The best washing machines are something all of us rely on to keep our laundry fresh and stain-free. And yet, despite the countless programs, features and settings, it’s one of those appliances that few of us will ever read the instruction manual for. As a result, we tend to stick to the same setting on repeat — generally the quick wash setting — and use our common sense to load the detergent.
But, if you have a front load washing machine, odds are those compartments in the detergent drawer aren’t labelled as well as they could be. Have you ever wondered what these are each for, or if you’re even using the drawer correctly? Even if the compartments are labelled, are you getting the best use out of them?
Here, we will break down this washer phenomenon, and help you understand the function of each of these compartments.
1. Detergent compartment
First of all, the detergent compartment is the one you should already be using — this contains the detergent (or soap if you will) to clean your clothes. It will likely be the largest compartment in size, located towards the front of the drawer, usually on the left side, although this can vary. It will have either a plastic flap or a removable tray of sorts, so you can toggle between power and liquid detergent. Note — capsule detergent should always be applied directly via the drum and not the detergent drawer.
Generally, you want the flap down or the tray in if you’re using a liquid detergent — this is to keep it in place until the wash starts. Powder detergent, on the other hand, will need to be rinsed clean from the drawer. So, unless you want residue left behind, the flap needs to stay up. If your washing machine drawer shows logos rather than written guidance on which compartment is which, the main wash/detergent compartment can be signified by ‘II’ or sometimes by a drip symbol. If you’re ever unsure, refer to your manual.
2. Softener compartment
If you love a fragrant finish on your laundry, then you should use the fabric softener compartment as well. While detergent cleans your clothes, fabric softener leaves a residue behind which helps soften it, plus it gives clothes a pleasing aroma.
The logo that represents the fabric softener compartment generally looks like a small flower. Its location can vary quite a bit — some washing machine drawers place it at the front, while others situate it towards the rear, but in either case, its appearance can give it away. The compartment generally contains a small window within a plastic frame that you have to pour the liquid into until the level of softener hits the max line. Bear in mind this isn't always the case though, so keep an eye out for the flower logo.
The set-up can look very similar to the bleach compartment if you’re using a U.S. design washer, but the two should never be confused. Bleach is usually dispensed at the start of a wash cycle, while softener is dispensed while the load is rinsing. As a result, you could do some serious damage to your laundry if there’s a mix-up.
Make sure you do not exceed the max line in this compartment and that you dilute concentrated fabric softener. Otherwise, your drawer will soon be jammed with excess softener that you'll have to manually clean out. Check out how to clean a washing machine for guidance if this is already the case.
3. Bleach compartment
This section applies to U.S washing machines only — washing machine drawers in the U.K. do not contain a compartment for bleach and are not designed to dispense it as part of a wash cycle.
The bleach compartment actually varies in both location and appearance — more often than not, it’s towards the rear of the drawer. It tends to look quite similar to the fabric softener compartment because it needs to be contained until it is dispensed at the appropriate time, which will be at the start of the cycle.
Bleach can be added to a cycle when you want to increase the stain removal power as well as brighten any whites. It can be used alongside detergent and should only be used on bleach-safe clothes. It’s also very useful when you want to clean the washing machine as well — although in either case you need to get the dosage just right, otherwise it can foam up and break the machine, and potentially invalidate its warranty. It could also overspill and damage your clothes if dispensed prematurely.
If the bleach compartment isn’t clearly labelled, it may be represented by a triangle with the letters ‘CL’ within. Always check your manual if you’re unsure whether or not your washer is designed to dispense bleach.
4. Pre-wash compartment
The pre-wash compartment is probably the least used of all. In the U.S., it’s not as common in detergent drawers as some of the other compartments on our list, but most modern washing machines will offer this now. If it’s not clearly labelled, its symbol is usually an ‘I’, so prior to the main wash ‘II’ as mentioned above.
This compartment tends to be a smaller version of the main detergent compartment, generally found towards the rear of the drawer for U.S models, or on the right-hand side in the U.K. It actually functions in much the same way as well — it contains detergent or starch that it releases during the pre-wash cycle. It’s important to remember that the pre-wash cycle will need to be selected along with your main cycle if you use this compartment.
It’s ideal if you’re washing heavily stained laundry. Think of it as an extra wash cycle to get your clothes ready for the main wash. Be sure to dose appropriately though, otherwise your clothes may contain excess detergent, even after the final rinse.
5. Smart dispense compartment
Finally, if you’re lucky enough, your washing machine may offer a smart or auto dispense compartment. With this, you can essentially fill the drawer with a much larger supply of detergent from which the machine will automatically dose itself in future washes. That means, you no longer need to worry about measuring out or fiddling with the detergent before every wash. Some machines offer automatic softener dispensers as well.
Whichever compartments you do use, make sure you take the time to routinely clean the drawer to stop mold, mildew and soap scum from building up. When you need to remove it, a plastic tab in the drawer should indicate where you need to press down before you can pull it free from the machine. Wash with hot, soapy water to remove stains.
For more washing tips, tricks, and how-tos, check out our guides on best clothes dryers, 7 signs that you need a new washing machine and what do laundry symbols mean? Also, don't make this one mistake when doing your laundry!