Disinfecting Laundry: Steps to Control the Spread of Illness

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During cold and flu season, or any time someone in your home is ill, you may be concerned about disinfecting laundry and handling it safely without spreading illness.

The best approach combines safe laundry handling with the use of laundry additives and other methods of disinfecting laundry to avoid the spread of illness. Read on to learn what you need to know to keep your home healthy while getting your laundry disinfected and clean.

Safe Laundry Handling and Disinfection

Round plastic laundry basket filled with jumbled clothing

When someone in your family is ill or is frequently around those who are, you need to take precautions to keep potential contagion from spreading to others in your household.

Some of the things you can do to avoid spreading illness while doing the laundry involve handling it properly, while others focus on disinfecting clothes and even the machines you use to launder them.

Tips to Safely Handling Laundry

  • Wear gloves when handling the laundry of someone who is ill. Disposable gloves are best for this. If you prefer reusable gloves, do not wear them for other purposes, like cleaning the house, and disinfect them after use.
  • Wash your hands immediately after handling the laundry. You should follow this practice whether you wear gloves or not.
  • Do not shake out the dirty laundry of someone who is ill. To avoid spreading contagion, touch dirty laundry as little possible and don’t shake items before adding them to the machine.
  • Disinfect laundry baskets and hampers. Use separate hampers or baskets for clean and dirty laundry. Even with different containers, clean the inside of laundry baskets with a disinfecting wipe or spray after use. (Here is how to make homemade disinfecting wipes that are perfect for this task.)

Ways to Disinfect Laundry

The CDC says, “Dirty laundry from an ill person can be washed with other people’s items.”

Note, however, that they advise laundering items at the hottest setting for the particular fabric in addition to thorough drying. That’s because heat helps disinfect. (More on the use of heat to disinfect laundry below.)

If you wash using only cold water, use one of the laundry additives below to disinfect clothing, towels, sheets, and other washable fabrics.

Chlorine Bleach

Regular household bleach is an effective disinfectant for white clothing and linens. It can damage dark and colored garments, and also wool or delicate items.

  • Top loaders: Before adding clothes, pour 1/2 cup of bleach into the machine along with your usual detergent. Wait for the washer to fill with water then add your clothing.
  • Front-loaders: Add it to your bleach dispenser, and the machine will do the rest.

Pine Oil Cleaners

Pine-Sol, Lestoil, or other pine oil cleaners can disinfect whites as well as dark clothing that chlorine bleach would damage. Pine oil is very toxic to cats, however, so do not use it if you have felines in your home.

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  • Top-loaders: Add 1 cup to the machine with your usual detergent while the water is filling the washer, then add your clothes. Rinse the load a second time to remove the strong pine scent and protect against skin irritation.
  • Front-loaders: Replace fabric softener in the dispenser with it. Run a second rinse to reduce the strong pine smell and prevent skin irritation.

Lysol Laundry Sanitizer

Lysol makes a fairly odorless sanitizer additive. It works in any water temperature and is safe for both white and colored clothing. It must be added during the rinse cycle to be effective but does not require a second rinse.

  • Top-loaders: Add 2 capfuls filled to the first line in the cap to the empty fabric softener compartment or during the rinse cycle. You do not need a second rinse.
  • Front-loaders: Add 2 capfuls filled to the second line in the cap to the empty fabric softener dispenser.

Vinegar

Distilled white vinegar has some disinfecting properties, though it is not necessarily strong enough to knock out highly contagious illnesses. If you use this method, combine it with heat drying (see below) for additional disinfection.

Do not substitute apple cider vinegar for white, since it may stain clothing.

  • Top loaders: Add 2 cups during the rinse cycle. Performing a second rinse is optional. The smell of vinegar usually disappears during the drying cycle.
  • Front-loaders: Fill the empty fabric softener dispenser with 3/4 cup of straight white vinegar.

Heat

Heat helps disinfect laundry, too. If you do not have access to a dryer, there are other ways discussed below to disinfect laundry.

Using a dryer: Tumble-drying clothes in a hot dryer for at least 40 minutes helps disinfect fabric.

Line-drying: If you prefer line-drying, hang clothes in bright, direct sunlight for disinfection. Read more on how to line-dry clothing.

Clothes iron: Ironing clothes also helps kill harmful bacteria, according to Dr. Alexandra Sowa, an internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

  • Use the proper iron setting for the fabric.
  • Start ironing the items that need the lowest temperature first, then adjust your setting as needed for heavier items.
  • Hang clothing immediately after ironing, so it doesn’t wrinkle.

Disinfecting Laundry Machines and Equipment

If someone in your home is sick, you should err on the side of caution and disinfect your machines after doing their laundry. Otherwise, weekly disinfection of your washer and dryer keeps them safe for use.

How to Disinfect Washing Machines

Use either bleach or vinegar — not both! — to disinfect your washing machine.

Using Bleach

  1. Choose the regular cycle and the highest water-fill setting.
  2. For top-loaders, add 1 cup of bleach as the machine fills. Do not add clothing, detergent, or fabric softener.
  3. For front-loaders, empty and rinse the detergent and fabric softener dispensers, then add 1 cup of bleach to the bleach dispenser. Do not add clothing, detergent, or fabric softener.
  4. Once the cycle completes, leave the lid or door open to let the drum air dry.

Using Vinegar

  1. For top-loaders: Empty and rinse the detergent, fabric softener and bleach dispensers. Add 1 quart of white vinegar to the detergent dispenser. Do not add clothing, detergent, fabric softener or bleach.
  2. For front-loaders: Empty and rinse the detergent, fabric softener and bleach dispensers. Refill the detergent dispenser with vinegar. Do not add clothing, detergent, fabric softener, or bleach.
  3. Run a complete heavy-duty cycle using hot water.
  4. Once the cycle ends, leave the lid or door open so your machine can air dry.

How to Disinfect Dryers

Dryers don’t develop as much bacteria as washing machines. Even so, it’s a good practice to clean the dryer drum and lint screen at least once a week.

  1. Wait until the dryer has cooled off, then wipe the inside of the drum with a disinfecting wipe.
  2. Use enough wipes that disinfectant gets the drum’s surface visibly wet and stays wet for at least 5 minutes.
  3. After that time, you can let the moisture air dry or wipe it dry with a clean cloth.
  4. Wash the lint screen in hot, soapy water weekly. Shake out excess moisture then let it air dry. It’s not necessary to use a disinfecting wipe on it, but you can if you prefer.
  5. Use a damp cloth to remove lint and dust from the exterior of the machine.
  6. Switch to a disinfecting wipe to clean the dryer knobs, buttons, handles, and doors.

At the Laundromat

If you use pay-as-you-go laundry machines, you may not want to spend additional money to run an empty disinfecting load. That doesn’t mean you need to expose your laundry to the risk of carryover infection.

  1. Before use, wipe the machine’s buttons, knobs, handles, and door with a disinfecting cloth.
  2. Do not use shared laundry carts.
  3. If you can get away with using only one machine, wash your towels for the first load using the hottest, longest cycle on the machine. Add bleach or another laundry disinfectant. Use this machine to do the rest of your laundry.
  4. If you’re using multiple machines, add a disinfecting laundry additive to each load.
  5. Before using a dryer, wipe the inside with a disinfecting cloth until it is visibly wet. Let the disinfectant air dry for at least 5 minutes before use. Try to use this dryer for the rest of your laundry.
  6. Wash your hands immediately after you’ve finished doing laundry.
  7. When you get home, use a disinfecting spray or wipe on the interior and exterior of your laundry hamper or basket.

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