Using delicate washing machine cycles for everyday laundry is more damaging for the environment than using a regular setting, according to new research.
Scientists at Newcastle University found that all programmes cause microfibres from clothes to be released into the water system and from there into the sea.
While regular washing cycles cause clothes to be bashed together and create more friction between garments, they use less water than gentler programmes which agitate the garments less.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found that it is the volume of water used, rather than the spinning action in the drum, which is the key factor in detaching plastic particles from man-made material.
The researchers measured the release of microfibres from polyester clothes with a range of different cycles.
Using a hi-tech camera, they counted 1.4 million fibres from a delicate wash of a polyester garment, 800,000 when a normal cotton wash was used and 600,000 from a cold express programme.
Millions of the tiny particles are released in every washing load containing clothing made with materials such as nylon, polyester and acrylic.
The fibres drain out of the machine and eventually end up in the marine environment where they are ingested by tiny animals and thereby enter the food chain.
The presence of microfibres has been recorded in the deepest parts of the world's oceans.
PhD student Max Kelly, who was part of the research team that carried out the new study said: "Counter-intuitively, we discovered that 'delicate' cycles release more plastic microfibres into the water, and then the environment, than standard cycles.
"Previous research has suggested the speed the drum spins at, the number of times it changes spinning direction during a cycle and the length of pauses in the cycle - all known as the machine agitation - is the most important factor in the amount of microfibre released.
"But we have shown here that even at reduced levels of agitation, microfibre release is still greatest with higher water volume-to-fabric ratios.
"This is because the high volume of water used in a delicate cycle which is supposed to protect sensitive clothing from damage actually 'plucks' away more fibres from the material."
Washing machine manufactures have been developing microfibre filters to catch them before they enter the water system, while sections of the textile industry have been working on reducing fibre shedding.
Consumers are being urged to make sure they use the right cycle for the garments in a wash, with natural fibres like wool or silk still cleaned on a delicate programme.
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