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 series is for you!

How to Choose the Washing Cycle

Make sure you don’t miss the other posts in this series!


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.

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.  Garments that have appliques or sequins, lingerie, extremely sheer fabrics, pantyhose, or loosely woven items such as a loosely crotched baby blanket are examples.

Also items that have weak fibers such as antique pieces or lacy 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!



Make sure you don’t miss the entire 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!

      • hi, im trying to search it all over the internet for my specific need in washing machine.

        my LG washing machine have options of “easy care” “wool” “baby care” and i m looking for washing my delicate cloths and i never understand which one of the cycle i wash them in?

        Thank you

        • Lauren Hill says:

          Hi there!

          I totally understand your confusion with those cycle names! Each washer manufacturer calls their delicate or gentle cycle something different. Look in your washer manual to see which cycles are a slow agitation and slow spin out. That’s the one you want to use for delicate items.

          My advice is to ignore the titles of the washer cycles and look for agitation speed and spin out speed.

          -Lauren 🙂

  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. 🙂

      • Ron Dycks says:

        The hand wash cycle is similar to the delicate cycle, …the only difference is that on Hand Wash, there is no spin cycle, …generally speaking. Everything else is likely the same, hence agitation and so forth.

  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,

    • jean rust says:

      i need a fast agitation cycle that lasts a long time.. would prefer at last 15 minutes….. also want a longer spin and good rinse cycle…. what would be the brand that offer these features…

  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.

    • I have a new washing machine. I understand there have been many changes since I purchased my previous machine 11 years ago. My concern is the length of time the wash cycle is taking from fill to finished. Can you give me some average times washing a Normal load on warm water with low soil level? And any other related comments on varying loads/soil level/water temp would help. Thanks.

      • Lauren Hill says:

        In the newer washers, I have seen the ‘normal’ wash cycles last anywhere from 40 minutes to 65 minutes.


  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, My landlord just replaced the washing machine in the house we are renting with toploading Ge washer G154.

    it has no slow wash cycle, no slow spin. I am really worried. I have always washed my bras, most of my blouses and thin tshirts, sheer dresses on delicate cycle . the machine he replaced even had a very gentle “delicates/handwash” cycle. this machine has an enormous tub. he seemed to think I’d be happy that i can wash blankets and heavy quilts, but that is not what I need to wash .
    is there something i can do so that this washer will not destroy my clothes? Many of them have “handwash cold or dry clean” on labels. Others say Cold wash, delicate cycle. (they have never been in a dryer.) Would putting them in a mesh bag to limit how much they are thrown around so much help? I didnt even know they made machines with no gentle cycle!

  13. Sorry, just found out that is not the model #.

    Model is GTWN2800DWS

  14. When I wash dress shirts on the permanent press/casual cycle, I get brown flecks of dirt or grease on the clothes. What is causing this?

  15. 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

  16. 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!

  17. Hi Debbie…I have a Kenmore he2 washer and I love to wash my whites with bleach but the whitest white cycle takes 2 hours and that’s before you add a second rinse or anything else…can I add bleach to a regular cycle…I wasn’t sure if it would dispense it…thank you!

    • Lauren Hill says:


      The bleach will dispense, but not necessarily at the best time for the bleaching of the laundry.

      When I want to run a Whitest Whites cycle, I turn off the second rinse option (shame, shame, I know). My Whitest Whites takes about 2 1/2 hours, and I just can’t wait that long for my washer to be free for the next cycle. Does your washer have that option?

      -Lauren 🙂

  18. Hi Lauren?
    Thank you so much for thé stellar advice on Normal vs. PP cycles. It has been most helpful! In addition to the great guidance, I have found the other comments and your replies enlightening and delightful. I have been laughing out loud and hadn’t realized how much fun talking about washing machines could be prior to today. Thank you for being a light in my life today. Bless you for what you do ?

  19. Jennifer gallant says:

    I am shopping for a new front load washer. I previously had a whirlpool duet that I had to leave with our house that was sold.(only 2-3 years old) It had a separate hand wash and delicate cycle. I used hand wash cycle very often. All of the new ones that I can find have only a delicate cycle but not a hand wash cycle. I have several wool, cashmere, and viscose sweaters and wondered if the delicate cycle would be too rough for these types of delicates? I really wish I could have the old one back!

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Jennifer, it’s impossible to tell without knowing the specifics of the wash cycle. I.e. if the agitation is slow with a slow spin, etc.

      Make sure you know this info from the manufacturer before purchasing so you can make an informed decision! 🙂


  20. Hi Debbie, I would love some help. I’ve spent hours on this and am stuck.

    In the past many machines had three settings: 1. normal, 2. gentle (this was good for many shirts, not delicate but a standard nice polo), 3. delicate (silks, almost a hand wash thing). I’m a guy and have many standard polo shirts that say gentle on the tag. I’m using a Samsung WD856 front load washer (the manual is at the link below). There are many, many settings and none for gentle. I would be very grateful for some help. Here are the options:

    – For average or lightly soiled cottons, bed linen, table linen,
    underwear, towels, shirts, etc.
    – For averagely or lightly soiled blouses, shirts, etc., made
    of polyester (diolen, trevira), polyamide (perlon, nylon) or other similar
    Daily Wash
    – Use for everyday items such as underwear and shirts.
    Quick Wash
    – For lightly soiled garments and less than 2kg laundry
    that you require quickly.

