Washing your clothes at 30 degrees

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

30, 60 or 90 degrees? When it comes to washing your clothes, less is more.

Modern detergents mean you can wash clothes at 30 degrees C and still come up smelling of roses

Because washing machines use CO2-intensive electricity to heat up cold water rather than gas, the temperature at which you launder your linen can impact both your wallet and the climate. In fact, a 90C boil can rack up almost four times as much electricity as a 40C wash.

Of course, the odd wash here and there wouldn't matter but the average British family does 274 loads a year and emits about 130kg of CO2 in the process. So is it time to clean up your act with the latest low-temperature laundry detergents?

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Photo: Washing your clothes at 30 degrees

Saves 45kg of CO2 a year

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How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • A typical wash in the US occurs at a cool 29C
  • Washing at high temperatures means that 80% of a garment's ecological impact is in the laundering phase 80-90% of the energy used to do laundry goes to heating the water.
  • Water consumption is assumed to be an average per use of 50 litres for new washing machines (2007).
  • 80% of the energy used by washing machines is for heating the water in the wash phase.
  • The typical cycle today in the UK is 40C. This uses a third less energy than a 60C wash.
  • A 60C wash uses almost half as much enegy as a 90C wash, and a 40C wash uses almost half as much as a 60C wash
  • According to the washing powder manufacturer Ariel, over the course of a year, washing at 30C instead of 60C saves enough CO2 to fill four million double-decker buses
  • Washing only full loads of clothes rather than half-loads could save a further 45kg of CO2 a year
  • Turning the temperature down to 30C can save you a tenner every year

Washing your clothes at lower temperatures also means they are less likely to shrink or wear out so quickly.

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What's the debate?

Not everyone is convinced by the cleaning power of cool water - see BBC News: 'Allergy fear on 'green' laundry'. Allergy UK says low-temperature washes won't kill the dust mites in your sheets and clothing that cause allergic reactions in some people.

Reusable nappies also require warm washes.

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What's stopping me?

"I can't go into work stinking - I need my clothes properly clean"

We've more or less convinced ourselves that clothes only come clean at higher temperatures but modern detergents are now more effective at lower temperatures. (See BBC News: 'How you can save energy'.) Many people who've tried lower temperatures, and even cold washes, swear that it makes no difference to how clean the clothes are. Perhaps you just need to try it and convince yourself.

"I have a big family, and they know where all the muddiest puddles are"

Some heavily soiled clothes, particularly reusable nappies, may require washes warmer than 30C to clean them thoroughly.

But those aside, in general it's worth thinking about whether clothes need washing as often as we assume: a lot of clothes we use for outdoor activities don't need to be spotless, and washing clothes less often can extend their life.

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How do I do it?

  • Select 30C washes for dark clothes that can shrink (wool, linen or cotton)
  • If your washing machine has a cold wash, try using cold-water detergents. (See BBC News: 'Frozen microbes clue to a cold wash')
  • Reserve 40C for particularly mucky socks, undergarments and whites
  • Unless you have an 'intelligent' washing machine, it's best to do one full load rather than two half-loads
  • Choose the economy setting - it's thriftier with energy than the 'quick wash' setting
  • Do one full load rather than two half-loads
  • Use pre-soaks and spot removers for clothes spattered with dirt
  • Go for concentrated detergents - this means less packaging, so fewer emissions
  • Turn the machine off afterwards - leaving appliances on standby wastes 700m worth of energy in the UK every year
  • Wear fewer white clothes - although it may reduce your climate-cooling albedo
  • Consider buying a new A-rated washing machine when the time comes
Washing machine energy ratings
kWh per cycle/ Energy RatingABCDEF
90 C wash1.
60 C wash11.
40 C wash0.

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Anonymous 2009-03-06

Easy Peasy

Anonymous 2009-02-23

I wash all my clothes on 30 and have not had any problems. Maybe it is the detergent you use or could it be the water in the area you live in?

Nancy, IOW 2009-02-08

My washing machine's cool wash (30oC) doesn't get my clothes clean at all, it doesn't rinse the detergent out and they still smell, I have to wash mine at 40.

Anonymous 2008-12-27

I use rainwater in the washing machine: Just pour it in the little compartment for the washingpowder using a watering can, saves several liters of water with every wash!

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Kilowatt-hours (kWh)
A kilowatt-hour is an amount of energy equivalent to a power of one kilowatt (a thousand watts) running for one hour. The unit is commonly used on electricity meters. If you know how many kilowatt-hours of energy your household uses, you can translate this into kilograms of CO2 emitted by multiplying it by 0.527. A megawatt hour (MWh) is an amount of energy equivalent to the power of one megawatt (a million watts) running for one hour. Similarly, a gigawatt hour (GWh) is a billion watts for one hour, and a terawatt hour (TWh) is a trillion. While your domestic gas bill will be set out in kWh, the output for a power station, for example, will obviously be expressed in one of these much larger units.
Standby, or 'sleep mode', is a mode in which electronic appliances are turned off but still drawing current and ready to activate on command. Although legislation has limited the energy new appliances can use in standby mode, they still use more energy than if they are switched off at the wall.

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