Spin the Dial: What Does That Washer/Dryer Cycle Do?

Bulky, Heavy Duty, Permanent Press—what does it all mean?

Credit: Reviewed.com / Jonathan Chan
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Have you ever stared at the cycle options on your washer or dryer and felt like you were deciphering hieroglyphics? If so, you're not alone. It's this confusion that inspired Whirlpool to ditch the dial altogether. But if you're like me, you probably aren't looking to replace your laundry unit any time soon, meaning that dial is here to stay.

But don't worry—it's really not that complicated. Whether it's Bulky, Heavy Duty, Permanent Press, or Sanitize, this guide will explain them all. It may even help prolong the life of your clothes.

Normal/Regular/Cotton

It comes in many names but they're all essentially the same. In washers, the Normal cycle—sometimes called "Cotton"—is a kind of grab bag, a good all-around option for everyday fabrics and clothing. It uses high spin speeds to agitate fabrics more intensely than (most) other cycles. Because the Normal cycle is usually the longest, it is the best option for those heavy, stubborn stains. When in doubt, use this option.

The Normal cycle is a good all-around option for everyday fabrics and clothing. Tweet It

In dryers it works the same way. The normal/regular cycle is usually the harshest (unless there's a Heavy Duty option), as it uses the highest temperature settings to dry clothing as quickly as possible. This makes the cycle idea for white fabrics, since these garments tend to be the most rugged. However, be wary of shrinkage! While whites tend to be pre-shrunk, high temperatures can cause certain colored fabrics—cotton in particular—to shrink.

Permanent Press


Permanent Press refers to all fabrics that have been chemically processed to hold their shape. The Permanent Press cycle is best for synthetic fabrics and colored clothing, but it can also be a more gentle option for items that wrinkle easily (silk, linen, cotton, loosely woven threads).

In the wash, this cycle uses slower speeds to go easier on your clothes. Dryers, meanwhile, use less heat and are often accompanied by a "cool down period" to further minimize wrinkling.

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Credit: Reviewed.com / Daniel Wroclawski
Some dials are simple, like the one on this Frigidaire Affinity.

Delicates

Ah, the Delicate cycle. This is the cycle you use for things like underwear, lingerie, workout clothing, and anything else that's light or likely to break down under extreme conditions. In the washing machine, the Delicates cycle corresponds to a cold wash and slow spin speeds. In the dryer, it relies on low heat so as to prevent agitating the soft fabrics.

Bulky

The Bulky cycle is intended for—you guessed it—bulky items: large unwieldy items like bedding, blankets, and small rugs. Most machines use low spin speeds and extra water to fully soak articles. This cycle also employs a "soak" time to fully penetrate fabrics with soapy water. In the dryer, the Bulky cycle uses more heat and longer run times to thoroughly dry items.

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Credit: Reviewed.com / Daniel Wroclawski
This Bosch washer has every cycle imaginable.

Heavy Duty

This cycle is similar to Bulky, but is better for dirtier and thicker clothing like work clothes and sports jerseys. When present, Heavy Duty wash cycles use even higher heat and faster spin speeds than Normal cycles. In the dryer—surprise, surprise—the Heavy Duty cycle harnesses higher heat and a longer run time, which means you should probably only use this option for big articles like coats and blankets.

Sanitize

The more you wear your clothes, the more they become a breeding ground for bacteria. Tweet It

Somewhat self-explanatory, Sanitize cycles are all about making your clothes as clean as possible. The more you wear (and sweat in) your clothes, the more they become a breeding ground for bacteria. Sanitize cycles reach temperatures in excess of 140°F to kill off most nasty germs—just like dishwashers. Dryers with Sanitize cycles accomplish the same thing. But keep in mind, this intense heat can quickly wear out fabrics and shorten their lifespan.

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Credit: Reviewed.com / Daniel Wroclawski
Some machines have more niche specialty cycles, like the overnight cycle on this Maytag washer.

BONUS: Air Fluff/Air Dry

This cycle is only present in dryers. Unlike other dry cycles, it uses unheated ambient air to slowly dry fabrics. It's an ideal option for items that are vulnerable to high temperatures, such as pillows and tablecloths. Just don't expect it to dry something that's very wet.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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