Updated: Nov 3
How to disinfect laundry is a hot topic among cloth diapering parents and those with compromised immune systems. While disinfecting is not something you need to do for every load, you may have to disinfect the laundry if someone in your household is sick. In general, add your disinfectants after the machine has filled with water.
Different fabrics will react differently to disinfecting methods so always test a small area of the garment first to ensure there is no damage to the color or to the fabric itself. Also, it’s a good idea to not mix and match disinfectants, use one at a time.
Disclaimer: This is meant for reference purposes only. The statements made in this article are not meant as a guide to treat or cure any disease or illness. If you have a need for disinfecting or sanitizing something please consult a medical professional. This is merely meant as an overview of different ways and options that can be used for laundry, and not all are viable options for every situation. If disinfecting laundry is a priority, look for EPA registered laundry products for disinfecting and use at their suggested amounts – these products are scientifically proven to work.
Here are some common laundry additives and methods that many people use to disinfect:
Hot water: This isn’t a laundry additive but is the most common way to disinfect laundry. The CDC guidelines state that you need to wash items at 160°F for 25 minutes to remove germs with just detergent alone. If you are disinfecting diapers, hot water is a must. Hot water doesn’t kill everything, but most additives work best in hot water because the high temperature speeds up the chemical reaction. It’s a simple, easy method to help clean clothes that are really soiled. If no one is sick in your house and there is no pressing need to disinfect something, you don’t need to go any further with disinfectants. Your immune system will usually take care of anything that survives.
Chlorine Bleach: chlorine bleach is a common disinfectant and is registered as an EPA disinfectant. The downside is that straight bleach will ruin your clothes (so be careful what you’re wearing when handling it). While many online sources will talk about testing for color fastness on colors, I don’t advocate using it for anything other than whites. Color safe bleach does not disinfect, either. There are other options for colors.
Never pour bleach directly into the machine as it can ruin/weaken the fabrics it touches before diluting. Bleach also works much better in hot water. Make sure you are washing on hot before you add your bleach.
Do not mix bleaches. This means don’t mix chlorine bleach with oxygen bleach or colorsafe bleach. Use one bleach to avoid a potentially hazardous chemical reaction.
Bleach is the second most common disinfectant after hot water and it is effective and kills just about everything. The major cons of using bleach are that it can ruin clothes and can cause clothes to wear out/fade more quickly. It is dangerous to inhale and while it kills yeast, it doesn’t kill yeast spores.
Oxygen Bleach: Oxygen bleach is a commonly used item to disinfectant for laundry, though its effectiveness at disinfecting laundry is not proven. Oxygen bleach (sodium percarbonate) decomposes in water to form sodium, carbonate and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide then breaks down rapidly into oxygen and water. When oxygen bleach is used at its suggested amounts in a washing machine, it may be too diluted to disinfect, though it does have disinfecting properties in water just as hydrogen peroxide does. Most companies that sell oxygen bleach have not registered it as a disinfectant with the EPA and therefore cannot claim that the product is a disinfectant, however it breaks down into hydrogen peroxide which is registered (for surfaces), though the amount of hydrogen peroxide that is created may be too little to properly disinfect. Unlike chlorine bleach, Oxygen bleach is color safe and works effectively on stains. Like regular bleach, oxygen bleach works best in hot water. Oxygen bleach does not harm fabrics while having the bonus of whitening and removing stains. Oxygen bleach works best in hot water, although be aware that your garments may have to soak in it for 6 hours or overnight (start with hot water) for it to really work on tough stains.
Tea Tree Oil: One of the better known disinfectants, though not an EPA registered disinfectant for laundry. Tea tree oil is available in different grades, so it’s smart to educate yourself on what the grades mean when you buy and use. You want to look for a quality Australian Tea Tree oil (melaleuca).
Two major chemical components that make up tea tree oil are called 1,8 Cineole and Terpinen-4-ol and you want to look at the numbers associated with those components when selecting your tea tree oil for disinfecting.
