Do You *Really* Need to Sort Your Laundry?

It’s not the most fun chore on our lists—but our moms still swear by it.

June  1, 2022
Photo by Rocky Luten

My mother taught me to do laundry when I was an early teenager, and a big part of her lesson was how to sort clothing. To this day, she has a thorough sorting routine—she separates her loads of laundry into whites, colors, underwear, jeans, even my dad’s work clothing, which tends to get really dirty and merits its own cycle. Towels also get their own load, as do sheets and other bedding.

That was how I was taught to do laundry, and for the past 20 years, that was exactly how I did it every two weeks—or however long it took for me to run out of socks. However, this is the part where I tell you that I really don’t like doing laundry, in large part due to the aforementioned sorting. So when my partner and I moved into our house together and started sharing a laundry basket, he took over the chore, and I happily let him.

The caveat is that sorting is very much not part of his process. Instead, he simply overturns the entire hamper into the washing machine, pours in some detergent, and starts it up. After much pleading, he finally agreed to pull out towels and sheets to wash separately, but the rest of it goes into the drum together—socks, jeans, underwear, T-shirts, you name it.

And honestly, it works just fine.

We’ve been living together for more than a year now, and I can’t say that my clothing looks or feels any different. My whites haven’t turned into wacky colors, as I was warned that they would, nor have the colored items faded. It made me wonder if I’ve been creating a whole lot of extra work for myself for many years, so I set out to find an answer to the question on my mind: Is laundry sorting actually necessary?

Here’s What the Experts Say…

The first person I turned to for answers was Patric Richarson, a.k.a. the Laundry Evangelist. He has a whole show about laundry, called “The Laundry Guy,” so I figured he could shed some light.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s firmly on Team Sorting. “You should definitely use some sorting method—your clothes will hold their color better and you will extend their life,” he explained to me. “Sorting, at a minimum, into white, color, and black will reduce abrasion on the clothes and make them last longer and look better.”

That’s not the only benefit, either. “Sorting reduces the color bleed from one color to another and keeps heavy dark colors from abrading and degrading light delicate colors and fabrics,” he said, adding, “Sorting out performance fabrics will allow you to treat them with an enzymatic cleaner that will improve their function and wearability.” Performance fabrics are commonly used for activewear—think: leggings, sports bras, compression socks, etc. They’re generally made from synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and/or spandex or elastane, so it makes sense that they might require different care than everyday cotton garments. Active Wear and Hex are two detergent brands specifically designed for these types of performance fabrics.

But, Everyday People Disagree

While the experts strongly recommend sorting your laundry, I also wanted to know how everyday people feel about it. On my Instagram, I put up a poll asking whether people sort their laundry, and to my surprise, 75 percent said no! Admittedly, only around 50 people responded, but I was still surprised that the majority can’t be bothered to sort whites from colors.

When asked to elaborate on their thoughts about laundry sorting, here’s what a few people said:

  • “Waste. Of. Time. Just use cold water and wash everything together.”
  • “I only sort my clothes from sheets and towels. Clothes get washed in cold water. Sheets and towels in hot.”
  • “We wash everything in cold water, so it doesn’t matter.”

It’s worth mentioning that the majority of people I spoke to are around the same age as me—almost everyone who responded was between the ages of 25 and 40. So maybe it’s a generational thing? Are millennials ending laundry sorting?

Let’s Not Go Overboard Though

As much as I’m a new convert to Team No Sorting, I’ll admit that not just everything should be washed together. For instance, we have a separate hamper for our dog’s towels, which are typically very smelly and dirty. I also make sure to head the warning labels on new clothing that say the colors may run for the first few washes.

If thorough sorting isn’t feasible—for instance, if you use coin-op laundry or a shared laundry room—Richardson recommends at least washing whites separately. If you’re going to put them in with colored items, he says to use a color catcher sheet to capture any rogue dye.

Beyond that, I don’t think I’ll go back to sorting anytime soon. Sorry, mom.

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Bernadette June 8, 2022
There's plenty of good reasons to continue to sort laundry, as well as reasons for why it's not necessary as it may have been for previous generations. The fabric industry has made changes that it may not be necessary to be so fastidious with sorting. But lifestyle, finances and even health issues can play a part. For example, I have a dust allergy, which mandates that I wash all bedding in HOT water. As such, I have made the concession to not purchase sheets in dark colors that will not stand up to frequent hot water washes as they would fade too quickly and I don't want to spend the money to replace them more frequently. But I have also made the concession of replacing pillows more frequently as I'm sure I wash pillows more often than the average person. I also buy sleepwear that is either inexpensive (plain cotton t-shirts, for example) that can stand up to hot water or I didn't pay much and don't expect them to last long so I don't invest in them.) OTOH, I definitely don't want a great fitting, good quality bra to fall apart sooner than need be and I will definitely sort that into a gentle, cold water cycle. The same for clothing that I wear outside the home. I don't know about you, but finding a great pair of perfect fitting jeans can take hours of shopping and trying on dozens before finding that perfect fit. I'll go out of my way to make those jeans last me a long time with loving laundering care. If you don't care or don't mind spending the money on replacing clothes more frequently, then it's you're choice to do so. But sorting is here to stay for most people for a variety of reasons.
Jenny June 7, 2022
I'm 75 and learned the whole traditional sort thing when we used a tub and wringer type washer. Then you sorted by whites first, light soil second, work clothes you could use the same water for more than one load. Everything had to be hung on the lines in the back yard. A real chore. I hated dealing with freezing sheets in the winter. (NW New Jersey here). Now I am living solo, and don't usually get REALLY dirty, also clothing dyes are more fast than years back. I usually just sort as to towels/linens, lighter colors, and darker colors. Jeans and sweatshirts line dry over night to even out dryer time. I never wear white or solid red, so no issue there.
Robin R. June 6, 2022
So I guess nobody needs those cute separate laundry sacks you guys show in the picture? Ha! I do actually believe in sorting, mostly by general color: whites, darks, and then a pile of mixed colors. If something is brand new, I am careful to wash it with something that doesn't matter if the new thing bleeds. I do wash all my intimates on a separate cycle, but I don't separate those by color. I have really ruined a few things in the past by being lazy and not separating my whites from colors :(
Lisa M. June 6, 2022
Yeah sure, put that red knit shirt in with your whites. Idiots.
Terri N. June 6, 2022
Wow, why so hostile?
KS June 6, 2022
Like you, I wash most things in cold water and perm press cycle, and I probably do more sorting than strictly necessary.

