Why you should air dry your laundry
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Why you should air dry your laundry

Jul 10, 2023

Each year as the frigid Midwestern winter gives way to spring, Marge Agnew resumes a household chore she's done her whole life: hanging laundry outdoors to dry.

"I love the smell," says Agnew, 64, who typically hangs sheets and some clothing, such as jeans and shirts, on lines set up in the yard of her home in Onamia, Minn., a town about 90 miles north of Minneapolis. The laundry, she says, comes back smelling of fresh air.

"It's fun to crawl into bed and take that deep breath and feel like you’re outside," she says.

While fresh-smelling laundry is one reason to consider air drying outdoors, experts say there are a host of other benefits to using your dryer less, including saving energy and maintaining the quality of clothes, linens and towels.

In many parts of the world, air drying outside and inside is commonly practiced, says Elena Karpova, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who studies textile and apparel sustainability. She uses her dryer just two or three times a year, "just when it's an emergency."

"It's just getting into the habit," she says.

Here's what you need to know about air drying your laundry.

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Electric dryers are "energy gobblers," Karpova says. On average, they can use anywhere from 1,800 to 5,000 watts, or about 1.8 to 5 kilowatt hours of electricity per cycle, according to Energy Star. A 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that Americans at the time spent $9 billion annually to operate dryers.

Tumble drying can also cause fabrics to rub against each other and exposes them to heat, both of which experts say can wear textiles out more quickly.

"The life-span extension that you get with [air drying] is pretty incredible," says Cosette Joyner Martinez, an associate professor in the department of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University.

To decide, take stock of how often it rains where you live. Are there many birds or trees around that could dirty your clean laundry? Do you have enough space in your home to dry your clothes inside?

Hanging laundry to dry outdoors can capitalize on natural air circulation and sunlight, experts say. Beyond the fresh smell, exposure to the sun can also have antimicrobial and whitening effects on fabrics, Karpova says.

But sunlight could cause some materials to fade, says Sumit Mandal, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in textile science. He suggests drying laundry outdoors in shaded areas.

One caveat: Experts note that anything left outside could come back covered in allergens, such as pollen, or carrying insects. Karpova recommends shaking things out before bringing them indoors.

And some municipalities and homeowners associations might not allow clotheslines to be set up.

Tips to make laundry day more gentle on the environment

If line-drying outdoors isn't an option, there are many solutions that can be used indoors, Joyner Martinez says. Collapsible drying racks or those that can hang over the backs of doors as well as clothing lines that can be installed in showers or bathtubs are options to maximize space in small urban spaces, she says.

During the winter months, air drying indoors could be a welcome source of humidity to combat the dry air in homes with heating, Karpova says. But the moisture in wet laundry could create humid indoor conditions that might increase the risk of respiratory infections and allergies, Mandal says. It could also lead to mold growth, among other unwanted effects, he adds.

Air drying laundry inside tends to take more time, potentially leaving dried items with a musty smell, Karpova says. Try to place drying racks around sources of air flow, she says. You can increase air circulation indoors by opening windows, provided it's not also humid outside, or turning on fans. In some cases, running a dehumidifier might also help, Mandal says.

You don't need to air dry everything, Joyner Martinez says. To start, she and other experts say you can focus on air drying things that are washed frequently, such as workout clothing or underwear.

Joyner Martinez says she regularly air dries at least half to about three-quarters of a load of laundry and puts the rest in the dryer.

"It's a shorter dry time for the smaller amount of clothing," she says, adding that you’re likely still saving energy and emissions as well as preserving fabrics by exposing them to less time in the dryer.

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First, read care labels, Karpova says. "For lots of clothing, it's not recommended to use the dryer," she says. "It's only line drying."

To help maintain shape and avoid wrinkles, how you hang things up matters, experts say. Putting shirts on hangers, for example, could help reduce creases that might occur if you just drape the garment over a line or on the bar of a rack, Mandal says. For heavier fabrics, such as knits, experts recommend laying those flat to dry.

Make sure you have enough space on your line or drying rack, so that your laundry isn't bunched together, Karpova says. Spreading things out and flipping or moving items to expose them to more air can allow them to dry more quickly, she says.

Although it is probably easier and faster to toss all your clothes in the dryer, Karpova and other experts urge giving air drying a chance.

"When you start doing it, people might find that it's not as hard and unpleasant a chore as they might think," she says.