In most situations, the typical wash, rinse and dry cycle is enough to sanitize your clothes. However, in the aftermath of the pandemic, you might be extra cautious about ensuring your clothes aren’t harboring any bacteria or viruses that can get your family sick. Here are some instances when your laundry needs deep cleaning.
A study published in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal — mSphere — found that at room temperature, the SARS-CoV-2 virus can stay infectious for up to 24 hours on cotton surfaces, while it can remain on artificial materials like polyester for up to 72 hours. Given the use of mixed fabrics in daily wear, these figures stress the importance of regular laundry sanitization during disease outbreaks.
When A Household Member Is Sick
While it may not be as fatal as some diseases, preventing the spread of seasonal flu and other common illnesses is always a good idea. The Mayo Clinic suggests viruses and bacteria can live on various surfaces for hours or days, depending on the viral or bacterial load, temperature and humidity.
With a reported R0 — basic reproduction number — between 1.4 and 1.6, many flu varieties can spread rapidly in confined spaces. When a family member is symptomatic, taking the extra step to sanitize laundry can significantly curb the risk of intra-household transmission.
Occupations In Health Care Or High-Risk Environments
The American Journal of Infection Control found methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on health care workers’ uniforms, particularly on long-sleeved white coats and ties. Researchers also found significant contamination with vancomycin-resistant enterococci and multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Since health care professionals are constantly exposed to these pathogens, their clothes and accessories must be sanitized after every use.
Caring For Vulnerable Populations
Those who care for vulnerable individuals, like immunocompromised patients, infants and the elderly, must take extra precautions and sanitize their laundry. Data from the WHO shows bacterial pneumonia is the biggest infectious cause of death among children worldwide, accounting for over 700,000 deaths in 2019 among children under 5 years old.
Caregivers must sanitize their clothes and the clothes, beddings and curtains of their patients to ensure maximum protection against pathogens.
After Working Out
Sweaty clothing can be a magnet for harmful microorganisms. A study published in the Journal of Young Investigators found that gym equipment, ranging from weights to treadmills, can harbor harmful bacterial colonies. Aside from not reusing gym clothes, sanitizing them immediately after working out with an antibacterial spray helps control the spread of disease-causing bacteria.
How To Sanitize Laundry
First, you should sort and separate the laundry. It’s advisable to wash heavily soiled or potentially contaminated items separately. For instance, if a family member falls ill, segregating their clothes reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
Choose a high-quality detergent that is specifically labeled as a disinfectant. These detergents contain ingredients designed to kill bacteria and viruses. Reading labels and selecting detergents with disinfecting properties aids in effective sanitization.
Hot water is a potent weapon against pathogens. Wash clothes at the highest temperature recommended on the garment’s care label. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that water should ideally be at least 140°F (60°C) for effective sanitization.
If you suspect the laundry might be heavily contaminated, adding a commercial laundry sanitizer can be beneficial. These sanitizers — available in most stores — offer an additional layer of protection against bacteria and viruses. They work alongside regular detergents to enhance the sanitization process.
A more affordable option is to use color-safe bleach — or regular bleach for all-white clothing — since bleach is one of the best all-around household sanitizers. If you don’t like the smell of bleach or if your clothes are too delicate for it, you may use 3% hydrogen peroxide, distilled white vinegar or pine oil, instead.
Extended agitation and rinsing can help dislodge and rinse away microbes more effectively. Choosing the longest cycle available on the washing machine is recommended for items that might be highly contaminated.
Drying laundry thoroughly is very important. Many pathogens, including bacteria and fungi, cannot survive in dry conditions. Use the dryer’s hot setting and ensure that clothes are completely dry before removal. If air-drying, place clothes in a location with good airflow and sunlight, as UV rays from the sun also possess disinfecting properties.
When clothes are not dried properly, they become a breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and molds, which can make you sick, ruin your clothes and even contaminate other parts of your home and ventilation system.
Lastly, remember to clean and disinfect the washing machine itself. Regularly running an empty hot water cycle with a machine cleaner or distilled white vinegar ensures the appliance remains free from lingering germs. It also prevents the machine from becoming a source of contamination for subsequent loads of laundry.
Sanitizing laundry is crucial as it safeguards health, especially during critical moments like disease outbreaks, illnesses within a household or if you have specific occupational risks. Research reveals the “staying power” of pathogens on various fabrics, emphasizing the need for meticulous laundry practices. For those in health care, caring for vulnerable populations or regularly working out in a gym, laundry sanitization should be part of your daily routine.
Jane is an environmental writer and the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co where she covers sustainability and eco-friendly living.