    Washing machine settings have gotten out of hand. I’ve spent hours and talked to at least nine people literally, 2 calls to samsung, 2 chats to samsung, going into stores, 3 store reps and 2 samsung reps in the washing machine section of the stores. No one can give me a clear answer on how to wash a gentle shirt, which is an extremely common description for shirts. I have a background in research and I can’t figure it out. Two of the samsung reps said “baby setting” (a setting I didn’t include for you.) The logic is, “babies are soft, surely this will be soft for shirts”. But the baby setting is higher temperature. I see three functions of the machine itself, speed of agitation, duration of wash, and temperature. That’s all I need, I can decide how to do my own laundry. One rep told me to use the “everyday” setting because I wear shirts everyday. I asked him what the setting does to clothes and he had no idea and wasn’t able to find anyone at samsung who knew. And why does it matter how often it’s worn? It could be a model wearing silk for an hour a day or a farmer spending 12 hours in the field with clothes as thick as burlap. There’s no logic or reasoning anymore to the settings anymore, it’s all marketing. I apologize, but this has taken so much time.

    And some people say synthetic is a softer setting. You obviously sound like you know what your talking about, but are you sure synthetic isn’t softer? (I don’t know what other setting to use.)

    And one thing, for front loaders you can manually set the spin cycle. I can set it from 400-1200 reps. 1000 reps damaged my shirts on synthetic and I didn’t know if it was the synthetic cycle or the 100 reps. I’ll use lower reps next time.

    You’re providing a very needed service.

  21. I have a LG front load washer (8 years old) with choices such as sanitize(extremely hot cycle??) and allergiene(steam cycle??). My husband prefers that I wash towels on sanitize and sheets on allergiene. Is this okay to do everytime I wash them or will it wear them out faster. I also had a side question about water temperature. I wash socks and underwear separately on regular wash on warm, and rinse on cold to save on electricity and cost. Should I rinse in warm to make sure soap is being adequately removed? I read your article on choosing water temperature, but the article stated a difference between cool(for delicates) vs cold. My washer only has cold as an option, is this not the same as the very cold water you were discussing? Thanks so much for having this wonderful informational site! I have learned so much!

  22. Hii
    I have super slim fit black cotton shirt. What cycle i should use in my washing machine to wash it ?

    • Lauren Hill says:

      I’d personally wash it inside out on the gentle cycle, unless it’s heavily soiled. If it’s a nicer shirt, I try to wash on the gentle cycle to keep the clothes looking newer for a longer period of time.

      If it had a stain or is extra-sweaty, it needs to be washed on a normal cycle so it can receive the extra agitation.

      -Lauren 🙂

  23. How can you sanitize your COLOUR clothes if you don’t have one of the new expensive washing machines? — Some say throw white vinegar in but wouldn’t that ruin the machine or attached hoses? (Discovered black mold in our closet as old house, no drywall, harsh winter). Although only one item next to the wall had visible mold on it, still don’t feel comfortable. Threw half my wardrobe away but can’t afford to throw all. Kept the more expensive designer items that usually say hand wash or use delicate cycle. Thx.

    • Lauren Hill says:


      I would definitely wash in a hot water cycle with white vinegar. Then hang dry in the hottest sun possible (mid-day).

      The actual stains might still be there, but the clothes will be sanitized.


  24. Hi, I purchased a Skyworth washing machine model number F651003S, it makes heavy noisy when in spin cycle, sometimes it jumps. What can I do to resolve that problem?
    Can you help me?

    Thank you!

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Clarisse, I’d make sure that the machine is level. Most machines have casters on the bottom that can be lowered or raised to make all of the casters the same height (or varying heights depending on your needs).

      Newer front-loading machines definitely have a rocky period when they’re spinning out water, so they must be level on the surface to prevent the jumping.


  25. 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. 🙂

  26. I want to know how many towels should u wash in one load ? I have a front loader and when I put towels in it, it will not wash,it is a maytag. thank u.

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Tracy, I’m not sure how many towels you can put into your particular washing machine (Maytag has several different sizes), but you don’t want to over stuff it.

      The drum of the washer can be completely full, but the towels shouldn’t be packed in tightly. There should still be room for them to move around, which will allow them to absorb water and agitate as they should.



    • Lauren Hill says:

      Kay, if you don’t want the clothes to be stretched much at all, you’ll need to wash the load on a slow agitating cycle (usually ‘delicate’ or similar description) and use a slow spin.

      Both the ‘spin’ and ‘agitate’ stretch clothes in different ways to 1) get them clean and then 2) pull the water out of them.


  28. What is the best setting to wash a cotton queen size blanket in an LG2010 front load washer? I’ve had it go off-balance before and can’t remember what setting I used. Thanks!

  29. Ochieng says:

    Hi, I am using a defy automaid,when I set the cycle to whites instead of stopping when it’s done with the washing it advances to the next cycle, in this case which is the non fast colours, I thought it was supposed to go to rinse,what can I do to avoid that?


    • Lauren Hill says:

      I’m not sure, as I’m not familiar with that type of washer. My guess is it’s a malfunction, as a washing machine should only use one wash cycle per load.


  30. Michele says:

    I pray you can help me! My landlord brought a washer and dryer set for me to use until I find a set I can afford, there is no delicate cycle. I wear a lot of clothing that requires delicate or hand washing for work. It is a Kenmore series 100, when I tried to look up the user manual it doesn’t show the model that doesn’t have all the available washing cycles. The cycles it shows is deep wash, heavy duty, normal and casual—for washing. There are additional cycles just for drain/spin, clean washer and rinse/spin.
    Please Help!!

  31. Pretty much all my clothes are delicates and in the past i always did the “delicate” and “cold” setrings on my washing machine. My apartment building recently got new washers and sadly there is no option to have both settings at once! I can either have cold and normal, or delicate and warm.

    I’m really unsure about which one to default to! In your opinion which factor do you think is more important? Thank you so much

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