After tossing a load of laundry into the washer with detergent, you expect your clothes and linens to emerge smelling fresh, feeling soft, and looking clean. Heavily stained or smelly items might require a pre-treatment, but in general, a simple machine-wash should be enough to get the job done. So if you're continuously dealing with crunchy-feeling fabrics, stains or odors that won't lift out, and faded colors after washing, the problem might be with the water itself.
Hard water, which contains dissolved minerals such as calcium and magnesium, is the culprit behind a wide variety of common laundry problems, and it's present in approximately 85% of U.S. households, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Similar to how hard water can leave behind soap scum on your glassware or make it difficult to lather up in the shower, higher levels of minerals in your water can interfere with your laundry detergent's cleaning power and leave behind buildup that won't easily wash away.
"As this residue continues to build up on fabrics, it can also start to trap body soils like sweat and sebum, creating odors that keep coming back," says Sammy Wang, senior scientist for cleaning products brand 9 Elements. She notes that hard water can also contribute to stiff or rough-feeling fabrics, colors that appear faded, and dingy whites (including those yellow underarm stains).
If you're not sure whether your home has hard water, you can contact your water utility company to find out more about the mineral levels and quality of the water supply. At-home hard water test kits (available online and at most major home improvement retailers) can also tell you more about your home's water. For households with well water, contact a testing service to analyze your water for minerals and other contaminants.
How to Fix Hard Water Laundry Problems
Dealing with hard water in your laundry can be frustrating, but there are several steps you can take to help mitigate the effects. Use these tips to fix some of the common laundry problems caused by hard water.
1. Add more laundry detergent.
"It's harder to get clothing clean when you are washing in hard water without increasing the amount of detergent you use," says Mary Gagliardi, also known as "Dr. Laundry," the in-house scientist and cleaning expert for Clorox. She explains that the minerals in hard water interact with the detergent, leaving less cleaning power leftover for your clothes and making it necessary to add extra detergent. "This will help make sure you have enough ingredients available for cleaning after the minerals are taken care of," Gagliardi says.
2. Use a high-quality detergent.
Another option is to choose a detergent that will work harder in hard water. Wang suggests looking for a low-pH detergent that can help dissolve minerals and eliminate hard-water buildup. For example, 9 Elements Liquid Laundry Detergent ($12, Target) is formulated with vinegar to clear away trapped odors and residue from fabrics (without leaving behind a harsh vinegar smell). Other high-quality detergents, such as Tide Heavy Duty Hygienic Clean detergent ($12, Target), also feature ingredients that can capture minerals in hard water before they end up stuck on your clothes. In general, liquid detergents will be more effective than powdered versions if you have hard water.
3. Wash laundry in warmer water.
Consider choosing a warmer wash cycle to help combat the effects of hard water in your laundry. "Increasing water temperature increases the rate of chemical reactions, which benefits overall laundry cleaning, and is the reason I always like to remind people the hotter the water, the better the cleaning," Gagliardi says. This might not completely eradicate hard water issues, but you'll likely see some improvement in the cleanliness of your laundry. However, you should note that hot water is more damaging to fabrics (and uses much more energy), so it might not be suitable for every load. Check care labels carefully before selecting a warm or hot cycle.
4. Install a water softener.
Hard water can cause household issues that reach far beyond the laundry room. Consider installing a whole-home water softening system ($550, The Home Depot) to remove hardness and scale from the water that comes out of all your faucets and fixtures. "Or, at a minimum, install an inline water filtration or deionization system adjacent to your clothes washer to improve your laundry results," Gagliardi suggests.