead to soapy residue on your clothing. The problem arises because too much soap makes too much foamy water, and any bacteria and dirt that is washed out of the clothes as they're cleaned ends up suspended in the suds, and then coating your clothes as they're rinsed.
Don't Leave Your Clothes Unattended
An average cycle in the washing machine lasts between 25 to 40 minutes. Expect each dryer cycle to last about the same length or a little longer, 30 to 40 minutes. If you simply can't wait the half hour and plan to abandon your station to run an errand, make a note of the time you started your load (most laundromat machines have timers) and plan your return to coincide with its completion. Even better, come back a few minutes early. This, according to (mostly unspoken) shared laundry-room etiquette, is important. Leaving your clothes unattended is considered rude because you're monopolizing machines.
Anecdotally, odds are pretty good that if you don't move your clothes, someone else will — they may give you a brief grace period, but any longer than 15 minutes and you can expect to find your clean load on top of the machine, in a dryer or on a folding table. (Or, on a particularly bad day, on the floor.) If you're a wash-and-go type, leave your basket on top of the machine.
It's not only that unattended clothes waiting for an owner wastes everyone's time; unwatched clothes are also a target for thieves. Laundromats are public spaces, and if you're not watching your clothes, someone else might be.
Double-check You Have All Your Stuff
It's not always the dryer to blame for eating the sock you lost; sometimes you just leave it behind. Be sure to double-check inside both the washing machine and the dryer when you're coming and going from the machines. You're looking for pieces of clothing that you don't want to leave behind, but also items that other launderers may have abandoned before you.
If you've left your sock behind, the odds are good you'll never be reunited — and someone may be cursing your penchant for colorful socks if your laundry orphan discolors his or her load. If it's your white or light-colored clothing that becomes tinted with dye from another laundromat patron's renegade red, all hope is not lost. First, don't put the wet, tinted items in the dryer; just like when you're treating stains, avoid those high temperatures to help avoid letting the stain — or dye — set. Instead, place all articles of clothing that are safe to bleach (which excludes leather, mohair, silk, spandex and wool) in a diluted bleach solution. Then rinse, and repeat the process if needed.
Bring Your Own Detergent
Laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, bleach and other basic laundry supplies are often available via vending machine at the laundromat, but it's an unspoken rule that you're supposed to bring your own. (Pro tip: Liquid fabric softener will soften your blankets better than dryer sheets.)
There is no rule that you need to lug those large containers back and forth, though. Lighten your load by filling smaller, laundromat-friendly containers to carry everything you need without feeling like a pack mule. You're also going to save money by purchasing full-size supplies and portioning them out instead of buying the single-use items available at the laundromat. You can also use one of the many recipes available online to make your own detergent to take with you. And remember: You need less than you probably think.
Plus, there's also a potential social benefit for arriving at the laundromat locked and loaded with your own supplies. Regulars may see you as one of their own, a peer who knows the ropes, so you may be treated better for having planned ahead. (But the flip side is that they may be judging you based on your detergent selection.)
Clean the Lint Trap
Before you walked away from the dryer with your bundle of warm T-shirts, did you clean all the fuzzy fibers off of the lint screen? Sure, sometimes it might just slip your mind, but leaving your lint behind is rude. No one wants to clean up your old fuzz. Aside from social graces, though, there are also practical reasons for cleaning the lint screen after each completed dryer load: dryer efficiency and reducing the risk of starting a laundry-related fire.
A clogged lint filter will make a dryer work harder as it tries to exhaust hot, moist air from the dryer drum to the outside. Over long periods of time, it's also possible that fabric softener residue may build up on the screen and reduce the air flow through the vent. Any time the lint screen is clogged, the dryer's efficiency drops.
While you may be quick to blame the bad luck of a laundry-related fire on an electrical problem, it's actually human failure to clean out the lint that's causing the most combustions [source: NFPA]. Ninety-two percent of laundry-related fires are caused by clothes dryers. It's those fires that spark in commercial spaces, such as laundromats, that typically have more reported injuries than those in residential buildings [sources: NFPA, West Bend, FEMA]. Lint, it turns out, is a highly flammable combination of fuzzy fibers from fabrics, such as cotton, and also hair (and fur) and any other dirt and debris that hitched a ride on your clothes. The dryer will run longer — sometimes more than an hour — to get the job done, and in doing so will generate a lot of heat for a considerable length of time. Too much heat over too much time may ignite too much lint.
Do whatever you please with dryer sheets in your personal laundry room, but remember the laundromat is a public place. Used fabric softener sheets, empty bottles of detergent, the fuzzy residue from the dryer's lint screen; these all belong in the trash, not on top of the machine, in the machine, on the floor or wherever else laundromat patrons might be leaving them. In short: Don't be a litter bug.
