Laundromat Life

The joys of apartment living are many: leaky faucets aren’t your job to fix, smaller space means less to clean, and renting is nearly always the more affordable choice. But if there is one thorn in the side of apartment life it just might be laundry day.

Apartments with on-site or in-unit laundry are often premium options and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we won’t mind trips to the laundromat as we’re signing the lease. Fast forward a few months, and if you’re like me, you’ll be thinking up any excuse you can to postpone laundry day. Lugging bag(s) of dirty laundry down stairs and around the corner to the laundromat is admittedly a first world problem. But as much as we might dislike the chore, skimping on efficiency and proper techniques won’t help.

We’ve compiled expert-verified tips and methods for succeeding on laundry day. No on-site machines needed (although we won’t pretend it wouldn’t be really nice). Just prep, wash, dry, fold, and pat yourself on the back. Being a regular at the laundromat may never be a trending status, but at least your clothes will be clean. Spotless, actually.


You know the old saying: “Give me two hours to complete the laundry and I will spend the first half hour preparing for the task.”

I might have taken some liberties to change the old adage, but it’s true nonetheless. Preparing for your trip to the laundromat will make you much more efficient, and I don’t know anyone who dreams up ways to make laundry last longer.

Obey the Tag

Of first importance: know your laundry labels. Be aware of what fabrics each piece is made of and any special considerations for care. Should you wash in warm water or cool? Can it be tumble-dried in a machine? Is it safe to iron? The manufacturer’s recommendation for caring for your garment isn’t classified information; it’s printed on the tag in a string of tiny symbols. And while you may need a magnifying glass to see clearly, they’re easy to understand once you recognize the pattern. (Stick with me here. It’s not as nerdy as you might think.)

There are five symbol categories: wash, dry, iron, bleach, and professional cleaning.

laundry care symbols

Each category contains a variety of techniques for properly caring for your garment. The rule of thumb is to treat the fabric with no more than the recommended level of care. For example, if the label advises washing in warm water, cold water will be okay but hot water will cause damage. Pay attention to what each symbol means:

laundry care symbols

Some fabrics must be cared for exactly as prescribed on the tag. Delicates made of pure silk must be hand washed to avoid damaging its fibers and 100% wool must be hand washed and air dried or the piece will shrink significantly. Other less-fragile materials can withstand “improper care”—say, warmer water than the manufacturer recommends. But if you want to take the best care of each garment and extend its life for as long as possible, follow the label as closely as you can.

Sorting Laundry

Separating your laundry into groups of similar colors and fabrics allows you to follow the instructions for proper care. At the least, sort white pieces into a pile separate from dark or brightly-dyed fabrics. Washing white with dark is risky—colors from the dyed pieces bleeding onto lighter fabrics. You’ve seen it—beautiful white bathroom towels tinged pink from that brand new red t-shirt. Cringe. Denim is especially notorious for sharing its color, and should be only washed with other dark or denim pieces.

Take sorting a step further and divide your clothes into groups of similar fabrics. This allows you to treat each group with the proper water temperature, detergent, and drying technique. White cottons can be safely washed in hot water and dried on the hottest temperature setting, but any other fabrics in the same load might shrink in the heat.

Since you’re taking your washing to the laundromat and paying for each machine, it’s not always possible to sort each color and type of fabric into its unique pile. That’s okay. Be aware of your delicate and extra-special pieces and give them the proper care (consider hand-washing those items), and do the best you can with the rest of your laundry.

Choose your supplies

Laundry Detergent

Do you lose yourself in the laundry detergent aisle every few months? I do. Choosing the best detergent can be a bit daunting, so consider your family’s needs when making your selection. Does someone in the house have sensitive skin or an allergy to certain fragrances? Are there scents that are just too potent for your liking? Do you fight tough stains in jeans every week? Is an eco-friendly option important to you? Although your final selection is a personal one, here are some crowd-pleasing detergents from each category to help you get started.

The Laundress Signature Detergent: Plant-derived, nontoxic, biodegradable, and allergen-free. Highly concentrated. / Method Free & Clear: Naturally derived with no dyes or perfumes. / Tide Ultra Stain Release Fragrance Free: No dyes or perfumes, highest stain removal rating from The Wirecutter / Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Detergent: 97% Naturally derived / Common Good Detergent (if you live near a refill station you can refill the plastic bottle over and over!)

If you have small children in your home or if you’re buying for an elderly person who suffers from dementia, avoid using liquid detergent pods. The squishy, colorful packets of highly-concentrated detergent can actually be lethal if ingested! It’s no laughing matter, and after hearing about the deadly risk, I made the decision to never purchase pods.

And remember, laundry detergents contain enzymes, the workhorses of the cleaning process. They’re great for slicing through stains, but will damage wool and silk. Use products labeled “soap” or “wash” (neither contain enzymes) for these materials, and preferably ones designed and labeled for the particular fabric.

