Washing Machine Cycles Explained (Complete Guide) 

Not to date myself, but when I was in college, washing machines were pretty simple. Yet, to a newbie like me, even the three to four options were quite intimidating.

Fast-forward many years later and washing machines have come a very long way. The washing machines of today have digital countdown timers and wash delay options, some are even self-cleaning. 

With all the bells and whistles, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the programs available.

Not to worry, I’m here to demystify your most hard-working appliance. Continue reading to get all your washing machine cycles explained.

Common Washing Machine Programs Explained 

When selecting a washing machine program, it is important to keep in mind your textile’s fabrication, the type of material, and color.

Additionally, not all washing machines are the same, even modern ones. Depending on the make and model, each one will have specific efficiency, capacity, and features.

Let’s take a look at the most common washing machine cycles and their explanations.

The Delicate, Gentle, or Hand Wash Cycle

Often used interchangeably, the Delicate, Gentle, or Hand-wash cycle is meant to be as mild as handwashing for your delicate items.

This program can be used for lingerie and hosiery, eveningwear, delicate blouses, knits, wool, lace, silk, cashmere, faux fur, and even that beloved vintage tee you’ve had for years.

Items tagged as ‘dry clean’ or ‘hand wash’ can be washed with this program. Buying fabric-specific detergent, such as for wool or cashmere can also help protect your garments.

This cycle is the shortest and gentlest of all the programs. You can typically choose between warm or cold water and low to no spin. 

However, if you want to prevent shrinkage of your garment, I suggest you use the Delicate cycle on low spin with cold water, just to be safe.

If your machine’s delicate program is pre-set to use warm water, override it as necessary.

I also like to use a mesh bag for my delicate or smaller items. Not only does it keep them together, but it provides added protection from snagging and tearing.

Some washing machines have both programs as individual options. In cases like this, the Handwash program is typically used for the most sensitive fabrics with low to no spin. 

The Handwash cycle can also be used for small loads with light soiling.

Never machine wash suit blazers, special, vintage pieces, or garments with embellishments. Always check your clothing’s care label before washing for the first time to keep your items looking their best.

The Normal, Regular, or Cotton Cycle

This is the most regularly used program. With high agitation, it is the most intense and lengthy cycle among the standard programs. It is the best cycle to remove stains and clean heavily soiled items.

Known as the Normal, Regular, or Cotton cycle, depending on the make and model of your washing machine, this program can be used for everyday items, such as cotton, linen, and durable synthetic items. 

As long as the items are not considered delicate, they can be washed using this setting.

With this cycle, you can wash sheets, towels, T-shirts, socks, and non-delicate undergarments. Always sort by color to avoid dye transfer, especially when washing an item for the first time.

White, cotton, and synthetic items, such as towels, will be easier to clean with warm or hot water. To keep colors vibrant for longer, use cold or warm water.

Some washing machines have separate Synthetics and Cotton programs. In these machines, the Cotton setting is hotter, while the Synthetics cycle is set up with lower temperatures and a slower spin cycle.

The Permanent Press or Color Cycle

This cycle was created with the emergence of synthetic, wash-and-wear, wrinkle-free fabrics, such as polyester. 

It is shorter than the Normal program, with fast agitation in the washing stage and a slower spin cycle at the end, which leads to fewer wrinkles and creases.

It typically uses warm water, although sometimes it employs a cold-water rinse.

This cycle is excellent for jeans!

Quick Wash Cycle

Have you ever had to take your kiddo to soccer practice, only to realize their uniform is dirty? Or it’s Sunday night and your kiddo declares he has no clean undies – this happened to me recently!

Here comes the Quick Wash cycle to the rescue! This is the fastest cycle available, and the most energy-saving option, too. 

With a shortened wash cycle and high-speed spin cycle for a faster drying time, this program is not meant for delicate garments, but it can certainly help you out in an emergency.

Most Quick Wash cycles are done within 15 to 30 minutes!

When using this program, do keep in mind it is only recommended for lightly soiled items and there may be a load limit. So, save your heavily stained, odorous garments for the Normal cycle.

Bulky Wash Cycle

Have you ever put a thick blanket or comforter in the washer only to pull it out and find portions of it still dry? Yup, it’s happened to me! If only I had used the Bulky Wash cycle. 

This program is ideal for large items, such as thick blankets, comforters, towels, outerwear, pillows, and even small rugs.

It works by using extra water and additional soak time to ensure the textiles are thoroughly soaked and the detergent is evenly distributed.

Heavy Duty Wash

Often confused with the Bulky Wash program, this cycle is more appropriate for heavily soiled or odorous items.

It uses higher heat and a faster spin, allowing for sweat, dirt, and grime removal, which makes it ideal for sports gear and thick work clothes or uniforms.

Washing machine dial and cycles options

Other Washing Machine Cycles Explained

Aside from the basic washing machine programs, many newer machines come with additional, more specialized cycles.

Let’s take a look at some very helpful programs and their uses.

Baby Care Program

When I gave birth to my little guy, I used the gentle cycle with a special newborn detergent for all of his clothing, blankets, towels, and such.

