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Germs in the laundry: How to kill germs in the washing machine

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

Updated Reading Time: 5 minutesBy Cleanipedia Team

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When you need to clean and disinfect fabric – either because of mould or 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 machine inadvertently aids the spread of 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. Viruses such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) are still being researched into how they're transmitted, so taking precautions when washing your clothes is a good idea to keeping yourself safe.

You will need:

  • Anti-bacterial cleaner
  • Replacement lint filter
  • Bleach or vinegar
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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 of vinegar. This will disinfect your washer, 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 mould spores from growing in your machine, prop the door open after a wash to allow it to air out.

  3. Wipe down rubber ring with anti-bacterial cleaner

    Regularly wipe down the rubber or plastic ring around the door with an anti-bacterial cleaner.

  4. Clean out the lint filter

    Clean out the lint filter at least once every other week.

Another prevention tactic is to sort laundry to avoid cross-contamination. Underwear, towels, and face cloths are more likely to contain pathogens–bacteria that cause disease. A load of just underwear will contain about 100 million E.Coli in the wash water, which can cross-contaminate the next load of laundry. Avoid washing items such as these in bulk to decrease the number of bacteria in each wash, and remember to regularly disinfect your machine. Read more about cleaning your washing machine here.

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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 biological detergents), and to be aware of the limitations of your clothing. Washing a woolly jumper at 80 degrees will make it shrink, and other fabrics can melt – so always check the label on your clothing before you wash.

  • Using hot water (60 degrees is the best option) will make many detergents more effective at tackling bacteria-hosting oils and grime. It is also recommended to use oxygen bleach where possible.

  • For deep decontamination, you can soak laundry in a mixture of oxygen bleach and water for approximately half an hour before placing in 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 tumble dryer to give the bacteria a final blast. For items that can't be tumble-dried or if you don't have one, one of the most effective tools for eliminating germs is the sun, so put your washing out on the 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?

Obviously, lower temperatures are better for the environment, and many detergents are now able to be used at these low temperatures. You’ll need to invest in a good detergent to ensure that all bacteria and viruses are killed at this temperature, as the settling alone will not kill all the germs. However, be aware that the hot water can shrink or damage your clothes, so it isn’t usually recommended. You can also use Persil antibacterial laundry sanitiser when washing clothes to kill germs. Add it to the wash along with your favourite Persil detergent to give extra protection. It kills 99.9% viruses* and bacteria even at 20°C making it a great way to help disinfect your clothes and your machine! 


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 using GOV UK and NHS.

*Laboratory tested on Influenza H1N1, Vacciniavirus, murine coronavirus (EN14476, 10 mins).

Originally published