How do washing machines get clothes clean?

By: Stephanie Crawford  | 

Washing Machine Cycles

A washing machine has one or more programs from which you can choose. Sometimes referred to as cycles, you should be able to find these described in the owner's manual. Each program is a sequence of stages with varied times, speeds and temperatures. Each stage may also be called a cycle. For this article, we'll define cycle to mean the individual stages and use the word program to mean some combination of those stages.

The following are descriptions of the cycles you might use on your washing machine:


  • Wash: Fill the machine to a certain water level, dispense any chemicals from dispensers, agitate the load for a certain amount of time and drain the water.
  • Rinse: Fill the machine to a certain water level, agitate the load for a certain amount of time and drain the water.
  • Spin: Spin the basket rapidly for a certain amount of time with the drain open so that centrifugal force removes most remaining water.

These cycles make up parts the following common programs, identified here by what makes them unique:

  • Cotton, linen or normal: Higher spin speeds and average cycle lengths
  • Permanent press, casual: Average or slightly slower spin speeds
  • Colors: Cold wash and rinse temperatures
  • Quick or speed wash: Hot water and less time in the wash cycle
  • Delicates, hand-wash, wool: Cold water wash and rinse, plus spin slower or not at all
  • Presoak: Pause for a certain time during the wash cycle between filling the machine with water and starting agitation
  • Bulky or heavy: Slower spin cycle
  • Sanitize: Hottest water available during the wash cycle

Depending on your washing machine, you may be able to control certain program details like water level and temperature manually. Many high-end washing machines also use sensors to automatically adjust the water level, cycle length and spin speed based on the size and bulk of the load. Use your owner's manual to find all your program and cycle options.

Related Articles


  • Campbell, Edward A. "How to Repair Washing Machines, Clothes Dryers, Refrigerators, Vacuum Cleaners, Fans, Mixers, Toasters and Other Home Appliances." Fawcett Publications. New York, New York. 1957. pp. 59-121.
  • Consumer Energy Center. "Clothes Washers." California Energy Commission. 2010. (Sept. 26, 2010)
  • Energy Star. "How a Product Earns the ENERGY STAR Label." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. (Sept. 26, 2010)
  • "Owner's Manual, Washing Machine, WM2487H*M." LG Electronics. pp. 13-19.
  • Van Name & Co. "Household blessings! … The Celebrated Patent Union Washing Machine. And Clothes Wringer Combined. ..." Advertisement from 1863. American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank, Inc. 2005. (Sept. 26, 2010)
  • Webb, Pauline, and Suggit, Mark. "Gadgets and Necessities: An Encyclopedia of Household Innovations." ABC-CLIO. 2000. pp. 306-310.
  • Whirlpool. "Cabrio, Automatic Washer, Use & Care Guide." Whirlpool Corporation. 2006. pp. 11-18.
  • Whirlpool. "Why is HE High-Efficiency detergent the only type of detergent to use in my washer?" Whirlpool Corporation. 2007. (Sept. 26, 2010)
  • Wright, Susan. "Getting Clothes Clean." College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University. 2001. (Sept. 26, 2010)