Does Washing Clothes Kill Germs? The Science of Clean Laundry

We all know the importance of clean clothes for maintaining good hygiene. But have you ever wondered if just washing your clothes is enough to kill germs and bacteria?

Woman smelling clean clothes

We’re going to take a look at the science behind washing clothes and explore whether it effectively kills germs. And then you’ll know exactly what the laundry actually does and doesn’t do for your clothes and your family’s cleanliness.

The short answer is no, but generally you don’t need to completely sanitize clothing for it to be “clean.” Clothing doesn’t need to be completely disinfected every time it’s washed for several reasons:

Regular washing is usually sufficient: Most of the time, regular laundry detergents and washing methods are enough to clean clothes and remove dirt, sweat, and most common bacteria.

Potential for clothing damage: Clothes aren’t really made to be sanitized every time they’re washed, and won’t stand up to that level of cleaning for long.

Normal laundering gets rid of the most dangerous germs: the germs you’re likely to come in contact with that could really hurt you do get killed in a regular laundry cycle.

When is it Necessary to Sanitize Clothes?

There are situations where sanitizing clothes might be necessary, such as when a household member is ill or if you’ve been in contact with harmful bacteria or viruses.

Understanding Germs, Bacteria and Viruses

It’s helpful to understand what exactly germs and bacteria are. Germs are microscopic organisms that can cause diseases, while bacteria and viruses are each a particular type of germ that can multiply rapidly and potentially infect us with disease.

Some of these microorganisms can survive for a long time on certain surfaces, and in some cases that includes our clothing.

The Role of Detergents

One of the key components in the laundry process is detergent. Detergents contain surfactants, which are chemicals that help break down dirt, grease, and oils on our clothes.

Basically, the same chemicals that are in soaps we use on our bodies, including “natural” soaps and shampoos.

Many detergents also include enzymes that specifically target and break down proteins, starches, and other organic compounds in case they’re in your clothing.

The Power of Water Temperature

The temperature at which you wash your clothes can play a significant role in eliminating germs. Hot water is known to be more effective at killing bacteria and viruses compared to cold water.

When germs get exposed to high temperatures, the proteins and enzymes within them break down, and that eventually kills them.

So why do many experts recommend washing with cold water? Because modern detergents are designed to kill germs without needing hot water.

This is a way the detergent industry has adapted to be more environmentally friendly. Hot water uses a lot of resources, so if a detergent can do the heavy lifting, you save on your utilities and the environment wins, too.

The Impact of Washing Machine Cycles

Different washing machine cycles can also affect the ability to kill germs effectively. A standard washing cycle typically involves a combination of agitation, soaking, rinsing, and spinning.

Agitation shakes dirt and bacteria loose from the fabric, while soaking allows the detergent to penetrate deeper into the fibers.

Rinsing then helps flush away any remaining detergent and debris, leaving your clothes cleaner and less likely to have germs.

The Importance of Drying

Damp clothes provide an ideal environment for germs – and mildew – to thrive and multiply. To prevent this, dry your clothes thoroughly before storing or wearing them.

The heat from the dryer or sunlight can further aid in killing any remaining bacteria or viruses.

Special Considerations for Certain Fabrics

Not all fabrics can withstand high temperatures or harsh detergents without damage. Delicate fabrics such as silk or wool require special care to avoid shrinking or losing their shape.

In these cases, it is advisable to use milder detergents and opt for gentler washing cycles. While these may not completely eliminate all germs, they can still significantly reduce their presence.

Again, normal laundry is good enough unless you’ve got a situation where you really need to sanitize clothing.

What if you really need to Sanitize Clothes?

If someone in your household is sick, it’s wise to sanitize their laundry to prevent the spread of germs.

  1. Wear disposable gloves: Before you touch the sick person’s clothes, put on a pair of disposable gloves to protect yourself.
  2. Do not shake dirty laundry: This minimizes the possibility of dispersing the virus through the air.
  3. Use the warmest appropriate water setting: Hot water can help to kill viruses and bacteria. Be sure to check the care labels on the clothing first to make sure they can be washed in hot water.
  4. Use your sanitize setting. Some newer washing machines have a Sanitize setting. If you have it, use it. But it’s not necessary if you do the rest of these steps.
  5. Use a laundry sanitizer: If your detergent doesn’t claim to kill bacteria, you can use a laundry sanitizer as an extra step to ensure germs are killed. Bleach is great for clothes that can take it
  6. Dry completely: Drying laundry completely can also help to kill viruses.
  7. Clean and disinfect clothes hampers: Use a liner if possible and wash or replace it regularly.
  8. Wash hands after handling dirty laundry: After you’ve finished handling the sick person’s clothes, remove your gloves and wash your hands immediately.

Bonus Tips for Maintaining Clean Laundry

In addition to regular washing, there are a few extra steps you can take to ensure your laundry is as clean as possible:

  • Separate your laundry based on color and fabric type to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Use bleach sparingly on whites when necessary, as it can be harsh on fabrics.
  • Avoid overloading your washing machine to allow for better agitation and cleaning.
  • Clean your washing machine regularly to prevent the buildup of bacteria and mold.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling dirty laundry to prevent the spread of germs.