A Word about Fabric Softener

Fabric softener adds a conditioning-like coating onto fabrics that makes the fibers stand on end and feel—well, softer. Many people can’t imagine clean laundry without the feel and scent of softener, but it’s actually not a necessary part of the cleaning process. If you’re in the pro-softener camp, be aware that it shouldn’t be used on towels or microfiber (the coating will prevent them from absorbing water), flame-resistant clothing like kids pajamas (softener will alter the flame-resistant properties of the fabric), or sportswear and other water-repellent materials (will alter these materials and prevent wicking and repelling). And one last thing: fabric softener will stain any material that comes in direct, undiluted contact with it. I have never met a laundromat washer that allows me to dilute softener before adding it to my load of laundry, so I don’t use it at all. If you do, add it carefully to the washer; softener stains look like grease spots and are tough to remove.

Stain Removers

Stains of any kind are more likely to be removed if treated as soon as possible. Keep a stain remover near your laundry hamper to spray or dab on that pasta sauce spill. Use a brush or white cloth rather than a sponge or paper towel to avoid additional residue. Pre-treating stains is important if you’re a laundromat user and don’t have the luxury of washing the piece immediately. It’s also helpful if you’re unable to wash each piece with its particular care recommendations.

The Laundress Stain Solution: Plant-derived, highly concentrated to treat up to 200 stains! / OxiClean: “America’s #1.” / The Laundress Wash & Stain Bar: Simple ingredients for tough stains on clothing, upholstery, and more. / Stain Brush: For applying stain removers for spot treatment.

Pick a non-chlorine, bleach alternative for your everyday stain remover. Chlorine bleach should be used (very) sparingly to avoid weakening the fibers of fabrics, causing yellowing, deactivating detergent enzymes (if used together), and generating toxic fumes if accidentally mixed with the wrong cleaning products. Bleach alternatives do none of those things, and still work well to remove tough stains.

Laundry bags

Any laundromat regular knows that the right laundry bag is a lifesaver. If you’re traveling further than a few flights of stairs, pick a well-made bag with a strong handle. A washable material is nice; when you’re transporting laundry that’s particularly soiled, you can toss the bag in to be washed too. Zippered mesh bags protect delicates and undergarments. Stuff everything in your shopping cart, (don’t forget your detergent!) and you can be on your way to spotless laundry.

100% Cotton Canvas Bag: With shoulder strap / Whitmor Laundry Bag: Backpack shoulder straps and two outer pockets / The Laundress Mesh Bags: Set of two / Shopping Cart

Pre-Laundromat Preparations

A bit of forethought before trekking to the laundromat can help you be more efficient and spend less time hypnotized by the spinning machines. And as much as we’re glad to have a laundromat nearby, the quicker the trip the better.

Sort and spot-treat your laundry before bagging and transporting it. Use separate bags for each load if you have them (otherwise fill the bag with one entire load before adding the next), and inspect garments for stains, loose buttons, or pocket treasures. Losing a button or key at the laundromat means it’s probably gone for good. Turn jeans and darks inside out to prevent fading, unbutton shirt buttons, and check new pieces for care instructions.

Your laundry is sorted, pre-treated, and bagged. You’re ready to wash.


Commercial washers found at the laundromat are designed with an emphasis on function for large volumes and more frequent use than consumer grade machines. They have fewer modes and settings, but are still effective in getting the job done.

I’ve already mentioned the importance of washing like colors and like fabrics for the sake of keeping items in good shape and beautiful. Before you load the washing machine, it’s a good idea to stick your head inside and take a sniff. Yes, it sounds gross, but shoving your clothes into a washer that smells of bleach or vomit sounds even worse. Every family has their bouts of sickness, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to share the washer with their dirty laundry and germs. If you’re feeling extra benevolent toward your laundry, wipe out the machine before you load.

And no matter how you feel about the chore of laundry, don’t fill the washer more than three-quarters full. Yes, it’s tempting to pack it full when you think about all those quarters you’ll spend just to get your clothes clean, but overfilling a washer will actually prevent your clothes from getting clean. Leaving ample room in the machine allows every piece of laundry to be treated with sudsy detergent and keeps the load from getting tangled or clumped together.

Wash your delicates (if you’re machine washing them) in zippered mesh bags. This keeps bra straps from getting tangled with your yoga pants and delicate fabrics are saved a beating from the spin cycle. Mesh bags can even be used to contain socks—you may never lose a match again! They’re especially helpful for itty bitty socks and items that belong to the littlest members of the family.

Select the water temperature by choosing the appropriate washer setting for your load of laundry. Hot water is for light colored fabrics and cottons like underwear, undershirts, cloth diapers, bed linens, kitchen laundry. Use the hottest setting for soiled items and anything that needs sanitized (like bed linens after sickness). Be aware that hot temperatures can fade colors, set stains that are not treated properly, and may shrink fabrics that are not made to withstand hot temperatures. Warm water is often marked permanent press and is best for knits and man-made fabrics such as polyester, nylon, rayon, and spandex. Warm temperatures may fade some colors and is unable to remove heavy soils and stains as well as hot water. Cold water will cause the least damage (shrinking, fading, color bleeding) to any type of material. Use the cold setting if you have a mixed load or you’re uncertain about how to wash an item. Delicates and dark clothes that may bleed color are best washed in cold water, but be aware that stains may not come clean as well. You may need to use a bit more detergent, and pre-soak soiled pieces to accommodate.