1,8 Cineole is the compound that gives tea tree its camphor-like scent and is also found in eucalyptus oil. Cineole is a skin irritant so you want a low number for disinfecting. If a bottle says “for aromatherapy” there’s a good chance it has a high cineole percentage and will not work for disinfecting or any kind of application that will touch skin.
Terpinen-4-ol is what gives the tea tree oil its germicidal properties. It’s related to alcohol and is a good antibacterial and antiviral. You want a high number.
Top quality tea tree oil for disinfecting has a maximum of 5% cineole and a 35-40% Terpenin-4-ol
Many people use anywhere from 5-10 drops for normal “everyday disinfecting”. It may be too diluted in laundry to have a significant effect on killing germs.
Kills: bacteria, mold, some viruses, yeast, but not yeast spores.
Hydrogen Peroxide: This is a liquid oxygen bleach and breaks down into water and oxygen. It is an EPA registered disinfectant but only for use on surfaces. The amounts suggested here are just a speculation based on other internet sources.
Use a 3% solution (what is normally available at most drugstores).
Be aware that straight hydrogen peroxide can damage clothes the same way bleach can, so test for colorfastness and never pour directly on your clothes.
It has been suggested to use ½ cup in the bleach cup of your laundry machine. If you don’t have a bleach cup, start the machine without putting clothes in. wait until your machine is filled with water, then add the peroxide and let the water agitate with the peroxide in it before adding clothes.
Do not mix Vinegar and Hydrogen peroxide! They combine together to make peracetic acid which has different properties than vinegar or peroxide and is very corrosive, and can have dangerous effects and can bleach fabrics.
The Sun: This is a free and overlooked disinfectant in the western world but it can be just as effective as chlorine bleach. Line drying exposes your garments to ultraviolet radiation and infrared light. Too much exposure to the sun can ruin fabric however by permanently fading it. It’s a great way to get impossible stains out of whites, though. In small doses you won’t see any damage so it’s fine to leave laundry out in the sun for a day. A few hours is sufficient to kill bacteria. After a week you will see fading. Delicate fabrics can also be damaged by direct sun, so use filtered sunlight (underneath an umbrella or a tree).
Lemon Juice: Lemon juice is great on perspiration stains and is a great disinfectant. It will also help whiten fabrics as a bleach alternative. You can use ½ cup or more in the laundry. The disinfecting property of lemons comes from its high acidity. It changes the pH levels in bacteria so the microbes can’t survive. Lemon juice is best utilized in a separate wash cycle or in the rinse cycle from using other additives like borax or baking soda because borax and baking soda are both very alkaline, and will kill a different range of microbes. Adding lemon juice at the same time as other alkaline additives can alter the pH and not kill anything or create a reaction.
Vinegar: Another acidic disinfectant. You should use it on a separate wash cycle from Borax as you will lose the benefits of the pH changes each does that contributes to killing germs (Borax is basic and Vinegar is acidic). Lots of people add it to the rinse but I recommend another plain water rinse after using to bring the pH back to neutral. Contrary to popular belief, vinegar is not a strong disinfectant for laundry and while the disinfecting properties of vinegar are well known, vinegar is not registered as an EPA disinfectant. It does have disinfectant properties, but it is not as acidic as lemon juice. It is better utilized in the rinse cycle to help get rid of soap residue.
To use, add ¼ to ½ cup in the rinse cycle or regular wash load. Vinegar can be used safely at any water temperature.
Borax: Borax is a pH buffer and raises the pH of your water to make it slightly basic. It works by converting some water molecules to Hydrogen Peroxide and works best in hotter water. The pH buffer it create in the water make a stable environment for chemical reactions to occur between the soap and your clothes, thus its “laundry booster” qualities. The reactions that borax undergoes in hot water does some disinfecting.
To disinfect with borax, wash on hot and add ½ cup per load. Use in the wash cycle and not the rinse cycle. Borax can also be toxic if consumed, so keep away from little ones and pets.
As stated above, don’t use borax with vinegar or lemon juice.
Baking Soda: This isn’t a disinfectant but a lot of people think it is.
There you have it! What methods do you use to disinfect your laundry?
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