Thank government for your dirty clothes.

If you are old enough, you might remember clean cottons after they were washed. They were crisp, even crunchy, and smelled like the spring rain. There was not a trace of dirt, oil, or grime.

Grandma didn’t even spot cleaners, boosters, bleach, power gels, sprays, soaking agents, or scrubs. She just threw them in the washer, on hot, with detergent, and the machine did the magic.

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Now we are used to something else. Almost all the clothing we wear today is filthy dirty as compared with decades past. Most everyone struggles with this problem. Why do our T-shirts get so stained? Why are our sheets not quite crisp and spotless? Why do our napkins feel just a bit oily?

There are several big reasons.


Beginning in the late 1970s, the federal government has required that phosphates be removed from laundry detergent. By 1980, everything changed. It became impossible get things clean.

HZ_infographics_LaundryHacks_1That was when bleach became the common additive in detergent and fabric softener. We began to dump chlorine bleach all over our clothes — the stuff we previously used to clean shower floors and kill fungus on wood fences.

Bleach is absolutely horrible for all clothing. It is, and always will be, a corrosive agent. It’s death to clothing. Using bleach on cottons indiscriminately is like scratching your car paint with a key or walking on hardwood with golf cleats. It is destructive and completely counterintuitive.

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So what is phosphate and why does it matter? Phosphate is the essential ingredient in soap. It is not a cleaning agent, but a rinsing agent. It is the thing that grabs the soap and says “let’s blow this joint.” It separates soap from clothing and lets the soap float off.

It does not cause the soap to clean more. It releases the soap, and the dirt, and the oil, and the bleach from the thing they were used to clean.

All soap makers since the invention of soap have known about phosphates, an entirely natural element. It is not difficult to obtain phosphate, and it can even be made. You can still find soap makers today – if they are producing at home – who add the stuff to soap. But for commercially available soaps, it’s not there. It’s been banned from being added to any commercial soap product.

One generation to the next went from clean clothes to dirty clothes. This is not insignificant, and the problems go beyond aesthetics (dirty clothes are dingy clothes) and economics (dirty clothes have to be replaced more often).


The solution is trisodium phosphate — or phosphate that has salt in it. It is sold in hardware stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, or can be purchased online. There are two main brands in powder form: Savogran and D.A.P.

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Stores carry this product for painters, so look for it in the paint section. Adding a quarter cup to a load of laundry does wonders.


Water Level
Go ahead and use some water, despite the long-running government campaign to force us all to use less. Washing machines have been degraded since the 1980s, and with each successive round of regulations, the machines use even less.

HZ_infographics_LaundryHacks_2This tendency culminated in the side-loading washing machine, which attempts to use not much more than a gallon of water to wash an entire load. The result is a slushy, muddy, sticky, soaped-up mess that we are supposed to call clean. You might as well throw your clothes in a swamp and pull them out.

There are a number of workarounds that will help. The water settings on the washing machine are typically labeled something like “normal,” “large,” “extra-large,” or “maximum.” When you are loading your laundry, you might think “well, this is not all that much really,” so you dial in to “normal.” In fact, all these settings indicate is how much water is being used.

As it turns out, washing clothes actually takes a tremendous amount of water. For a normal load, you should be using the maximum setting. This is not wasting water. No matter how high the setting, it will still be less than you would use in a typical bath or shower. Surely, the cleanliness of your clothes makes that much worth it.


Hot Water
Another factor concerns the temperature of water. Many items ask for cold water because they are delicate, and that’s fine. But remember, in the end, unless your water is hot — meaning 130 degrees — you are not really killing old bacteria.

420x356_infoNow consider the default setting on most water heaters that are shipped today: They will be set at 110 degrees. This is typically below the government mandate because manufacturers are also trying to avoid liability issues. There is just no possible way that whites, or darks, or socks, or napkins, or sheets, or tablecloths, or anything else is going to get clean at this temperature.

This is tepid water. This is disease-generating water. This is fungus-loving water. This is the stuff from which epidemics are born. 

However, there is a solution. Always turn up your water heater to at least 130 degrees.

Unless you do these hacks, your washing machine is using fungus-breeding water and terrible detergent that does not kill any diseases that happen to be in your clothes. The bacteria and fungi look forward to a good washing so that they can breed even more.