Newer machines now have a handy Baby Care cycle that is specially designed for all of your baby’s textiles.

It is an intensive program that uses hot water and several rinse cycles to ensure all detergent is washed off their little outfits and linens. Detergent or fabric softener residue can sometimes cause an allergic reaction or irritate their delicate skin, making this program ideal for cleaning their items.

Don’t worry if your washing machine doesn’t come with this specialized program. Simply set your washer to a hot/high-temperature wash and add an extra rinse cycle.

Anti-Crease Cycle

The Anti-Crease cycle, also known as the Pre-Ironing or Easy-Iron cycle, prevents wrinkles from forming by lowering the speed and/or length of the spin cycle.

Pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Just make sure you don’t leave your clothes in the washer overnight. It’s not necessarily a miracle worker. 

Sports Cycle

This program was specially designed to remove sweat, stains, and bad odors from microfiber sports clothing and uniforms.

It is a longer wash cycle and uses a lower water temperature to avoid damage to the garments.

Mixed Load Program

This cycle typically runs at about 104⁰F (40⁰C) and spins at maximum speed to clean mixed fabrics that require a more thorough cleaning cycle.

Anti-Allergy Program

Also referred to as the Hygiene cycle, this program is designed to remove allergens by using either high water temperatures or steam as a cleaning function.

This is a wonderful setting for anyone suffering from seasonal or pet allergies. If you or your little ones suffer from allergies, you know exactly how bad they can get!

Rinse and Spin Cycle

As the name so aptly implies, this cycle simply rinses and spins your clothing and textiles without the use of detergent or fabric softener.

It is not meant for cleaning.

Instead, it uses only clean water and spins at a fast speed to remove it. As an additional rinse and spin cycle, it is ideal for those suffering from allergies or with sensitive skin who need the extra rinse to ensure allergen, detergent, or fabric softener residue removal.

Spin Only Cycle

This program spins your load at a specified speed to remove excess water after a wash. But remember, running an extra Spin Only cycle does not dry your items. It is not meant to be a drier.

Extra Rinse Cycle

The Extra Rinse cycle is ideal for extra absorbent items that may have some detergent or fabric softener residue that needs additional rinsing to remove.

It is especially helpful for individuals who suffer from sensitive skin, as it can usually add up to three extra rinse cycles to your wash.

Keep in mind, however, that this program does consume more water than others and the extra water exposure can potentially shrink your items, even if you use cold water.

Drain Program

Sometimes we are so busy or consumed by our thoughts we do things on autopilot. If you’ve ever selected the wrong program and realized it after the machine started to fill, the Drain program is perfect for such a situation.

If you realize you need to select a different cycle, simply select this program and it will drain all the water before starting a new cycle.

This program is also very helpful if you’ve soaked your garments in a bucket or tub before washing. Just dump the contents into the washer and select the Drain option to remove the water. Then, you can start your load as you normally would.

Pre-wash Program

This extra cycle uses cold water and can be used for heavily soiled garments or textiles before the main wash cycle.

By pre-treating an extra dirty item, this program provides a deeper, more thorough cleaning.

As with the Extra Rinse cycle, keep in mind that the extra water exposure can potentially shrink your items, even though it uses cold water.

Self-Cleaning, Drum Clean Cycle

It seems like an oxymoron for a washing machine to require cleaning, but this program does exactly that without requiring you to lift a finger.

Related: How to Probably Clean a Washing Machine

Before running this program, ensure the washer is empty and there is no detergent or fabric softener in the drawers.

By using high-temperature water and a fast spin, this program removes detergent and fabric softener build-up, as well as any lingering foul smells.

While not all washing machines have this program, if yours does, be sure to use it to keep your machine working in tip-top shape.

Spin Cycles Explained

A laundry cycle normally goes through a washing stage, a rest period, a rinse stage to remove the detergent and fabric softener, and lastly, a spin cycle to remove all the water from your clothing and linens.

In some machines, you can select the spin cycle speed. A spin cycle indicates the number of times the washing machine drum spins in one minute. 

The higher the spin cycle speed, the higher the agitation which results in more water being removed from your garments, which in turn leads to shorter drying time, whether you air dry or use a dryer.

A higher-speed spin cycle is ideal for baby clothes and durable fabrics, like cotton, linen, and polyester.

A lower spin cycle is best for delicate materials, such as wool, permanent press, and vintage items.

An interesting fact to keep in mind when doing laundry is that front loaders seem to have faster spin speeds than top loaders. 

Changing the temperature in a washing machine

Temperature Options

Temperature selection is very important to keep your textiles in optimal condition when doing laundry.

While each cycle or program typically has pre-set temperatures, you can usually change the temperature to suit your needs simply by the press of a button. This ability to choose comes in very handy when washing an item for the first time.

When looking at water temperature selections, you’ll notice two temperature combinations. The first refers to the cleaning water temperature and the second to the rinse water temperature.

This is what the typical options look like and what they mean:

  • Hot/Cold – Hot cleaning water/ Cold rinsing water
  • Warm/Cold – Warm cleaning water/ Cold rinsing water
  • Cold/Cold – Cold cleaning and rinsing water

Hot cleaning water is an excellent selection when you want to achieve a deep clean. However, it can shrink delicate items.

