How to Sanitize Your Laundry

I am so excited to be one of fifty Whirlpool Moms featured in featured in a test-drive program. During the next two months, I’ll be testing the Whirlpool Duet washer and dryer and sharing my experiences with you.

Did you know that your laundry could be making you sick?

This is some disgusting stuff, especially for those of us who regularly run poop from cloth diapers through our washing machines.

Even if you don’t use cloth diapers, what do you do when your family has the flu or a bad cold? What do you do if someone gets head lice or if a pet gets fleas?

You have to sanitize your laundry, that’s what.disinfect laundry

I channeled my inner graduate school nerd so that I could give you a mini research paper on sanitizing your laundry. I’ve included sources in case you’d like to read more about any of the points.

The problem is that few people are consistently wash clothes in hot water or using bleach. We’re environmentally conscious, after all!

Unfortunately, bacteria (like salmonella and eColi), viruses (like hepatitis A), and allergens (like pet hair and dust mites) can survive a cold water wash without bleach. It turns out that they’re much more common in laundry than any of us would like to think. (source: 1999 article from the New York Times)

How to Sanitize Your Laundry

  1. Get a washer with a sanitize cycle. You might have already guessed that my first suggestion would be to buy a washing machine that includes a sanitize cycle, like the Whirlpool Duet washer. In order to earn its NSF mark, the Whirlpool Duet washer reduces microorganisms (that’s the fancy term for all of the stuff I mentioned above, bacteria, viruses, and allergens) by 99.9% and prevents them from transferring from one load to another. After using the allergen cycle (or the sanitize temperature setting on other cycles), you can be sure that your laundry is free of germs. That peace of mind is worth a new washer, don’t you think? (source: NSF website)
  2. Rinse twice. It’s not great for the environment, but a second rinse significantly reduces allergens. I didn’t find any research that showed an extra rinse gets rid of bacteria or viruses, though. (source: ABC News)
  3. Use hot water. According to the articles above, temperatures of 140 F are required to kill allergens and germs. Setting your hot water tank at 140 F, however, is dangerous, especially if you have small children. I can tell you from personal experience that 140 F is hot, hot enough to burn you instantly, hot enough to make your skin scream out in pain on contact. You have to way the hot water danger potential against the germ potential here, unless your washing machine has an internal heater like my Whirlpool Duet does.
    Before the Duet, we had to set our hot water tank up to 140 F for a few days to get some funk out of our cloth diapers. I burned myself more than once in those few days. Fortunately, now I can use the sanitize temperature setting to get the water that hot within the washing machine.
  4. Add a disinfectant. Products containing chlorine (bleach), pine oil (Pine-sol), or phenolic (Lysol) should have the word disinfectant on the label, and can be used to disinfect or sanitize laundry. The problem is that they can have unpleasant smells and cause color changes. You would need to put some of the disinfectant on a cotton swab and test it on an area of the fabric that won’t be seen to see if it’s okay to use. (source: University of Illinois Extension and Clorox Dr. Laundry blog)

I wrote this review while participating in a test-drive campaign by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of Whirlpool and received a complimentary Whirlpool Duet washer and dryer to facilitate my review.

Photo source

© 2011 – 2013, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.


  1. says

    OK, now that you’ve grossed me out, I’m wondering about a couple of thing. Is the “warm” cycle warm enough? I usually only use the hot cycle for whites.
    I have a newer front-loader machine and it has the sanitize cycle and I use the bleach as directed.
    Before having a newer machine, I would run vinegar through a cycle. Vinegar is safe and effective. It kills 99.9% of bacteria.
    Now that we are moving to an apartment, I will be going to the laundromat. After reading your article, I am definitely going to add the vinegar to my wash.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    Yeah, sorry about the grossness.

    According to that New York Times article, nothing below 140 degrees is good enough for killing germs. It also says that hot water isn’t the only effective means; bleach and other additives can do the same job with good results.

  3. says

    Another vote for white vinegar!! It’s amazing stuff. I use 1/4-1/2 cup in each rinse cycle (I use it in my old Downy ball).

    For vomit residue, etc., I wash on hot with a bit of bleach in the water. A small amount of bleach will sanitize without causing noticeable color changes. You can even use bleach to sanitize drinking water in an emergency situation.

  4. says

    If you want to stay away from a lot of these chemicals, especially the carcinogenic ones, Tee Tree Oil is amazing at disinfecting everything, especially clothes. It also smells wonderful but be sure not to use too much. Just a small amount in your load will disinfect your clothes without an overbearing smell.

  5. Jen Drouin says

    We have a variety of issues that affect sanitation of our laundry and washing machines in the United States, water tank temperature, energy star rated washing machines, problems with front loading washing machine designs in the US as compared to European machine, the use of vinegar or bleach and the basic understanding of the terms sanitation, disinfection and sterilization. If you have a top or front loading energy star washing machine without a sanitize cycle it will automatically regulate your wash water temperature to about 110 regardless of what temperature you set your water tank to by adding cold water to your hot water selected wash. This is also the reason why your white clothing are not getting as white or as clean. At this temperature your washing machine and your clothing are much dirtier then they were when you had no energy star rating and your hot water tank was set for 140. To sanitize in order to kill both viruses and germs you must use chlorine bleach.

    The only way you can get around this is to purchase a washing machine with an internal heater and a sanitize cycle. NSF certified minimums for washing is 131F/55C. about 9 degrees lower than the NY Times articles suggests.

    If you are having trouble with a gross smell in your front loading washing machine in the USA you can blame the energy star ratings once again. In Europe all front loading washing machines have an internal heater that heats up the water to much higher temperatures than what we use in the United States. You dial in the temperature from 30 to 90. The 30 celcius is the cold water cycle it is equal to 86 Fahrenheit, 50 is warm about 122 Fahrenheit, 70 is hot at about 158. On newer front load machines with sanitize cycles NSF states that sanitize cycles must reach 131 or higher Fahrenheit. There seems to be some confusion about the terms sanitize, disinfection and sterilization. Sanitization occurs at temperatures above 140 Fahrenheit, it kills germs and viruses.

    Things such as vinegar can kill germs but they don’t kill viruses and they are not are effective or as quick acting as bleach. Be aware that splashless bleach is not strong enough for disinfection. Check the label, it clearly states not for disinfection.

  6. says

    Thanks for the information – it’s so important! I think it was on a popular health website that tested and found ecoli in most finished washes. I bought and recharge a couple of ion wash balls and throw them in every cycle besides detergent just hoping it helps a little.

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