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What temperature kills viruses? Your vital laundry questions, answered

Want to eliminate germs from your clothes? From how often to do the laundry, to what detergent to use, here’s what you need to know.


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An image of a laundry basket

If you’re wondering whether you should be doing your laundry differently, this guide should help.

Top tips for fighting viruses on clothes

  • If you think your clothes have come into contact with a virus, wash them as soon as you can. Don’t leave them in the laundry basket as germs could spread.

  • You may want to wear disposable gloves if you’re handling the clothes of someone who is ill or a key worker. If you do, throw the gloves away straight afterwards and wash your hands thoroughly.

  • Don’t shake your laundry before you wash it. You don’t want to breathe in any virus particles that get dislodged from the clothes.

  • Don’t share towels, tea towels, flannels or face cloths if someone in your house is sick.

  • Use a detergent that contains bleach (but do check it’s suitable for what you’re washing)

  • Don’t overload your washing machine. You want the clothes to have room to move around.

  • Select a long wash cycle (ie not your daily quick one).

  • Don’t touch your face after handling dirty laundry, and wash your hands straight after.

  • Make sure laundry is completely dry before you put it away (damp material can encourage bacteria to spread).

Your top laundry questions, answered

How do viruses get on clothes?

Viruses can transfer onto clothing through coughs, sneezes and bodily fluids such as saliva. However, they can also be passed by touch, for example if someone who’s ill sneezes on their hand and then touches your jacket, or if you sit on a seat that someone has coughed on.

How long do bacteria, germs and viruses stay on clothes?

It really depends on the type of material and the type of virus or bacteria. It’s worth remembering that bacteria can grow on non-living surfaces, but viruses can’t. In most cases, viruses can only stay active on a non-living surface for a few days at the most.

Are there certain types of fabrics that are more susceptible to germs?

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It depends whether it’s a virus or bacteria. Any material can be contaminated, but some materials stay contaminated for longer than others. For example, non-porous materials such as polyester may allow viruses to stay ‘alive’ longer than porous materials like cotton. It’s also worth remembering that viruses can stay active on plastic buttons and metal zips for two or three days.

What temperature should I wash my clothes at to remove viruses?

Ideally, you want to aim for 60 degrees or above. However, some delicate and synthetic fabrics can be damaged by that heat, so wash at the highest temperature mentioned on the care label. And select a longer wash cycle.

What kind of detergent should I use to remove germs?

It is recommended to use a bleach-based laundry product when washing clothes that could be infectious. Some types of bleach can fade dark and coloured clothes though, so do check the packet or bottle first. If your detergent doesn’t contain bleach, you could add some laundry bleach to the drawer.

How often should I be washing my clothes?

It really depends on how likely it is that you’ve come into contact with a virus. If you’re living with someone who’s ill or who is a key worker, you’ll probably want to wash your clothes every day. It’s also a good idea to avoid sharing towels, tea towels, flannels and even a bed (if you can) with someone who’s sick.

Should I wash my clothes after returning from outside each day?

If you think there’s a good chance you’ve come into contact with a high-risk virus (for example because you’ve been in a crowded area with people who may be ill), it’s a good idea to wash your clothes as soon as you get home.

Some people who know they’ve come into close contact with a high-risk virus (eg key workers such as doctors and nurses), strip as soon as they get home. They then put their uniform straight in the washing machine, take a shower, wipe the washing machine door and buttons down with disinfectant and then wash their hands again.

Don’t fancy running through the house naked? You could put your clothes into a pillowcase or laundry bag, have a shower and then put the bag of clothes into the machine to wash.

Do I need to wash clothes and bedding separately if someone in my household is sick?

The jury is out on this one. However, it is recommended to wash ‘high-risk’ laundry separately. It’s certainly a good idea to wash heavily soiled items (such as those with blood, poo or vomit on them) in a different load to other clothes.

Should I wash clothes differently if I’m a key worker?

Depending on where you work, you might want to take extra precautions with your laundry. If you’re in a high-risk setting, such as a hospital, you’ll want to wash your clothes as soon as you get home.

Ideally, use a detergent that contains bleach, just to be on the safe side. Choose a high temperature (60 degrees or above) and a full-length cycle. Most uniforms are fine to wash at 60 degrees, but do check the care label on your clothes just in case.

Remember to wash any heavily soiled items separately from other clothes to reduce the risk of contamination. And don’t forget to wash your hands after doing the laundry.

How can I prevent germs from getting stuck on my clothes?

First of all, try to minimise the risk of coming into contact with someone who’s ill. Stay at least two metres away from anyone who might be sick, even if they’re not showing any symptoms. If you can’t do that, wash your clothes regularly, ideally on a 60 degree wash and using a detergent that contains bleach.

Should I wash my hands after loading the washing machine?

Yes, if you think the clothes, towels or bedding may be harbouring high-risk germs. It’s important to wash your hands thoroughly using soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. You need to make sure the whole of your hands (including your fingers and thumbs) and your wrists are washed. This step by step guide to hand washing might help.

Should I soak clothes before washing them?

There’s usually no need, but if you’re worried you could soak them in a mixture of oxygen bleach and water for half an hour before they go in the machine. Do check the care label first though as bleach can fade or damage some clothes.

What should I do about leather and vinyl?

You may want to thoroughly wipe down non-washable clothes, like leather jackets, with a disinfecting wipe. Do test a small area inside the jacket first though, to check that the wipe doesn’t discolour the leather.

Can tumble dryers kill germs?

Hotter settings on tumble dryers can kill most germs. Make sure the laundry is completely dry when you take it out though. If you put it away when it’s still damp it may encourage bacteria to grow. Don’t worry if you don’t have a tumble dryer – the germs should have been killed in the washing machine if you followed the advice above.

Do you want to learn which household cleaning tasks cause the most stress?  Then read our Heated Household data analysis. 

Frequently asked questions killing viruses and bacteria on clothes

Does a 60 degree wash kill all bacteria?

Nobody wants nasty germs and bacteria on their clothing, but does a 60-degree wash kill all bacteria? The answer is it can help but may not kill all bacteria. This is because many washing machines only reach the 60-degree highpoint for only a couple of minutes during a wash. Instead, what is more important is using a high-quality laundry detergent that will kill bacteria.

Does drying your clothes naturally kill germs?

Tumble drying your clothing after a wash will help kill germs on the clothing, but does drying your clothes naturally kill germs as well? Air drying clothes will mean that they are exposed and may sit damp for a longer period but drying your clothes out in the sunshine may help a great deal. The UV rays from the sun may act as almost a natural disinfectant killing germs on the surface of your clothes.

How do you kill viruses on 'non-washable' clothes?

If washing and drying can help kill germs on clothing, what can you do about non-washable clothes? If you have a piece of clothing that cannot be washed or dry-cleaned, giving it a steam treatment could help as the steam can kill germs and viruses that stay on clothes.

Originally published