How to hand wash clothes

Even if you have a washing machine, you might prefer to wash your delicate items by hand. These tips will make handwashing clothes efficient and effective!

Updated 5 April 2023


AuthorBy Cleanipedia Team

Reading Time7 minutes

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Wondering how to hand wash clothes with minimum effort and maximum results? You’re in the right place...

It may sound time-consuming, but hand washing laundry can be relatively quick and easy if you know the right steps. Hand washing is gentler on beading, embroidery, colours and delicate fabrics than machine washing. So it’ll help to keep your clothes in tip-top condition for longer.

What you’ll need to hand wash clothes

  • A clean sink, washing up bowl or bucket. Give it a good rinse to check there’s no trace of food or cleaning products.

  • Rubber gloves if you have sensitive skin or long nails.

  • A mild, non-biological detergent or one specially designed for hand washing delicate fabrics.

  • Fabric conditioner (this one’s optional).

Before you start...

  • Some people find they actually enjoy hand washing clothes. Others put it right up there with cleaning the loo or scrubbing the oven. If you fall into the second camp, put the radio on to give you something else to focus on.

  • Do double check the care label of the clothes you’re planning to hand wash. You might find they’re either suitable for machine washing on a cool temperature (in which case, you’re freeing up time for Netflix) or need to be dry cleaned.

  • Separate whites and darks before washing to avoid colour seepage or accidental tie-dye catastrophes.

  • Take any rings or bracelets off and put gloves on if you’re using them.

  • Pre-treat large stains by rubbing a little detergent on them. You can use liquid detergent directly on the stains (though do check the bottle to make sure) or make a paste with powder detergent and a little water. If the clothes aren’t too delicate, you can work the detergent into the stain with a soft, clean toothbrush.

How to hand wash clothes in 8 easy steps

1. Fill the bowl with warm, not hot water. It’s best to err on the side of caution here. If the water feels uncomfortably hot on your skin, it’s far too hot for delicate fabrics. The care label should tell you the maximum temperature to use or whether you need warm or cold water. If it doesn’t say, or you don’t have a thermometer, try to aim for room temperature. If your clothes specify different temperatures, start off by washing the ones that need cold water first, and add some warmer water as you go.

rubber gloves in a washing up bowl and an open tap

2. Add your detergent to the water (check the packet to see how much of it you need; usually it’ll be a tablespoon or less). Swill the water around gently, until the powder or liquid is completely dissolved.

person pooring washing powder at the washing bowl

3. Add your lightest colour clothes to the water and leave them to soak for a few minutes. You might need to keep pushing them down into the water as they have an annoying habit of popping back up (weigh them down with a clean mug if you like).

clothes soaked in soap and water

Heavily stained clothes will benefit from a longer soaking – it’ll cut down on how much time and effort you need to spend washing them, and be gentler on fragile fabrics than repeated kneading or rubbing. Don’t leave silky materials soaking for longer than half an hour though or you could get water stains on them.

4. The best way to hand wash clothes is to keep pushing them down in the water and letting them rise back up. It makes it easier to get them clean as the air bubbles help to dislodge grime (the fancy name for this is agitating.)

You can also gently squeeze and massage each garment in turn. Rub the fabric together to help remove stains if you absolutely have to, but be careful not to snag the material.

As well as stains, pay particular attention to areas that collect bacteria, like armpits, feet, the crotch and collars.

hand washing soaking clothes

5. Once the clothes are clean, empty the sink or bowl and refill it with lukewarm water.

6. Gently squeeze and agitate each garment to rinse it. You’ll probably need to rinse each item of clothing at least three times, changing the water between rinses. You’ll know you’re done when the water is clear and there are no suds left.

When you’ve finished rinsing, empty the sink of water and squeeze as much excess water out of each garment as you can. For more robust clothes like jeans, you can twist the fabric to get more water out. It’s best to avoid twisting woollen or delicate material though, as you could stretch it out of shape.

hands wringing out clothes

7. Repeat with your darker clothes.

How to dry hand washed clothes

  • If the clothes still seem really wet, or you need to get them dry quickly, lay each one on a clean dry towel. Roll the towel up tightly to transfer water from the garment to the towel.

  • If a garment looks a bit out of shape or on the small side, gently pull it back into shape. You’ll probably need to do this with knitted jumpers.

  • Most hand washed clothes can be dried on an airer or washing line. Some clothes are best dried flat (like woollen or delicate items). For those, place a clean dry towel over the clothes horse and lay your clothes neatly on top. Straighten them out as much as possible so they dry quicker and you get fewer wrinkles. Some clothes may be suitable for tumble drying, but do check the care label first.

Top tips for hand washing clothes

  • Make sure you’re using a clean sink or washing up bowl. In other words, don’t try to wash your white silk shirt in a sink that’s displaying tell-tale traces of your spag bol dinner or has traces of cleaning products.