Hand-washing is for your extra-special pieces. The silk scarves, favorite well-made t-shirts, delicates and bras, shirts you hope will last for years. And believe it or not, the process is really simple. Keep your best-loved pieces looking their best by using your own two hands.

Get started with a large plastic wash bin (or a very clean sink) filled with water at the right temperature. Pre-treat stains and wash like with like as usual. Add a drizzle of detergent (a capful if you’re using one that’s concentrated) and submerge the item in water, then swish to agitate water and detergent. Soak for ten to thirty minutes and rinse with clean, room-temperature water until soap suds are gone. Press water out of the item with your hands or by rolling in a dry towel (wringing will stretch out your clothes!). Hang dry or lay flat, as per care instructions. There. That wasn’t so bad!

Sterilite Washing Tub / Wood Drying Rack: Foldable and fits in a standard size bathtub. / Wall Mounted Drying Rack



After the wash cycle, separate your laundry into two groups: machine dry and hang dry. Dryers make your laundry emerge softer (not to mention warm and cozy), but also can weaken the fibers of fabrics over time, so chose wisely, and remember that heat causes shrinkage.

Save yourself some time and money by loading your clothes into a dryer that’s still warm from the last use. Empty the lint trap (if possible—I’ve never been able to figure out how in my laundromat dryers) and give each piece of laundry a good shake before tossing it in the machine. It sounds overly meticulous, but fluffing your laundry will keep it separated for better airflow and fewer wrinkles. And hopefully your sweater sleeve won’t wind up tangled with your bath robe. As with the washer, don’t overfill the machine and use the mildest heat setting you can. If you’re drying a mixed load, permanent press is a warm-air setting that ends with a cool-down to relax wrinkles and will be suitable for most fabrics. Towels take a notoriously long time to dry, so I often open the dryer mid-spin to pull out pieces that have dried more quickly.

Air-drying takes up more surface area but saves your laundry from the wear and tear of the heat and spin of the dryer. Some delicate items like sweaters and other knits are best dried flat to prevent being misshapen by a hanger, and other materials can be draped over a drying rack. Bras should always be air-dried (heat from the dryer will damage the elastic in the straps, and that’s some sad, saggy business), along with most other delicates.

The best spot I’ve found to air-dry clothes in our small apartment is the bathtub—most drying racks fit. Once we even strung a clothesline across the living room because we didn’t have enough quarters to finish the drying cycle at the laundromat. I don’t recommend it, but it worked in a pinch and made for some fun rounds of limbo.

Viola! Clothes, laundered.


You’ll be tempted to stuff all that freshly washed-and-dried laundry back into the laundry bag to take home ASAP. Don’t do it. I won’t bother detailing methods of folding your laundry (there are many), but I will plead with you to fold it before you pack it. You’ve taken the care to launder each piece as best you can, you’ve added extra quarters to be sure it’s completely dry, and you’re so ready to get out of that dingy laundromat. It’s easy to skimp on this last phase of laundromat life (I know—I’ve done it myself a few times) but it’s such a letdown to come home and dump out your bag to find your fresh laundry freshly wrinkled. Stuffing warm clothes into a laundry bag will do that. Fold your laundry how you like and then bag it for the trip home.

Laundromat etiquette

The laundromat may not be the hottest spot in the neighborhood, but it’s an essential shared space. Be a good neighbor by treating it with respect. Unspoken laundromat etiquette isn’t rocket science, it’s just simple consideration for others who share your laundromat.

  • If you’re unsure how to use a machine, ask an attendant for help.
  • Don’t put your dirty clothes on clean folding tables, and if you spill something, clean it up.
  • Sort your loads at home to avoid taking up more than your share of space, and because no one wants to see a display of your dirty laundry.
  • If you have to leave your clothes while they’re being cleaned, return as quickly as you can to free up machine space for the next person—especially during busy times like weekends.
  • Don’t bother someone else’s load of laundry. If a load needs removed from a washer or dryer for some reason, ask an attendant for assistance.

There’s no standard expectation for tipping your laundry attendant for wash and fold service. I always tip because drop-off laundry service saves my sanity and that’s worth a few extra dollars. Our laundromat attendants are very kind, give exceptional service, have never damaged anything, and even accommodate my requests for picking up clean laundry in a few hours time.

A little bit of common sense, kindness, and attentiveness goes a long way at the laundromat. It’s unlikely that doing laundry is anyone’s favorite job, so let’s make easier on all of us.

Congratulations! You’ve unlocked a new level of laundromat prowess. You can sort, spot-treat, read a care label, and wrangle a coin-operated washing machine with the best of them. But let’s be honest, even if you do nothing more than successfully lug your family’s bag of unsorted, not pretreated laundry out the door and around the corner for drop-off service at your laundromat, you’ll be doing well. Because let’s face it. Some days are for caring about laundering your clothing properly and some days just aren’t. You’re doing a great job either way.

#cityfamilysolidarity to all you laundromat regulars.