How to wash and care for cotton – fabric care experts spill 6 laundry secrets

Protect the breathable qualities of this natural fiber with these six laundry tricks

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Cotton is one of the best fabric options for both clothing and household linens. Not only is it soft and versatile, and usually hardwearing, but it is light and breathable making it perfect for those with allergies or skin conditions such as eczema.

But how do you protect this impressive natural fiber? While it is generally one of the more forgiving materials when it comes to doing laundry, several laundry mistakes could be shortening its lifespan, experts warn.

Here, they detail the six most important steps when washing and caring for cotton clothes to help keep your textiles looking and behaving their best for years to come.

How to wash and care for cotton

As with any laundry routine, you should always start by pretreating stains before you start the general laundry cycle. Following a few golden rules for stain removal will help to keep your cotton clothes and linens looking their best without the need to put them on a more strenuous wash cycle, ultimately protecting the fibers in the long run.

With the stains removed with gentler detergent, the item can finally go in the washing machine.

1. Wash in cold water

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Laundry experts suggest that we wash clothes in cold water more and more regularly – and for a good reason. Not only is it better for the environment and can help cut energy bills, but it is more caring for clothes and linens, says Daniel Feliciano, co-founder, and CEO of Clotheslyne.

He explains that cold water prevents shrinkage and color fading – especially in cotton clothes – which can go a long way in maintaining the shape and appearance of your favorite shirt.

2. Use gentle detergent

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When washing clothes, it is also generally advisable to use gentle detergent (paired with a gentle cycle) to further protect the breathable qualities of the fibers, Daniel Feliciano, laundry care expert, continues. A gentle eco-friendly detergent such as Ecover Zero Laundry Detergent, from Amazon or Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent from Walmart are excellent bets. They are also kind to sensitive skin, making them ideal for households with young children or people with allergies or skin conditions.

You should skip out fabric softener altogether when washing and caring for cotton. This can coat the fibers in residue that minimizes the breathability and hypoallergenic qualities of the fabric.

3. Wash on reverse

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One thing people who are good at laundry always do is wash their clothing – especially their cotton clothing – inside out, shares Matthew O’Conner, laundry expert at NoScrubs Laundry Delivery:

‘Trust me, it's like armor for your clothes,’ he says. Turning inside out allows the part of the garment that has been closest to your body to be washed first all while minimizing abrasion to the exterior of the garment to keep it looking its best for longer, he explains. It is quick and simple to do and will save you a lot of trouble in the future.

4. Try an ice bath to lock in color and shape

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‘This tip may seem kind of weird, but it is a super effective method for maintaining the integrity and vibrancy of cotton clothing. It involves filling a basin or bathtub with cold water and adding a generous amount of ice cubes. Submerge the cotton clothing in the ice bath for about 30 minutes before washing it as usual,’ suggests Barbara Stern, textiles expert at Ottoman Textiles.

‘The cold temperature helps to lock in colors and prevent fading, especially for brightly colored or dark garments. This treatment also tightens the cotton fibers, reducing the likelihood of shrinking and maintaining the garment's original shape. By integrating this step into your laundry routine, you can significantly prolong the life and appearance of your cotton clothing.’

Be sure to keep cotton garments to one side when sorting clothes for laundry to make this process easier.

5. Air dry, or dry low

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There are several benefits to air-drying laundry, but the longevity and appearance of your clothes are top of the list, especially when it comes to cotton, urges Hyacinth Tucker, laundry expert and founder of Laundry Basket.

‘Hang your cotton treasures to air-dry if you can. It keeps them from getting too cozy with the dryer's heat which might cause shrinkage or color fade. If you must use the dryer, go low and slow, and keep your clothes out of direct sunlight to avoid any surprise shrinking acts.’

6. Iron inside out

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Cotton can be prone to wrinkling, especially if you let it sit in the laundry basket slightly too long before putting it away. The best way to get wrinkles out of clothes is to iron them, but Hyacinth Tucker, laundry expert recommends ironing them inside out to protect the look of the garment:

‘When it's ironing time, flip your cotton goodies inside out and go easy on the heat to keep everything looking sharp. These tricks will keep your 100% cotton favorites feeling fresh and comfy, wash after wash,’ she assures.


How often should you wash cotton clothes?

It is a good rule of thumb to wash your cotton clothes every two to three wears or whenever they are heavily soiled. Generally speaking, the less you have to wash your clothes, the better for their lifespan and appearance, but never leave smells or stains for too long as they can set in and ruin the garment or linen for good.

How do you prevent cotton clothes from shrinking?

The easiest way to prevent cotton clothes from shrinking is to wash them in cool water only, avoiding high temperatures when washing and drying to prevent the fibers from shrinking. Icing your cotton clothes in an ice water bath before washing can sometimes help to minimize this risk even further.

Can you put 100% cotton in the washing machine?

The vast majority of the time you can put 100% cotton in the washing machine, but you should always check your garment or linen's laundry car tag first, this will give you the definitive answer. When washing 100% cotton in the washing machine, always opt for a cooler water setting and a more gentle cycle to protect the delicate natural fibers.

Learning how to wash and care for cotton clothes and household linens is simple, and is one of the easiest ways to protect your investments and save you money in the long run. Cared for correctly, quality cotton can last you for decades so be sure to invest in quality and its upkeep for a timeless fabric that will continue to serve wash after wash.

Chiana Dickson
Content Editor

Chiana has been at Homes & Gardens for two years, having started her journey in interior journalism as part of the graduate program. She spends most of her time producing content for the Solved section of the website, helping readers get the most out of their homes through clever decluttering, cleaning, and tidying tips – many of which she tests and reviews herself in her home in Lancaster to ensure they will consistently deliver for her readers and dabbles in the latest design trends. She also has a first-class degree in Literature from Lancaster University.