Mastering Hard Water Laundry: Tips for Cleaner Clothes

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If you’ve noticed that your laundry feels stiff, your whites look gray, or your fabrics are weakened after a cycle in the washing machine, you’re likely dealing with the effects of hard water.

Here, we’ve shared the possible impact of hard water on laundry – and the best solution to prevent this impact going forward.

πŸ“Œ Key Takeaways

  • Hard water causes fabrics to stiffen, whites to turn gray, and clothing to become weakened.
  • You’ll also have to use more laundry detergent to achieve the same results, and your washing machine’s efficiency and lifespan may be affected.
  • You can eliminate water hardness issues when washing clothes by installing a water softener upstream of your laundry room.

πŸ‘• How Hard Water Effects Laundry

Here are some of the ways that hard water might affect your laundry chores:

Stiff Fabrics

If your fabrics take on a rough, stiff texture no matter how much fabric softener or water conditioner you use, you likely have hard water.

Hard water leaves mineral deposits on your laundry as it dries. This chalky coating makes clothes feel stiff, rigid, and scratchy.

You’re especially likely to notice stiffness of jeans, towels, washcloths, and underwear as a result of washing in hard water.

Gray Whites

Doing a laundry load in hard water may also cause your whites to take on a gray tinge.

Limescale deposits are gray, so they may cause your pearly whites to become dull or faded.

Calcium minerals react with laundry detergents and soaps, forming soap scum – a gray sheen that you may have noticed on your bathtub after bathing in hard water. This is another cause of gray-tinged whites in your laundry.

Gray white-looking clothes caused by hard water

Weakened Clothes

A couple of sources referenced a Purdue University study, which found that washing clothes in hard water causes them to wear out 15% faster than clothing washed in soft water.

We couldn’t find the link to this study online, but it makes sense that the buildup of minerals and soap scum could compromise the structure of fabrics and cause them to become weaker and more susceptible to tearing over time.

Washing delicates in hard water is a risky business, since hardness minerals are tough and certainly aren’t gentle on intricately designed fabrics.

White Or Gray Streaks On Colored Items

We know that hard water leaves mineral deposits that give whites a gray tinge.

The biggest issue with hard water in your washing machine is that it combines with liquid soap or detergent to form detergent curd. This sticks to your fabric fibers and may leave gray or white streaks on your colored items.

More Detergent Required

If your laundry comes out of the washing machine looking stained or dirty, or feeling hard and starchy, you’ll probably try to compensate by using more detergent and using more hot water in your washes.

The side-effect of using more detergent and doing hotter washes is that you’ll spend more money than necessary on your laundry efforts in the long run.

A CBS News article reported that Americans collectively spend more than $3 billion on detergent. If you have hard water, your spend on laundry soaps and supplies will be higher than it needs to be.

You’ll especially need to increase your detergent spend if you use powdered detergent. One 2011 study found that 30% of additional powdered detergents may be required to enable them to perform as effectively in hard water as they did in soft water.

Increased detergent use due to limescale stains on clothes

Reduced Washing Machine Efficiency

Finally, hard water affects the efficiency of washing machines by forming scale deposits on their components, leading to reduced water flow and clogging.

Over time, scale deposits may coat or clog the washing machine drain, reducing water’s ability to drain out of the unit and resulting in an excess of water being left over at the end of a wash cycle. As a result, you’ll be left with damp laundry that takes longer to dry.

Your washing machine will also have to work harder as a result of scale accumulation in its components, which could cause early burnout – resulting in more frequent repairs or replacements.

πŸ“‰ How To Reduce Hard Water Effects On Your Laundry

Here are a few ways you can reduce the side effects of using a hard water supply to do your laundry.

Use Liquid Detergents

Liquid detergents are thought to give better cleaning results than powdered detergents because they contain nonionic surfactants, which resist hard water’s mineral content. These liquids have no ionic charge, which means they’re unlikely to react with dissolved minerals and stain clothes with soap scum.

We also recommend spending more money upfront on a heavy-duty high-quality detergent that will produce better results than a poor-quality low-cost detergent.

Using liquid detergents to remove hard water stains

Add Laundry Borax To Your Load

Another way to combat the effects of water hardness minerals on your laundry is to add around half a cup of laundry borax to every load.

Borax produces a soluble calcium complex that softens water by chelating the calcium and magnesium minerals, preventing them from reacting with laundry detergent and forming soap scum and scale.

Soak Your Laundry Overnight

To thoroughly clean laundry that has been stained or damaged by hard water, fill your washing machine with hot water (as hot as is suitable for the types of fabrics you’re laundering).

Add one cup water conditioner to the load, then four times the amount of detergent that you would normally add to a load. Program the washing machine to spin for long enough for all the laundry to be wet, then let it sit overnight. Drain the water, then follow up with a regular wash cycle, using just one cup of water conditioner.

Bleach Your Whites

If your whites have turned grey due to exposure to hard water, put them on a wash cycle with one cup of water conditioner and a few drops of chlorine bleach (choose a product that’s safe for this use).

Follow the instructions on the package to use the right amount of bleach to whiten your laundry.

Add Vinegar And Baking Soda To Your Load

Finally, you can remove detergent stains and white mineral residue from your laundry by adding one cup of distilled white vinegar to your rinse cycle.

For extra effect, you can also add washing soda (which you can buy online or make yourself by baking 2-3 cups of baking soda in the oven). Washing soda binds to water hardness minerals, preventing them from causing further damage to your laundry.

Adding baking soda to washing machine detergent container to remove stains and mineral residues

πŸ‘¨β€πŸ”§ Related: The Vinegar Experiment: Can It Really Soften Water?

βœ… How To Eliminate The Effects Of Hard Water In Your Washing Machine

Not happy with simply reducing the effects of hard water in your washing machine?

The best way to prevent hard water from affecting your laundry is to eliminate the hard water itself.

Our top recommendation is to install a water softener system, which exchanges water hardness minerals (calcium and magnesium) with sodium ions. This soft water no longer contains mineral particles and is unable to form scale or soap scum.

Water softeners are point of entry (POE) units, meaning that they protect your entire home’s plumbing system, including all fixtures and appliances, from the effects of hard water.

πŸ‘¨β€πŸ”§ Learn more about which water softeners we recommend in 2024

Water softener installed outside of home

πŸ“‘ Final Word

Numerous studies have found proof that hard water reduces detergent’s stain removal abilities, reacts with soaps to form scummy residue, leaves hard water stains on clothes, and makes fabrics harsh and scratchy to the touch.

You can reduce the effects of hard water on your laundry by following the steps listed in this guide. Or, to avoid all these problems entirely, install a water softening system.

  • Laura Shallcross
    Senior Editor

    Laura is a passionate residential water treatment journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Print Journalism and a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Over a span of 5 years she's written on a range of topics including water softening, well water treatment, and purification processes.

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