Laundry Basics: How to Choose the Washing Cycle

This week is Back to Laundry Basics at Mama’s Laundry Talk.  If you were never taught the proper way to wash laundry or if you just need a refresher, this week is for you!

Laundry Basics

Next up in the series is How to Choose the Washing Cycle:

I’ll admit: Prior to just a couple of years ago, I didn’t really know which cycle to use when washing our clothes. I just hoped for the best result.  But after tons of laundry research (nerdy, I know) I now understand which cycle to use and when.

While front-loaders and top-loaders work in vastly different ways, they do have similar wash cycles.  In fact, there are 3 basic wash cycles and we’ll cover those in-depth in this post.  We’ll also briefly touch on the ‘newer’ cycles that some washers now have.

First Things First

Many laundry debacles can be chalked up to using the wrong cycle.  So it is helpful to know the basics of washer cycles in general.  A washing cycle has a speed at which it agitates or tumbles the clothes and then another speed that it spins the water out of the clothes. The cycle you choose is based upon the amount of agitation and spin the load requires and can tolerate.

Washer Speeds and Cycles

The speed of the wash cycle and the spin cycle are often displayed on the machine itself, especially on older models.  For example: “fast/slow” means that the cycle will produce a fast, highly agitated washing cycle and a slow spin cycle.  Note that ‘fast’ in this instance means ‘vigorous’, ‘brisk’, or ‘intense’.

Keep in mind that the three factors involved in getting laundry clean are: agitation in the wash cycle, detergent, and water temperature.  How clean your clothes are depends on each of these three aspects.

The Regular or Normal Cycle

In a basic washing machine, the regular or normal cycle will create the longest cycle with the most agitation. And for a soiled, dirty, sweaty typical load of clothes this is the cycle you want to choose.

The normal cycle often lasts anywhere from 8 to 15 minutes.  This is the actual time the machine spends agitating the clothes to get them clean.  This cycle uses a ‘fast/fast’ combination, meaning the washing cycle is fast and the spin cycle is fast as well.  Cottons and linens are fabrics that tolerate the normal cycle very well.  They are sturdy fabrics that can withstand this degree of agitation and clothes come very clean as a result.  Jeans, towels and bedding are also fabrics that tolerate this cycle well.

Items that are heavily soiled must be washed on the regular cycle.  Whether the problem is a heavy amount of sweat, heavy staining or heavy dirt the item will not come clean without a significant amount of agitation.  And that can only be achieved through a longer wash cycle.



The Permanent Press Cycle

For a long time, I just did not know what this cycle was used for.  I now understand that it is primarily used for synthetic fibers such as rayons, knits, polyesters and acetates.  These fabric materials need the agitation of the regular cycle, but the slow spin of the delicate cycle as to not wrinkle clothes.

The Permanent Press cycle lasts on average from 7-10 minutes and uses a ‘fast/slow’ combination.  Again, it uses the vigorous speed of the actual washing cycle and uses a slow spin cycle.  While the slow spin cycle does not extract as much water from the clothes, it does prevent a good amount of wrinkling.

Synthetic fibers are known for harboring smells and they can only be removed by the agitation experienced in a fast cycle.  Synthetic fabrics are also known for pilling, and it is only increased with friction.  By choosing a slower spin cycle, it also helps decrease the wear and tear on the fabric, thus causing less pilling.

The Delicate Cycle

The Delicate or Gentle cycle is the most ambiguous of the three.  There is not necessarily a specific fabric that requires the delicate cycle (other than washable silk or wool), however there are many reasons to use this cycle.

The delicate cycle uses a ‘slow/slow’ combination, meaning that the wash cycle uses a slow or lesser degree of agitation and the spin cycle uses a slow spin to extract water from laundry.  A delicate cycle usually lasts between 4 and 7 minutes during its actual wash cycle.  By using a ‘slow/slow’ cycle, the agitation and abrasion on the clothes is greatly reduced and offers a certain level of protection for some fabrics.

Again, there are a few fabrics that need the delicate cycle and there are specific garments that need the extra protection offered by the gentle cycle.  Such as garments that have appliques or sequins, lingerie, extremely sheer fabrics, pantyhose or loosely woven items such as a loosely crotched baby blanket.  Also items that have weak fibers such as antique pieces or lacey items need the extra protection of the gentle cycle.

The delicate cycle is designed to be less abrasive, using less agitation.  So while it provides less wear and tear on your clothes, it also decreases the level of clean in some instances.

