Is hand washing your clothes better than using the washing machine?

Hand-washing clothes

Since we started making sustainable laundry products in early 2019, we are often asked whether it is better to wash clothes by hand or use a washing machine. The answer (as it often is) can be a little bit complicated. So let’s explore the benefits and drawbacks of each method to help you decide which option you prefer. It could be that you settle on a compromise between the two. 

Is it more sustainable to wash your clothes by hand?

It is a fair assumption that, because your washing machine uses electricity to run, you are being kinder to the environment by washing your clothes by hand. To answer this, we really need to look into the process in its entirety. 

Does washing clothes by hand use less water?

Firstly, let’s compare the use of water in each method. It might seem odd to worry about how much water is used. Water is everywhere. Plus, it gets recycled anyway. So why would it matter?

Well, water treatment plants consume a huge amount of energy. They also use chemicals such as chlorine which - whilst essential for the process of cleaning the water - can do bad things once they are released into the environment. Modern water treatment facilities do a good job of protecting the environment as much as possible but, because they consume so much energy, it is important that we waste as little water as possible in our daily lives. 

So where does this leave us in terms of the hand vs machine washing debate? Well, let’s compare numbers:

Machine washing: 53 litres.

Hand washing: 20 litres.

Clearly in this test, washing your clothes by hand comes out a clear winner. It is worth noting that those 53 litres quoted for your washing machine are actually a bit generous. If you have an older appliance, it will likely use much more than that. 

Home-water-works.org gives this advice for keeping the water usage of your washing machine to a minimum:

  1. Run full loads only, even if the washer has an adjustable load setting. A full load is the most efficient way to wash clothes.

  2. Replace the old inefficient clothes washer with a new high-efficiency model to save water and energy.

The above comparison is even more powerful when you consider the amount of detergent needed for each wash. Most laundry detergents suggest a given amount of liquid to use for each wash (which is then obvious diluted in the cleaning process). Because hand washing uses so much less water, you can use a smaller dosage of detergent. This reduces waste packaging and also the number of chemicals released into the environment. Using a sustainable laundry detergent will also go a long way to reducing your environmental impact. 

How much electricity does a washing machine use?

This was the first question that came to mind when we started researching this blog post. Energy usage is the obvious drawback of the modern methods of doing the laundry. 

Since 2013, washing machines sold in the UK have had to be relatively efficient. They need to have an energy efficiency rating of at least an A. But what does that actually mean?

Well, you will be pleased to know that a modern washing machine uses very little power at all. 255 watts per hour on average. That is really very little. In financial terms, your appliance probably costs you about 16p per wash. 

If you use warm or hot water to hand wash your clothes, you are likely using more energy to heat the water in your home before you begin. If your home runs on gas or oil, turning on the hot water could well be doing more damage to the environment than you think. But that is a conversation for another time. 

Is hand washing better for clothes?

It goes without saying that garments with “hand wash only” on their care instructions should not be washed in the machine. Some people risk it. Some get away with it. But we thoroughly advise against it. 

Washing machines work by a process of agitation. As the clothes tumble around in the drum, they rub together and the friction cleans away dirt and grime. Your detergent’s job is to loosen the bonds between a garment’s fibres and any impurities that you might like to remove. 

During this process of agitation, microscopic tears can occur in the fibres of your clothes. You would never see them with your own eyes but once the integrity is damaged, visible damage is inevitable. It could be a few months later that you notice a hole and have no idea where it came from. 

Clearly, for this reason, careful hand washing is better for your clothes than machine washing. It goes without saying that using a washboard is as bad if not worse than using the machine. 

Conclusion

There is no definitive answer to this question. Washing your clothes by hand will use considerably less water than using a machine but unless you use cold water, the energy required to heat the water in your home probably outweighs the electricity usage by your appliance. 

Whilst the environmental differences may be difficult to calculate, your clothes will certainly thank you for taking the time to wash them by hand. Not just your delicates - all of your clothes are damaged on a microscopic level when they go through a wash cycle. Washing by hand is therefore a great way to keep them looking new and fresh for longer.