Ask a Clean Person: Laundry School — Hard Water, Soft Fabric, and Babies, Oh My!

Get out your notebooks, sharpen your pencils, hone your note-passing skills: Laundry School is in session! We’re devoting the entire month of May to the subject of laundry. And what fun would Laundry School be if you couldn’t backtalk the teacher, right? So! The Twitter hashtag for this is #LAUNDRYSCHOOL. If you follow me on Twitter (@joliekerr) you can holler at me when you do your laundry! Or lemme see those beautiful piles of folded clothes! Or ask questions! Or tweet at me in emergency situations! Or maybe you just really, really, really need to talk to me about how folding a fitted sheet sends you into fits of rage. This is me, being here for you. And because I try to be here for you in as many ways as possible, I’ve started a pinboard devoted entirely to laundry to serve as a reference source. Most importantly: got questions? Ask away!

I have just moved to Germany from Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne has lovely soft tap water and I have never even thought about how people deal with issues of calcium and other minerals in the water. First I was all “ewww gross — this water tastes terrible!” then I realized it was drying my hands and hair out completely, and now I’m realizing that I have to wash my dishes and launder all my clothes in it, and I cannot work out how to do that! I don’t like using a lot of detergent to wash dishes or clothes because my skin is a little sensitive, but that seems to be the only solution I have found so far.

Directly related to this is the added problem of keeping appliances that run hard water clean and free of build up. I’m thinking here of dishwasher, washing machine, and even the sink. I just don’t even know!

I sat here staring at the blinking cursor on my screen for well over an hour pondering how to make the subject of hard water COME ALIVE!! for you. I’ve decided I can’t. So here’s a quick and dirty and not-at-all-comprehensive overview of what hard water is/does before we get into what to do about it.

Hard water contains a high mineral count. It’s not harmful to humans, though it is harmful to machinery in that those minerals build up, leaving what’s called “scale” or “fouling” — colloquially, we often refer to it as scum. Hard water also doesn’t play as nicely with soap as does soft water, resulting in a distinct lack of lather without the aid of a water softener designed to reduce the calcium, magnesium and etc etc etc minerals that are found in hard water.

Here in the States, two commonly recommended brands of water softener are Calgon Water Softener and Charlie’s Soap Laundry Booster and Hard Water Treatment, though there are certainly others on the market. Also Borax! (We’re going to talk more about Borax downcolumn.) But you’re not here in the States, so unless you can find a local vendor of these products (unlikely?) or want to pay a ridiculous shipping fee (not ideal?), you’ll need to find a German product that’s similar. So what you want to look for is what’s called washing soda, the primary ingredient of which is sodium carbonate. You may need to look for it by ingredient rather than name, since the term ‘washing soda’ may not be universal. Especially not in a country where English isn’t the primary language. (I realize this is a seriously “no duh” statement, but I want to make sure I’m as helpful as possible here!) Another term that’s commonly used in the U.S. is ‘laundry booster,’ but be aware that that term also applies to products like bluing. In Germany, you may find that water softening products come in tablet form, so keep an eye out for those. You’ll use these products in addition to your detergent. Update!: The ex-pats have arrived in the comments with helpful tips on which brands of washing soda and vinegar to look out for in Germany! Aww man, you guys are the best!

If you can’t find washing soda, the next thing to try is baking soda — a.k.a. sodium bicarbonate — which should certainly be easy enough to find pretty much anywhere overseas. If it’s not, will you guys tell me so I can start a charity to airlift baking soda to those in need? It won’t work quite as well as sodium carbonate, but because it’s so universal it’s good to know that it’s an option. You can also mix it into your shampoo to help with the effects of your shower water on your hair.

And, finally, white vinegar is the trick to keep your machines free of build-up. You can run it through your washers, or use it along with a toothbrush to scrub the taps and screens on your sink faucet and on the showerhead.

I have a laundry emergency and I know you’ll know what to do. It seems I accidentally bought fabric softener instead of detergent and just poured it into my washer. However, I did not yet start the wash. But, it’s already down the shoot. What do I do?

