Does washing clothes in a washing machine kill germs? The answer, surprisingly, is no. In fact, germs can spread from one item of clothing to another during the wash cycle. If someone in your house is ill, bacteria and viruses from their clothes can be transferred to yours. Washing the sick person's clothes separately won't help, either, because their 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.
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 other clothing will be contaminated.
The kinds of germs that can remain in clothing and washing machines include staphylococcus, E. coli, hepatitis A, norovirus, rotavirus, and salmonella. Gerba did a study where he tested washing machines: Over 60% tested positive for coliform bacteria and 20% for Staphylococcus. According to another study, germs on one item of clothing will spread to 90% of the other clothing items.
Not even using the hottest temperature will prevent this from happening, since many germs are capable of surviving even hot water. Obviously even more germs would survive a cold or lukewarm wash cycle.
How to Kill Germs, Viruses, and Bacteria in the Wash
- If you're washing whites, add bleach to the water.
- Otherwise, the place to kill off germs is in your dryer. In order for the dryer to be effective, you have to dry clothes at high heat for at least half an hour. 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 that "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 of your machine or 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 afterward. The longer clothes remain damp with sweat, the more bacteria and mold will grow.
- It's important to keep your 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 with disinfecting wipes after each wash. The outside of the machine should also be cleaned with a disinfectant on a regular basis.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 Cece Wright
Cece Wright (author) from California on March 07, 2020:
Everything I've read about hydrogen peroxide refers to mold and mildew. It is good for cleaning clothes and washing machines but may not be enough if you're concerned about viruses and bacteria.
Ciana Mead on March 03, 2020:
Does peroxide decontaminate clothes if used in the rinse cycle? How much and percentage?
Joseph on November 22, 2019:
Oh, so that's what the clean cycle on my dryer is for
Cece Wright (author) from California on July 26, 2018:
Yes, you can use a sanitizer. It's one of the option presented in this article.
Reign on July 23, 2018:
If drying clothes in the sun or on high heat in the dryer kills germs, then, in theory, you only need bleach or sanitizer for delicates or other items you would dry inside your home. It seems like fear mongering.
Jeannie on May 26, 2018:
Yuck! This just stresses me to think about. I’ll never feel like my clothes are clean again.
Reshma on December 04, 2017:
Is it possible to get 100% cleaned clothes without any bacteria on it?
Karen Hellier from Georgia on May 01, 2017:
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.