Manufacturers just love to helpfully instruct us on how to use their products. Some directions are painfully obvious, such as the packet of peanuts that reads, “Open packet, eat nuts.” Some instructions are silly, like the bottle of Nyquil that cautions, “Warning: may cause drowsiness.” Then there’s the warning on my new iron: “Do not iron clothes on body.” Umm, what?
Some instructions seem like they’re made to be ignored, especially subjective instructions about how much of a product to use or how often to replace it. How do we know if something really needs to be tossed out every few months, or if its expiration date is set in stone? When manufacturers make these recommendations, are they thinking about what’s best for the consumer, or are they just thinking about what’s best for their bottom line?
Lather, Rinse, Repeat?
Is there really a reason to wash twice? Is the product so ineffective that it can’t clean properly the first time? The reality is that you only have to shampoo once. According to CNN Money, the “rinse and repeat” instruction came about in the 1950s, when people washed their hair less often and used heavier, stickier hair products. Sometimes, the first shampoo wouldn’t generate suds because of all that oil and Brylcreem, so a second wash was necessary in order to work up a lather. Shampoos don’t actually need suds to work, but companies know that customers like to feel as if they’re really getting something clean. Encouraging a second washing was a way for users to generate the suds they expected, with the bonus that they used more shampoo in the process. Nowadays, not only does “rinse and repeat” increase shampoo sales, it also increases sales of other hair products, since excessive washing can dry out hair, leading to the purchase of conditioners and other treatments. Of course, anyone who feels that washing twice makes her hair look its best should feel free to shampoo away. If she wants, she can even use more than the recommended dime-sized amount.
Oil Change Change-Up
The conventional wisdom says that we should change a car’s oil every 3,000 miles, but some experts say that might be too conservative. Auto manual recommendations vary between 3,000 and 10,000 miles, but the guys behind NPR’s “Car Talk” radio show recommend changing oil every 5,000 miles or so. According to them, “It may be too soon for many people and too late for a few, but for the vast majority, 5,000-mile oil changes will help your engine last to a ripe old age.” Changing the oil regularly is vitally important to prevent engine damage, but modern engines and oils have a bit more leeway than their older counterparts, so they can go longer between servicing. Synthetic oils, especially, resist breakdown for many thousands of miles. People who should consider changing more frequently include those who regularly tow or carry heavy loads, people who go through extreme seasonal climate changes, those who often make quick starts or slam on their brakes, and people with older cars.
The “Magic” in Your Fridge
Who doesn’t have an opened box of baking soda in his refrigerator to eliminate odors? The one currently sitting on my shelf says that the box should be changed out every month, but it wasn’t that long ago that the instructions were to change it every three months. So is baking soda a third as effective as originally thought? Maybe the company decided that changing the box every month as opposed to every ninety days would buy the CEO that Learjet a lot faster, because there’s no evidence-based reason for it to be changed so often. Baking soda is purported to neutralize odors by absorbing them, and although it has many household uses, some people don’t find it especially useful in the refrigerator, regardless of how fresh it is. If you’re someone who believes in the magic of Arm & Hammer, change the box as often or as infrequently as you desire, since it probably doesn’t make a difference either way.
A Load of Nonsense
Most detergents, either liquid or powder, come with caps and scoops that show how much you’re supposed to use for a load of laundry. But is that amount really correct? Using too much detergent does not result in cleaner clothes; it results in filmy residue on clothing, soap deposits and lint in your washing machine, and can potentially harm the machine itself. It can also break down clothing fibers, causing them to look old and worn out. No matter how much the detergent bottle says to use, you can probably use less. Some people even recommend using no more than half the marked amount. Most products are labeled in such a way that most consumers will unwittingly overdose, says Consumer Reports. You should only use as much as is necessary to get clothes clean, which is not as much as is marked on the package.
If you have a high-efficiency washer, however, it’s important to follow the instructions and use only a high-efficiency detergent. These are specially made to generate fewer suds, and using the wrong product can cause the machine to use more water to rinse the clothes, or even clog filters and ports. As with shampoo, suds are artificially added to soaps and detergents to give the illusion of thorough cleaning, although clothes can be plenty fresh even in the absence of them.
What’s Really “Dry-Clean Only”?
Despite what the care labels say, many clothes marked “dry-clean only” can actually go in the washer. The danger isn’t the water—it’s the agitation of the machine, which can cause stretching, ripping, or other damage to delicate fabrics. If put into the dryer, items can shrink or stretch even further. Instead of spending a fortune on dry-cleaning, many knit tops and sweaters can be washed on a gentle cycle and then laid flat to dry. Items that are more delicate can usually be washed by hand in a sink with a small amount of gentle or homemade detergent. Anything truly rare, expensive, delicate, or old, however, should probably be dry-cleaned for safety’s sake, along with suits, formal gowns, down coats, anything made of lace or silk, or anything with extensive beading or detailing.
With the exception of your wedding gown and your sports car, which should be handled by professionals, use your best judgment for taking care of the things around your home, and remember that what’s on the label isn’t always the best advice. When it comes right down to it, companies don’t really care if we have odor-free refrigerators or shiny hair. They care about us buying more of their products, and they’ll say whatever they have to in order to make that happen.