However. I do my first sort by not by color but by fabric type, which determines drying time and temperature. So I end up with (1) delicates/fine fabrics/line dry items, (2) ordinary cottons, etc., and (3) Towels, jeans, long dry time stuff.. (Once I divide it all up that way, if a pile is too big I can break it down further by color, but only if i want to.) This also gets all my delicate fabrics into the same loads where I can wash them on a gentle cycle and dry carefully so they last longer.

I really DON'T want to dry my thin spandex tank tops and fine linen shirts in the same load as my heavy jeans. Even setting aside the damage to the fabrics, this is terribly energy-inefficient. Thin fabrics, short dryer time at lower temperatures. Heavy stuff, longer and maybe hotter.

I also put table and kitchen linens separately from other things, because I feel these inevitably collect some grease that I don't want to get on my other clothes. Same for dirty scrub rags, floor scrubber pads, etc. And yes, if I have dark blacks and reds I'm not sure about bleeding, I'll keep them away from lighter colored things I want to protect.

I may not love sorting, but I think my fabric type sort is a pretty reasonable compromise.

Patricia F. June 6, 2022
I agree with you about the fabric type. Plus the dyes in synthetics like polyester are much less likely to run than cottons and linens. I used to be firmly in the cold-water-only-no-sorting camp, but frankly, my whites and light colors got pretty dingy after a while. So I started washing darks (and I wear a LOT of black) separate from whites and pastels, which really improved things. So yeah, if you want to keep things white, you really should sort somewhat--but hey, they're your clothes, so I'm not really telling anyone what to do!
rox L. July 9, 2022
I am in the fabric-type camp also and washing jeans, towels, sheets, dirty rags, dog towels in separate loads; I do collect items until I have a full load.
Whites and very light clothing go in together especially when we're traveling.
P.S. I was taught by my grandmother to soak NEW bright colored or black clothing in heavily salted water to set the color and avoid bleeding!
Winniecooks June 6, 2022
Sheets and towels separate. New colored items separate to make sure they don't bleed (and forever after separate if they have bled). All the rest are done together. I have never had a problem with whites not staying bright white and bleach shortens the life of them anyway. Delicates go in with the other items, but in a mesh bag that protects them from abrasion and twisting. If I sorted to the extent that many here do I would be doing five tiny loads a week! A waste of water and time, IMHO.
Bonnie B. June 6, 2022
Sorry, l’m 80, have to use a coin laundry, live alone and I still sort. Don’t tell me you can get whites white without bleach. Ain’t happening. Plus, cringe of course Carl’s make every thing else shabby. Plus I can’t afford delicate cycles so undies and delicates get washed by hand. Done it all my life, even working 3 jobs and being a si glue mom. Duh, don’t tell me it can’t be done.
carswell June 5, 2022
How much trouble is sorting really? All the “non sorting” types in the article still practise some kind of sorting and for good reason - so there really isn’t a completely non sorting option.

I sort if for no other reason that that I don’t want my darks muddying up my colours or making my whites dingy. I wash my sheets and towels separately from my clothes because they get a really hot wash and dry.
Amy June 2, 2022
I’m a bit of an obsessive sorter. All underwear gets pre-washed in hot water with two extra rinses, lights separately and darks separately. Exercise clothes get pre-washed as well. Then the rest of the lights or whites get added, or colored clothes accordingly - except for jeans which I wash separately. Fine clothes like linen blouses or hub’s nice shirts - separately on cold. Bras, separately on delicate. Towels (white) usually sanitized with oxyclean. Sheets - separately on an allergen cycle with extra rinse. Mrs. Meyers laundry booster as needed to make clothes smell fresh. Oh yeah, kitchen towels in hot water separately. That’s about it I guess!
Susan R. June 2, 2022
Delicates/bras, leggings and nice work clothes go together on gentle. Towels and sheets get a load of their own. Everything else goes without being sorted. It helps that most of my clothes are darker, I don’t own a lot of lights and those usually are in the delicate cycle.
Crystal K. June 1, 2022
This really depends on what your clothes are made of. The first time my husband put the reds and whites together was the last time. All my white underwear was suddenly pink and a few shirts ended up ruined. Mostly now we sort into two piles. The stuff that can be dried and the stuff that can't (which is mostly my clothes). And if there is a new thing that may bleed the first couple of times I usually manage to pull it out and hand wash or put it in with dark colors only.
Dominique D. June 1, 2022
I sort, but not based on colour, except for sheets and towels. My reasoning is that everything clothing wise gets washed with warm water, except for jeans (work out clothes, tshirts, underwear, socks, pjs, etc.). So everything can go in together, except jeans get a cold wash load. Luckily we tend to wear lots of blue and mid-tone colours, dark tshirts, but barely any white, which works for this method. Wool sweaters get their own handwash cycles as well.