Additionally, let's talk about carts. Don't let your laundry cart etiquette upset the apple cart. (Translation: Put items such as carts back where you found them or risk upsetting the laundromat regulars.) There are two basic types of carts you'll find in the laundromat: the large rolling baskets and the laundry butlers (those are the large rolling baskets equipped with a pole and bar above for hanging clothes). Naturally, if you have clothes you'll need to hang, you'll need the laundry butler. But if you don't have anything to hang, do we have to say it? Leave the butlers behind for those who need them. Not only is it good karma (one day you, too, will need the laundry butler), it's good manners. And when you no longer need the cart, return it to its rightful spot — which we're pretty sure is not the aisle.
How well do you know these commonly flubbed abbreviations? Take this HowSuffWorks quiz to find out.
Author's Note: 10 Laundromat Etiquette Rules
Shortly after I researched and wrote about how filthy our worn and clean clothes are, I began reading an off-shoot story about laundromats that offer gourmet food that I'd opened among my reference tabs. I like both gourmet cheese sandwiches and the smell of fabric softener; I figured I'd need to know more. But my timing was very wrong: crepes and a coin-operated laundry setup ... don't forget to pack hand sanitizer with your detergent.
More Great Links
- Better Homes & Gardens. "How to Dry Clothing (Yes, There Is a Right Way)." (March 28, 2015) http://www.bhg.com/homekeeping/laundry-linens/clothes/dry-clothes/
- Byron, Ellen. "The Great American Soap Overdose." The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 25, 2010. (March 28, 2015) http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703808904575025021214910714
- Carollo, Kim. "Dirty Laundry? How Nasty Germs Survive in Your Washer." ABC News. May 27, 2010. (March 28, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/washing-machines-loaded-bacteria-dirty-clothes/story?id=10751420
- Clorox. "Dr. Laundry: Removing the Pink When Red Clothes Dye Whites." Aug. 20, 2013. (Mach 28, 2015) https://www.clorox.com/dr-laundry/removing-the-pink-when-red-clothes-dye-whites/
- Coast Laundry. "Etiquette." (March 28, 2015) http://coast-laundry.com/services/
- D'Costa, Krystal. "Spin Cycle: The Social Realm of the Laundromat." Scientific American — Anthropology in Practice. Jan. 21, 2013. (March 28, 2015) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/2013/01/21/spin-cycle-the-social-realm-of-the-laundromat/
- Gebhardt, Sara. "Time Is of the Essence in Shared Laundry Rooms." The Washington Post. Aug. 7, 2004. (March 28, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A45975-2004Aug6.html
- Katz, Sarah. "Laundry Room Etiquette: Sharing Your Laundry Room." May 22, 2013. (March 28, 2015) http://renters.apartments.com/laundry-room-etiquette-sharing-your-laundry-room
- Mother Nature Network. "8 Common Laundry Mistakes That May Damage Your Washing Machine." May 8, 2014. (March 28, 2015) http://www.mnn.com/your-home/at-home/stories/8-common-laundry-mistakes-that-may-damage-your-washing-machine
- N.J. Laundromats. "How to Wash Clothes at the Laundromat Like a Pro." (March 28, 2015) http://njlaundromats.com/how-to-wash-clothes-at-the-laundromat-like-a-pro/
- National Fire Protection Association. "Dryers and Washing Machines." July 2013. (March 28, 2015) http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/causes/dryers-and-washing-machines
- Real Simple. "12 Laundry Mistakes You're Probably Making." (March 28, 2015) http://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/cleaning/laundry/top-laundry-mistakes
- Rotstein, Arther H. "Washing Your Underwear? Don't Forget the Bleach." Los Angeles Times. May 16, 1999. (March 28, 2015) http://articles.latimes.com/1999/may/16/news/mn-37756
- Smith, J.A. "Effect of Water Temperature on Bacterial Killing in Laundry." American Journal of Infection Control. Vol. 8, No. 5. Pages 204-209. May 1987. (March 28, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3647942
- StateUniversity.com. "How to Do Your Own Laundry." (March 28, 2015) http://www.stateuniversity.com/blog/permalink/Doing-Your-Own-Laundry.html
- Sullivan, Brian. "HUD Releases 2009 American Housing Survey." U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). July 1, 2010. (March 28, 2015) http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/press/press_releases_media_advisories/2010/HUDNo.10-138
- U.S. Department of Home Security — FEMA. "Clothes Dryer Fires in Residential Buildings (2008-2010)." Topical Fire Report Series (TFRS). Vol. 13, No. 7. August 2012. (March 28, 2015) https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v13i7.pdf
- Viets, Elaine. "Etiquette for the Great Unwashed." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Feb. 3, 1995. (March 28, 2015) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-02-03/business/9502030033_1_laundry-room-washing-clothes
- West Bend Mutual Insurance Company. "Dryer Fire Safety." (March 20, 2015) http://www.cultureofsafety.com/safety-tips/dryer-fires/