In some cases, you can select the ‘Hot/Cold’ water option when you want that deep clean while preventing shrinkage and wrinkling.

Be sure to read care labels before selecting your washing and rinsing temperatures.

Other Functions Explained

In addition to the washing machine cycles and programs, and spin and temperature options, most machines come with a variety of additional functions.

Here, I explain what those functions are and how to use them.

Delay Timer

For those of you, who like me, love to plan and schedule things in advance, the Delay Timer is a lifesaver!

This function is excellent if you don’t want to start a load just yet, but know it needs to be done. 

In the past, I’ve set my laundry to start while I’m at work so that it will be done by the time I get home. Then, when I get home, all I have to do is transfer it to the dryer. It’s a real timesaver for working individuals and busy parents alike!

All you have to do is press the Delay Timer button until you get to the desired time. Delay options vary by machine, but you can usually delay a load up to 24 hours. Some machines will allow you to delay your wash one hour at a time while others allow you to choose in three-hour increments.

Consult your user’s manual if you’re ever in doubt about how to use this function.

Child Locks

This function was very helpful when my little guy started walking. 

Those washing machine buttons looked so appealing to him! And no, gates were no match for him when trying to keep him out of the laundry area.

The Child Lock function deactivates the buttons on the control panel so kiddos cannot change the settings mid-wash. Only the On and Off buttons work while the Child Lock function is engaged.

Select the Child Lock after you’ve selected your washing cycle or program. To deactivate, there are usually a couple of buttons that must be pressed simultaneously.

In some washing machines, there is also a Door Safety Lock function. This function stops the door from being closed. It keeps little hands from throwing things, siblings, or pets, in the washing machine and locking them in. 

Time Remaining Display

The Time Remaining Display is exactly what it sounds like. It is usually a digital countdown timer that lets you know when the cycle will be finished.

Some machines have sensors that weigh the items in your load and adjust the cycle settings to reveal the ‘true’ time remaining.

Start/Pause Function

Press the Start/Pause button to get your selected cycle started. An indicator light will stay on while the cycle is running.

If you press the Start/Pause button again, it will pause your cycle while it is running. This is very handy if you realize you need to run a quick errand and don’t want the cycle to continue running while you’re gone.

Some machines allow you to pause and open the door if it’s early enough in the cycle. 

There have been many times I think I’ve loaded everything into the washer, only to walk into my kiddo’s room or the bathroom to find more dirty clothes, towels, or stray socks. 

When this happens, I simply pause the cycle while the machine is still adding water and throw in the forgotten items.

Choosing a washing machine cycle

How to Choose the Right Cycle 

As a rule of thumb, always check your garments’ or textiles’ care labels before washing them for the first time. These labels are extremely helpful when trying to figure out how to care for your new item.

Here are some general rules for you to figure out how to choose the right cycle for your items:

  • Choose the Delicate, Gentle, or Hand-wash cycle for lingerie and hosiery, eveningwear, delicate blouses, knits, wool, lace, silk, cashmere, faux fur, and vintage tees.
  • Items tagged as ‘dry clean’ or ‘hand wash’ can be washed with the Delicate, Gentle, or Hand-wash program
  • Select the Normal, Regular, or Cotton cycle for everyday items, such as sheets, towels, T-shirts, socks, and non-delicate undergarments. Anything made of cotton, linen, and durable synthetic items can be washed using this program.
  • The Permanent Press or Color cycle is excellent for synthetic, wash-and-wear, and wrinkle-free fabrics, such as polyester and jeans.
  • The Quick Wash cycle is the fastest program, usually finishing a load within 15 to 30 minutes. While excellent when you find yourself in a pinch, it is not meant for delicate garments and is only recommended for lightly soiled items. There may also be a load limit. 
  • Choose the Bulky Wash cycle when dealing with large items, such as thick blankets, comforters, towels, outerwear, pillows, and even small rugs.
  • Opt for the Heavy-Duty Wash program when you need to clean sweaty, dirty, and grimy sports gear and thick work clothes or uniforms.
  • When washing your baby’s textiles, choose the Baby Care cycle. This program ensures a thorough clean with hot water and that all the detergent is washed off your little one’s outfits and linens with an extra spin cycle.
  • If your washing machine doesn’t have a Baby Care cycle, simply set your washer to a hot/high-temperature wash and add an extra rinse cycle.

To Wrap Up

The washing machines of today come with many more options than they used to. It is no surprise that many of us become easily overwhelmed by all the bells and whistles.

However, the many functions available with your modern washing machine can be extremely helpful once you become acquainted with them. 

Therefore, demystifying your most hard-working appliance and getting all the washing machine cycles explained is the first step in making your life easier. 

Sources:

Washing Machine Programs/Cycles Explained (inthewash.co.uk)

Washing Machine Spin Cycles & Speeds Explained | CDA Appliances

https://kair.care/blogs/news/washing-machine-cycles-explained

https://www.thelaundress.com/blogs/tips/how-to-360-wash-understanding-wash-cycles

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