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How to kill germs in your washing machine

Killing bacteria and viruses in the wash is easy when you know how! Find out how warm water and detergent can help your laundry to stay germ-free.

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Smiling boy folds laundry with his dad

When you need to clean and disinfect fabric—either because of mold, mildew or a recent illness—it’s important to know whether or not your usual laundry routine will be enough. If you’re not using the right germ-killing methods, your fresh clothes may actually be even dirtier after you wash them, as the washing machine can help spread bacteria from one item to another.

Some scientists have suggested that washing machines can become a haven for bacteria, as germs can linger behind after our dirty clothes have been washed. To banish the germs, you’ll need:

  • Anti-bacterial cleaner

  • Cloth or sponge

  • Chlorine bleach, color-safe bleach, oxygen-based laundry additive or vinegar

How to stop the spread of bacteria in your washing machine

To prevent germs lingering in your washing machine or on your clean clothes, you should clean your washing machine itself.

  1. Run an empty cycle with a cup of bleach or vinegar Once a week, run an empty cycle with just a cup of bleach or vinegar. This will disinfect your washing machine, and prevent germs from hanging out in the drum. You need to do this regularly to keep the machine sanitary.

  2. Air out the washing machine drum to prevent mold spores from growing in your machine, prop the door open slightly after a wash to allow it to air out. (Do always check before you load it again though, as pets have been known to climb into open washing machines.)

  3. Wipe down the rubber seal with anti-bacterial cleaner regularly wipe down the rubber or plastic ring around the door with an anti-bacterial cleaner.

  4. Clean out the filter check the filter at least every other week. Read the owner's manual to locate the filter in your machine and follow instructions on how to clean or replace it. 

Another prevention tactic is to sort laundry to avoid cross-contamination. Underwear, towels, face masks and face cloths are more likely to contain pathogens—bacteria that cause disease. A load of dirty underwear will contain about 100 million E.Coli in the wash water, which can cross-contaminate the next load in the washer. Avoid washing items such as these in one large load to lower the number of bacteria in a single wash, and remember to regularly disinfect your machine. 

Does laundry detergent kill germs?

Hot water and detergent combined are a great way to tackle lingering bacteria and germs. But it’s important to balance the two to get the best possible wash (very high temperatures can adversely affect the cleaning power of some detergents), and know what your clothing can withstand. Washing a delicate new cotton sweater on hot could make it shrink for example—so always check the label on your clothing before you wash.

  • Use a detergent that says it’s effective at the temperature you want for your wash. It’s also recommended to add color-safe bleach where possible.

  • For a deep clean, you can soak laundry in a mixture of oxygen-based laundry additive and water for approximately half an hour before starting a regular wash. Just be sure to read the label on any laundry product you use to ensure your safety and that of your clothing.

  • Finally, when it comes to disinfecting clothes, put items that can be tumble-dried into the dryer to give the bacteria a final blast. For items that can't be tumble-dried or if you don't have a dryer, one of the most effective tools for eliminating germs is the sun, so put your washing out on the clothes line to dry in the natural sunlight whenever the weather gives you the opportunity.

Before washing your clothes, don’t forget to check the care label, and to follow the instructions accordingly. 

What temperature kills bacteria in washing machines?

Using hot water (the hotter the better) will make some detergents more effective at tackling bacteria-hosting oils and grime. However, lower temperatures are better for the environment and hot water can also shrink or damage some types of fabric. Luckily, many detergents are now effective at lower temperatures. You’ll need to invest in a good detergent to ensure that all bacteria and viruses are killed at a low temperature, so do check the label on the package to see what it says about killing germs.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is accurate at the time of publishing. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it’s possible that some guidance may have changed since publication. While Cleanipedia is trying to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by checking the CDC and WHO websites or contacting your local health department for advice.