Specialty Cycles Offered by Newer Washing Machines

If you choose to upgrade from the basic model, newer washing machines offer a whole host of specialty cycles.  Everything from Kids’ Clothes to Whitest Whites to Steam Treating to Sanitary Cycles are now options on washing machines.

The difference in most of these cycles is 1) Some cycles offer a presoak 2) Some cycles offer a longer agitation time  and 3) Some cycles offer a pre-determined time during the wash cycle to add laundry boosters such as bleach.

A Steam Treatment cycle uses steam (obviously) at pre-programmed times during the wash cycle to combat stains.  In my experience, this cycle is very helpful in getting rid of tomato-based stains and ink stains, as they are some of the toughest to remove.

A Sanitary Cycle uses the washer’s internal heater to boost the water temperature to a possible 150 degrees.  And they typically also use steam to sanitize clothes in addition to the higher water temperature.  This combination is helpful in getting rid of built-up grime, washing cloth diapers, or washing heavily soiled work clothes.

Are all of the ‘extra’ cycles worth it? For some families, they are absolutely necessary.  If your husband works in a job where he sweats all day long, the sanitary cycle might be necessary to get the sweaty smell out.  If you have lots of children (ie: lots of stains), the Steam Treatment cycle might be necessary to keep clothes looking newer longer.

However, if your family isn’t stain prone and you just have the average amount of dirt and sweat in your clothes, you could survive just fine with a basic washing machine with minimal frills.  Each family has different laundry needs.

Any questions about washing machine cycles?  Ask away in the comments!

Back to Basics Laundry Series:


  1. I have a Kenmore HE2t front-loading washing machine. I recently bought the Bumgenius 4.0 diapers. Figuring out what settings to put my machine on is stressing me out! I don’t want to ruin these fancy diapers!!! I have a sanitary setting on my machine. I’ve heard it can almost get too hot and ruin the diapers over time. Have you heard this? If I do use the sanitary setting (which is 3 hrs), does it do enough to just run it on that or do I need to do a prewash first, plus an extra rinse? If I did all those separately, it would be about 4.5 hours of just washing, not including drying! Thanks for your help!

    • mamalaundry says:

      Sarah – I would only use the sanitary setting on the machine to wash cloth diapers if there was a specific reason: stomach flu diapers, they sat WAY too long in the diaper pail (as in 2 weeks or something crazy like that), etc. For just regular weekly washing, you don’t need a setting that robust. I do believe that the sanitary cycle would cause them to wear out sooner. And 4.5 hours of washing – yowsa!

  2. Hello, I have a front loading machine with many options on it! When would I use the hand wash cycle instead of the delicate and is it beneficial to use it instead of just actually hand washing?


    • mamalaundry says:

      Charlotte, I think it depends on what the item is. If it is something like a scarf that is hand wash only, you could probably wash it very safely on that cycle in your machine. But for something that is lacy and delicate (something that could tear easily), it is still best just to wash it by hand.

      The new machines with all of their new cycles should make things more streamlined, right? But it seems that it often complicates things! Sometimes simple is best. 🙂

  3. Joni Olsen says:

    I am looking for a top loading washing machine that agitates and not tumbles, that will also let me stop the cycle and re wash the same load, I know this is a lot to ask out of a machine these days it seems that these features come with the older models. I would like a newer machine for the durability but really need the agitation to work on overtime. My mother and I felt wool products and find that the older machines just are not cutting it. I hope that you can give me your insight.
    Thanks so much,

  4. Dorice Kennerly says:

    Hello, I just bought my first front-loader (Maytag 2000 series). Our old top loader died after 30 years. I’m used to agitation during wash cycle. This front loader during wash cycle just slowly rotates seven times in one direction, dropping laundry. Then it rotates seven times in the opposite direction. I see no agitation and not much water. IS THIS NORMAL? Front-loaders at the laundromat (where I used to do blankets), always seem to have agitation during their wash cycles.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Dorice, it really depends on the wash cycle. If it is set to a delicate/gentle cycle, you will not see a lot of agitation. The very nature of the cycle is to NOT produce agitation.

      If, however, you have the machine set on a ‘heavy duty’ or ‘normal/regular’ setting, you should see a decent amount of agitation.

      The agitation of the machine is one of the three factors that determine how clean the clothes become.

      The not-much-water is completely normal. A typical front loader only uses 13-15 gallons per wash.

  5. My front loader does not have a permanent press cycle. What cycle should I use that would be compatible with a permanent press cycle. My choices would be, normal cycle expresswash cycle handwash/wool cycle silk/ultra delicate cycle
    Thank you in advance for your help.

