How to Sanitize Laundry to Disinfect Clothing, Linens, and Fabric

A simple wash cycle might not be enough to disinfect laundry and remove all bacteria and viruses. Use these tips to sanitize clothes, towels, and linens.

When someone in your household is sick, the first priority is helping them get well again. Another concern, however, is preventing other family members from becoming ill, too. Disinfecting household surfaces, such as doorknobs, TV remotes, and light switches, can help stop the spread of germs, but those aren't the only things you should sanitize. Clothing, sheets, and other fabric items can harbor bacteria and viruses that make others sick, and a simple wash cycle might not be enough to disinfect the laundry. Even worse, one item of contaminated clothing is enough to soil an entire load of laundry, according to one study from the University of Arizona.

An open laundry machine with a basket of dirty clothes
Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

The researchers also found that regular washing practices with detergent alone were not effective in killing some enteric viruses (transmitted by fecal matter), including rotavirus (an infection that causes severe diarrhea) and adenovirus, which can cause cold- or flu-like illnesses.

To prevent the spread of germs throughout your household, consider sanitizing laundry, including clothing, towels, bedsheets, pillowcases, and throw blankets, that someone sick contacted. For the best disinfecting strategy, use our laundry sanitizing tips to ensure these items emerge from the wash clean and germ-free.

How to Sanitize Laundry

First, check to see if your washing machine has a special wash cycle designed for sanitizing laundry. Many high-efficiency machines feature a sanitize button or an option on the turn knob. "The sanitize cycle uses an extra-hot wash temperature and eliminates 99.99% of the most common bacteria found in clothes, sheets, and towels," says Laura J. Goodman, M.S., a senior scientist for Proctor & Gamble. If your machine doesn't have a designated sanitize laundry cycle, Goodman recommends using the warmest water temperature available.

Laura J. Goodman, M.S.

The sanitize cycle uses an extra-hot wash temperature and eliminates 99.99% of the most common bacteria found in clothes, sheets, and towels.

— Laura J. Goodman, M.S.

It's important to note that these extra-hot cycles are not intended for every wash, says Steve Hettinger, director of engineering for clothes care at GE Appliances. "Sanitize cycles are harsher on clothes than regular cycles, which is necessary for sanitization," he says. Check the clothing or fabric item's care label first to make sure it's safe to wash in hot water. High temperatures can damage delicate fabrics, cause some items to shrink, or cause colors to bleed or fade.

If your items aren't safe for a hot water cycle (or you'd like an extra disinfecting boost), Goodman suggests adding a laundry sanitizer product ($6, Target)to the wash. Liquid bleach i($5, Home Depot), is one highly effective option: The University of Arizona laundry study found that adding bleach to the load reduced the number of viruses by over 99.99%. For normal loads, a 3/4 cup of bleach should be enough to disinfect the items, according to the Clorox website. Large or heavily soiled loads might require up to 1-1/4 cup of bleach.

The University of Arizona laundry study found that adding bleach to the load reduced the number of viruses by over 99.99%.

Other commercial disinfecting laundry detergents can also help kill bacteria and germs that regular detergents might leave behind. Follow the instructions on the label and try the product first on an inconspicuous area to test for colorfastness before washing. Non-bleach laundry sanitizers might be the best choice for delicate items but refer to the label for specific fabrics that are safe for use.

For normal laundry loads that don't need disinfecting, Goodman says it's fine to use a regular wash cycle with cold water (which could be better for the environment and your budget anyway). Remember to use only the appropriate amount of laundry detergent for the size and soil level of your load, and don't overload the machine.

The next time someone in your household falls ill, use these laundry sanitizing tips to wash away germs and bacteria. A little extra cleaning power can help keep you and your family healthy.

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