Hard Water: Why Your Laundry Doesn’t Feel Clean after Coming Out of the Washer


Your washing machine is one of the most time-saving appliances known to man. If you’ve ever had to wash an entire load of towels by hand while the washer is out of service, you know exactly what we’re talking about. So it can be fairly alarming when clothing comes out of a complete washing cycle feeling stiff, crusty, or smelling sour despite an hour of hot water and soapy spinning.

Your first instinct is to call for repairs, but what if your washer seems to be functioning normally? It goes through the cycles, it doesn’t shake or rattle, the water it washes with is sufficiently hot. In this case, the problem might be the water itself. If your taps run hard water, the minerals in that water can actually start to build up and damage your clothes when the washer pulls tap water for another load.

Allow us to explain:

Hard Water is Full of Chalky Minerals: “Scale”

The reason hard water is “hard” is because it’s full of extra minerals like calcium and magnesium. These minerals are not harmful to drink but they are harmful to your hair, skin, pipes, appliances, and your clothes. The symptom of hard water that most people notice is is called “scale,” a chalky off-white water residue that shows up on your faucets, tub, and dishes. But that’s just what’s easy to see and irritating to constantly scrub. In reality, that scale builds up on everything that water hits and is left behind when the water dries.

Scale Reduces Detergent Effectiveness

The worst thing about scale is not that it’s chalky or builds up, it’s that the nature of these chalky minerals decreases the effectiveness of soap and detergents. It prevents detergent from making suds, which is the primary cleaning action. This prevents the detergent from washing the dirt and sweat and skin cells out of your clothes as the washing machine is supposed to do. This is why clothes washed in hard water might still smell sour or feel dirty.

Scale Builds Up in Your Clothing Fibers

The other problem is that the same scale that builds up on your tub, sinks, and dishes is building up in your clothing fibers. This not only stops the detergent from cleaning your clothes, but it also works a lot like starch which is another chalky mineral. Clothing washed in hard water too many times will start to feel stiff coming out of the dryer and much rougher to the touch. You may even start getting rashes and breaking out where the scale-filled clothing touches your skin.

How to Save Your Laundry

The good news is that your clothes probably aren’t permanently damaged and there are ways to stop hard water from wrecking your entire supply of clothing and towels. Here’s what to do to save your laundry and keep this from happening again.

– Soak Scale-Damaged Clothes in Vinegar

For clothes that are already sour-smelling or stiff and scratchy, start by soaking them in vinegar with a few shakes of Borax. The vinegar will dissolve the scale in a way that water can’t and the borax will help you scrub it out of the clothing fibers. Don’t worry about the smell, vinegar smell can be neutralized with baking soda next.

– Add Fabric Softener to Loads

Start using fabric softener, along with a half-cup of vinegar and a few shakes of borax in each load. The vinegar will at least partially neutralize the scale minerals and the fabric softener will help counteract their effect.

– Use Concentrated Laundry Soap

Stronger laundry soap, or more soap, will provide more washing power in the face of scale neutralizing your detergent. You may try using concentrated laundry soap at 1.5x or double the suggested amount. However, we know this can get pricey over time.

– Install a Home Water Softening System

The best long-term (AKA: once-and-for-all) solution that will stop hard water from damaging your clothes is a water softening system. Water softening uses salt and/or electrostatically charged beads to pull the minerals out of your water before it has a chance to run through your taps. With a water softening system, not only will your laundry be saved from hard water, but so will your skin, hair, dishes, and sink surfaces. Once your water is softened, you’ll never have to scrub water scum or worry about itchy-sour clothes coming out of your washing machine again.

If your washing machine isn’t washing the clothes right, it could be a problem with the machine. But it could also be a problem with the water itself. If water tends to leave a chalky residue on your faucets and dishes, then it is far more likely to also be the problem with your washer. For more information about smart appliance repair and maintenance, contact us today or check out our helpful appliance archive!

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