  • If your clothes aren’t delicate and you’re just hand washing them because your machine is bust or you’re travelling, you can use a clean toothbrush on really grimy areas (though make sure to keep brushes well away from beading, silk, lace and wool).

  • Change the water if it starts to look at all dirty or if any of the colour runs.

  • If you want to use fabric conditioner for extra soft, sweetly smelling clothes, rinse as much of the detergent out as you can first. Then refill the bowl with lukewarm water, add a dash of fabric conditioner (such as Comfort) and swirl the water around so that the conditioner dissolves. Leave the clothes to soak for a few minutes and then rinse them again. (Don’t use fabric conditioner for silk though as it can mark the material.)

  • Try using the bath for hand washing laundry if you have loads to get through. Make sure it’s clean first and do find yourself something soft to kneel on. If you have a shower attachment, use it to help remove dirt and rinse clothes – it basically does the job for you.

  • Some items could handle getting “hand washed” using a shower head. The spray will help to get grime out and save you some work.

Your hand washing questions answered...

Can I use laundry detergent to hand wash clothes?

Most laundry detergents can be used to hand wash clothes, but do check the packet or bottle first. Ideally, it’s best to use a non-bio detergent or one designed for delicate fabrics. You can use powder, liquid or solid laundry soap.

Can I use shampoo to wash clothes?

It’s best to use laundry detergent, but if you really don’t have any at hand, you should be able to get away with a really gentle shampoo, like an eco one or baby shampoo.

Can I use bleach to get stains out?

A tiny bit of bleach in water can help to get stains out of more robust white items, like a cotton sheet or white denim jacket, but it’s far too harsh for delicate fabrics like silk and wool.

What clothes should I hand wash?

A garment’s care label will tell you whether it has to be hand washed, but you may want to snub the washing machine for other garments too, especially woollen jumpers, beaded or embroidered items and your favourite top. Always check the label first, as some things can only be dry cleaned.

Can I machine wash clothes that say hand wash only?

This is a tricky one. Generally, clothing brands only say to hand wash if it’s essential to do so. Saying that, most of us have probably bunged a ‘hand wash only’ shirt in the machine without thinking and had it come out fine. So it probably depends on how much of a risk taker you are, and how much you love that new top. Generally, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

What about if I have a hand wash setting on my machine?

Hand wash settings usually use lower temperatures and a gentler spin, so you might be OK. Again, it really depends how much you love your clothes and how delicate they are. A simple shirt might be fine, but one with beading or lace detailing probably won’t.

How long does it take to hand wash laundry?

It really depends on how many clothes you’re hand washing and how grubby they are. It can take anything from a few minutes for one top to a good hour for a bowl full.

Can I hand wash clothes together?

Yes, just make sure that they’re a similar colour and the water isn’t any warmer than the coolest recommended temperature on the care labels.

How to hand wash clothes like bras and knickers

You can hand wash lingerie in much the same way as in our guide on how to hand wash clothes above, but we do recommend reading our specialist guide to washing lingerie. (Personally, we wouldn’t bother hand washing knickers that came in a pack of five from the supermarket, but it might be worth doing it for those fancy lacy numbers from that posh shop in town.)

How do I hand wash tights?

Carefully! As you’re likely all too aware, tights are really easy to snag. You don’t want to spend all that time cleaning them only to discover you’ve got a ladder. So follow the steps above, but use lukewarm water (if it’s too hot it can affect the elasticity) and be very careful. Alternatively, you can get away with washing high denier tights in the machine, as long as you put them in a pillow case (knotted to close it) or lingerie bag, but be prepared to spend a good bit of time untangling them.

How do I hand wash silk?

Silk can’t always be hand washed; it often needs to be dry cleaned, so do check the care label first. If it’s suitable for hand washing, follow the steps above and be as gentle as you can.

Remember, don’t leave it to soak too long. Want to know how to stop your silk yellowing or why you might want to add some vinegar to the water? Read our full guide to washing silk.

How do I hand wash wool?

There’s something wonderfully comforting about a woollen jumper. Unfortunately, they’re all too easy to shrink. So if you don’t want to pass your favourite jumper on to a small child, you might want to keep it away from the washing machine. You can hand wash jumpers using the steps above, but do check out our top tips in this guide to hand washing woollies.

How do I hand wash cotton?

Cotton can usually take a higher temperature than more delicate fabrics. You can aim for around 40 degrees for coloured or dark cotton and 60 to 90 degrees for badly stained whites. Then just follow the steps above. Do check the care label though and stick to a max of 40 degrees if the garment has delicate elements like embroidery. Don’t forget to wear rubber gloves if you’re using really hot water.

How do I hand wash jeans and other denim clothes?

Most jeans can be machine washed, but hand washing helps them to keep their elasticity and colour. You can use warm water (up to about 30 degrees) and let them soak for a good half an hour, inside out.

Most stains should come out by just rubbing the denim together, but use a toothbrush if you need to get any stubborn marks out.

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