  6. I just purchased a Whirlpool Steam Washer & Dryer Duet. I’m not sure what to use the Steam setting on the washer for. Is it safe to use to get the yellow out of a wedding dress? From what I read on the instructions, it injects the steam using very hot water. Will it shrink or “melt” the tulle? Is the steam setting safe to use on delicate fabrics or just ones such as towels, jeans, bedspreads, etc?
    I’m afraid to try it!

    • mamalaundry says:

      Debbie, I would only use the steam setting on sturdy fabrics – cotton, denim, etc. The high temps could cause the tulle to possibly melt. Delicate fabrics just can’t stand up to the heat of the water used with the steam feature.

      Don’t get me wrong – I do LOVE the feature! It’s gotten BBQ stains out that Oxi Clean couldn’t touch…but it just has to be used on sturdy fabrics that can tolerate the high temps.

  7. Heather Todeschi says:

    I have a top loading GE washer with 3 settings Whites, Casuak & darks. Each setting has a few options ie heavy, slow etc. how do I wash my delicates? Which setthing would I use? I don’t have time to hand wash! Also, my cold/cold water temp is so slow!! Please help!!!

    • mamalaundry says:

      Heather, to wash delicates on your machine, I would use the ‘Casual’ setting and wash on the slow/slow setting. That means it’s a slow amount of agitation and then a slow spin-out.

      The cold water temp is probably typically slower to fill the machine. When you add in hot water, you have a hot faucet and a cold faucet “turned on”, so it fills the machine quickly. Since you’re using just one faucet (cold) it fills much more slowly.

      This is pretty typical among most machines.

  8. Blanca Leon says:

    Hi I just bought the Kenmore washer & dryer & I’m having 2nd thoughts about it because it’s been taking me 53 minutes to wash 1 load. Also I’ve been getting the unbalance sign on the LCD screen. I’m always on the run , I need a washer that washes in 20 or less. Please advise.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Blanca, if you’re looking for truly clean clothes, it takes time. You have to have a 9-14 minute wash cycle for the clothes to receive enough agitation to remove dirt and oils.

      What you describe sounds pretty normal for a wash cycle.

      You can always put the clothes in a gentle cycle or make sure it’s on the “light” version of the cycle…but your clothes won’t be nearly as clean.

  9. Very Useful Info

  10. Hi,
    I have Washing Machine(BEKO WASH 512W) in the Apartment I just rented. Please can you help me get the manual because I found it difficult to use it.

  11. Hi, I just purchased my washing meachine and there is no delicate and bedding option in my meachine .how I can wash my delicate clothes and bedding in it?
    Thank you

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Hi Anny,

      Which machine did you purchase? Better yet, if you find the machine online, leave me a link so I can take a peek.

      I’d be happy to help you! 🙂

  12. Hi I have a beko washing machine model number WMB812441 LB
    My problem is that I don’t have a delicate cycle do you know what cycle I can use for my delicates please

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Debbie, I can’t find that exact model number on their website. However, you need to see if you can adjust your spin cycle. It needs to be on “slow” or “low”. Your clothes WILL be more wet as you remove them from the machine, but it will take better care of the fabrics to run the spin cycle on a slower speed.

      I’m sorry that I’m not more well-versed in UK washing machines! xo

  13. Everything you need to know about proper laundry techniques, what a great website! Thank You!

    Question: I wear a lot of microfibers & typically use the Permanent Press cycle. Lately it seems this cycle is leaving 2-3″ of water in the bottom of the tub. What is going on? Other cycles spin just fine. I would like to rectify the problem so I don’t have to switch to another cycle to complete each load. Can you help me understand the problem?

    Oh, BTW: it’s a Kenmore stacking W/D combo, if that helps. Thank you in advance.

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Have you cleaned the drain to the washer recently? My husband just cleaned ours a few weeks ago and OH MY the things that were in there! Legos, lint, baby socks, etc.

      I’d start there. If that doesn’t seem to help, I’d call a repair man. I can’t take any down time with my washing machine! 😉

      Hope you get to the root or the problem soon!

  14. Shifra Goldberger says:

    Hi! I have an Electrolux washer. Some of the cycles have an option to add more water. What is the “add more water” option useful for?

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Hi Shifra!

      You are one of the fortunate ones with an ‘Add more water’ option! Adding more water is helpful for dirtier-than-usual items: cloth diapers, heavy work clothes, etc.

      Garments that are exceptionally dirty need the extra water to genuinely wash clean, as well as rinse water.

      You don’t need to use this option for just run-of-the-mill loads. 🙂

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