We did this one in real time, so for fun that’s how I’m going to present it to you. Here goes:

Jolie Cleanperson: Just add your detergent in now, things will be fine (if a bit soft). If you can you might want to run them again through the wash cycle with a very minimal amount of detergent — or even better, with just a half cup of white vinegar — to neutralize the effect of too much softener. Good luck out there; tell me how things turn out, I’m curious!

Softie McSofterson: I am running it now with the actual detergent so I will let you know what happens!

Jolie Cleanperson: Awesome! I’m seriously so curious about this … I bet it happens ALL THE TIME.

Softie McSofterson: My sheets ended up fine! For reference, I used Seventh Generation Free and Clear liquid fabric softener and detergent (yes, that is how I ended up with fabric softener in the first place — they look basically identical). I used the recommended amount of fabric softener and a little more than I usually would, but still in the recommended range, of detergent (I don’t know what my logic was there but I did it with more detergent:fabric softener). I ran it in cold water.

I ended up feeling the sheets after I ran them through the wash, and they felt non-residue-y so I just went for it and stuck them in the drier. They ended up fine, and no softer really! You’re right that a lot of people do this because my Googling revealed a lot of unfortunate stories about people washing their clothes in fabric softener only. I was lucky, I think, to have caught it before I ran the wash.

So that’s it! Except as a value add, it’s probably worth letting you know that if you do run your wash with only softener, you can undo any ill effects by running the load through again with your regular detergent (because they won’t be clean!) and a cup of white vinegar, which will help to counteract any softener build-up that may have occurred.

Maybe you’ve already provided information around this and I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but all I know is I’m wearing this lovely blue dress and it’s turning me blue. Literally.

It’s been washed at least twice, and I haven’t noticed any of the clothes it shared the wash with turning bluish, but the weird blue tinge I’m getting on my nails today is really unnerving. Is there any way to stop this from happening? And should I be worried that this means my dress is fading fast?

Oh dear. Well this isn’t good — God forbid you get caught in a rainstorm!

The fact that your dress isn’t bleeding on to your other clothes when you’re doing wash is actually a pretty good indication that you should be all set on the fading front, but obviously we can’t have you going about blue, so you’ll want to set the dye. Just like setting dye in dark denim, white vinegar is the trick for this. Treat your dress to a quick swim in your sink; fill it with cold water and a cup of white vinegar, and let the dress soak in that solution for 15–30 minutes, before laundering as usual. As an alternative, you can run a cup of vinegar through the wash along with your detergent. Either method will help to set the dye up so it stops leeching onto your manicure.

With spring in the air and summer approaching, I like to be a bit of a dandy and haul out lighter-colored clothing, befitting the season. Sometimes that includes white shirts or pants, or really light pastels (yes, I bought light pink trousers at Uniqlo … they were $20!). It’s nicer to day-drink wearing seersucker or linen while showing a bunch of tattoos.

BUT! While I may want to trot out pink linen shorts from Bermuda to go drink wine in the park with family and friends, I have a bit of a challenge: I’m a father of a toddler. And I have two large, enthusiastic dogs. I don’t want to constantly be fussing over getting dog hair/drool all over me, or stiff-arm my daughter as she approaches me for a hug with strawberry-stained cheeks and fingers. I get that messiness is part of the territory. It’s impossible to keep white clothing clean under the best of circumstances, but flopping down on a blanket or at a picnic table with kids/pets makes it 1000 times harder.

Assuming I can just give in to the madness, any tips on making sure my Summer Whites/Pinks aren’t wear-once disposable? I’d like to not have to wear camo shorts and soccer jerseys all summer.

New rule: if you’re going to write to me about your children — particularly if you’re going to include details like “strawberry-stained cheeks” — you need to send me a photo of them looking adorable so I can be all, “OH MY GOD I WANT TO EAT YOUR BABY.”

While I’m busy mentally gnawing on your child, you can dash out to the store and buy yourself a box of Borax. Borax is a laundry booster that’s particularly good for brightening light colored clothing. It’s also very gentle, which means you can use it to wash your daughter’s clothes too. You’ll use a half a cup of it in addition to your detergent, so it’s pretty much about as simple as could be. There are certainly other things you can use (spray treatments like Shout, for example), but it sounds like you’ve already got your hands full out there.

Previously: Laundry School Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?

Photo via Flickr/Stevendepolo