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Does Washing Clothes Kill Germs?

Updated on May 1, 2017
Washing clothes doesn't always kill germs
Washing clothes doesn't always kill germs

This might seem like a strange question but does washing clothes in a washing machine kill germs? The answer surprisingly is no. In fact more germs can get onto clothes during the wash cycle. If someone in your house is ill, bacteria and viruses from their clothes can be transferred to other clothes. Washing a sick person's clothes separately also won't help because their sick germs will remain in the washing machine unless you disinfect it.

According to Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona:

"If you wash a load of just underwear, there will be about 100 million E. coli in the wash water, and they can be transmitted to the next load of laundry...There's about a tenth of a gram of poop in the average pair of underwear."

Gerba did a study where he tested washing machines. Over 60% tested positive for coliform bacteria and 20% for staphylococcus. The kinds of germs that can remain in clothing and washing machines include staphylococcus, E. coli, hepatitis A, norovirus, rotavirus, and salmonella.

Let's say someone in your home is suffering from diarrhea. Even if they wipe very well some fecal matter will likely make it onto their underwear. If you wash their underwear with other clothes, odds are high that the sickness causing germs will end up on the other clothing. According to one study, germs on one item of clothing will spread to 90% of the other clothing items. Washing clothes using the hottest temperature won't prevent that from happening. Many germs are capable of surviving even hot water. Obviously even more germs would survive a cold or lukewarm wash cycle.

If you're washing whites, add bleach to the wash to kill germs. If not, the place to kill off germs is in your dryer. You have to dry clothes at high heat for at least half an hour to kill off germs. Many germs will be able to survive a low heat setting. Hanging clothes outside in the sun will also help because ultraviolet light is a natural sanitizer. For colors you can use "Lysol Laundry Sanitizer Additive." The manufacturer claims:

"When it comes to certain laundry loads such as children's clothes or sportswear, you want your detergent to eliminate bacteria that can cause illnesses and create lingering bad smells. But detergents alone don't actually kill all bacteria. Introducing Lysol Laundry Sanitizer, a bleach-free additive specially designed to kill 99.9%* of bacteria left behind while remaining gentle on most fabrics."

You either put the sanitizer into the fabric softener compartment or if you don't have one wait until the rinse cycle and add it directly into the machine.

If anyone in the household plays sports or works out, their clothes should be washed immediately. The longer clothes remain damp with sweat, the more bacteria and mold will grow.

It's important to keep your washing machine clean. Run your empty washing machine with bleach and water once a month to kill any germs residing in it. It may help also to wipe the inside of the machine with disinfecting wipes after each wash. The outside of the machine should also be cleaned with a disinfectant on a regular basis.

Sunlight can kill germs in clothing
Sunlight can kill germs in clothing


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    • Karen Hellier profile image

      Karen Hellier 3 weeks ago from Georgia

      Well I sure learned something from this hub, but I had no idea my wash or washing machine could be so disgusting!!! Yuck! Thankfully we dry all of our clothing on high for at least 1 hour. Thanks for this informative article. I will now think of this every time I do the wash.

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