Pam asked: How can I wash dark clothing and still kill pathogens? I work in a hospital where I must wear a dark blue lab coat and dark pants. The spores from harmful pathogens are on my clothing after work. Is there any way to kill these pathogens on dark clothing that cannot be bleached nor washed in hot water?
Laundry and other linens can harbor bacteria that can cause an illness to return or spread. Here is some information to help you clean your colored clothes or other items more effectively when needed without the use of chlorine bleach. However, these methods are for general disinfecting purposes. If you have a specific illness or are disinfecting after a flood, contact the CDC for specific information you may need.
Using Household Items
Although the products listed below are not EPA registered disinfectants, they do help to disinfect. If you want to give your laundry an extra cleansing boost or if you just need items in a pinch that you already have at home, use one or more of these tips.
- To use white vinegar, add 1 cup of it to the rinse cycle. This is very effective for killing bacteria, and will also help to deodorize laundry (which is a good sign that odor-causing bacteria has been killed). It is also an effective fabric softener, and helps to keep colors bright.
- To use hydrogen peroxide, add 1 cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide to the wash. Be sure to spot test the peroxide first though as it can have a bleaching effect on some fabrics.
- Borax can be used in addition to your regular detergent. It is especially effective as an antifungal, but also helps as a disinfectant.
- Oxygen bleach does disinfect, though it is not as strong of a disinfectant as chlorine bleach. Use an oxygen laundry detergent, such as OxiClean, to help disinfect your clothes more than a regular detergent would.
- Pine oil is very effective at disinfecting. The greater the amount of pine oil in a product, the better it will clean. Add one cup of a pine oil product to the wash, such as Pine Sol or Olde Tyme Super Pine Cleaner. This should not be used on silk or wool. Keep in mind that the pine odor may remain after washing, and it also can be very allergenic. Running a second rinse cycle can help to remove any remaining residue. Also, use caution with this if you have cats as pine oil is toxic to them.
- Sunlight is extremely sanitizing, so if you can line dry your laundry in the sun, that will give it an extra disinfecting boost. If you can’t hang your laundry in the sun, there are UV wands you can get for sanitizing. See our guide How to Clean with UV Light for more information. Keep in mind that regular or extended time in the sun can cause fading. If the item is already dry, about 30 minutes in the sun (on each side) is enough to kill surface bacteria.
Using Laundry Products
There are some laundry detergents available that boast about their germ-killing prowess. If you need to disinfect laundry often, these are products you should consider.
- Hog Farm Laundry Soap Solids is an EPA registered disinfectant. However, the solid tablets should not be used in HE washers. They also make a powdered version, which they say is “not yet certified” as an EPA registered disinfectant, but contains the same germ-killing ingredients. Learn more here.
- Lysol Laundry Sanitizer advertises that it kills 99.9% of bacteria. Learn more here. However, one of our site users (Thanks Jan!) commented below that Lysol may be dangerous to cats, so use caution when considering this option for pet bedding items or any other linens your cat regularly uses. Also, the label states that this product should be added to the rinse cycle and allowed to stay there for 16 minutes, so consider if your washer is able to be paused on the rinse cycle or how long your rinse cycle lasts.
- Hunter’s Edge Silver Laundry Detergent contains silver, which can kill bacteria. Learn more here.
- Defense Super Shield Laundry Additive is advertised as helping to protect against microbes, including bacteria and fungus, that fabrics may encounter in the future. Learn more here.
- Consider using Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soaps or Sal Suds in place of your regular laundry detergent. They are all natural and are incredibly effective as a soap. They also contain essential oils, which have disinfecting properties. Be sure to use a product that does not contain essential oils for use on pet bedding as many are toxic to dogs and/or cats.
Using Essential Oils
Essential oils have a variety of pathogen-fighting powers, from being antibacterial or antifungal to being antiseptic (preventing the growth of bacteria in the future). They also can add a pleasant scent to your laundry. Select one or more of the essential oils below to include in your laundry, then wash and dry the clothes using normal cycles. Use caution if you have pets in your home however, as essential oils can be toxic to them. Also use caution if you are pregnant. It is best to avoid the use of essential oils on children’s laundry, especially tea tree oil.
- Tea tree oil is effective in disinfecting, but check the labels carefully. Be sure the product you purchase is a high quality, 100% tea tree oil, not a bargain mixture. Add 2 teaspoons of tea tree oil to each load.
- Lavender oil is antibacterial and antiseptic, as well as antifungal. Add 10 drops to each load.
- Thyme oil is a powerful disinfectant known to kill E. coli and MRSA, and is also an antifungal. Only get a thyme oil that is twice distilled to be sure its irritants have been removed. Do not use this oil if you are pregnant. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of it to each load.
Using Heat to Sanitize
If using heat is possible for you, here is some information to help.
- Hot water is more sanitizing than cold. Longer exposure to hot water increases the sanitizing effect, so put the washer on for the longest wash cycle possible. However, the water in most homes is not hot enough to be effective for sanitizing by itself, and the specific temperature needed to kill pathogens varies. For example, polio can be killed at 122° F, but Candida albicans (yeast infection) can survive temperatures up to 158° F.
- The heat of the dryer will further kill pathogens.
- Ironing clothes can be very helpful for killing pathogens as it has a high temperature, but the time exposure to the heat is also important. One quick pass with the iron may not be effective, so be sure to iron the item thoroughly.
- If you have a handheld steamer, this can also be very helpful for sanitizing fabrics. In a pinch, holding an item over the spout of a steaming tea kettle can work, but be very careful not to burn yourself.
- There are washing machines that have a sanitizing cycle.
- Do not substitute another vinegar for white vinegar, such as apple cider or wine vinegar, as their pH is not as strong and they could leave stains.
- Keep in mind that not all clothing fibers can tolerate high heat, such as the heat of an iron. If you are going to a hospital or somewhere you know you will want to disinfect your clothing afterward, be sure to wear something that can tolerate all of the chemicals and/or heat needed for sanitizing.
- Because fabrics will react differently to these disinfecting methods, it is important to test a small area of the garment first, such as an inside hem, to ensure there is no damage to the color or to the fabric itself.
- Dust mites require exposure to 140° F for ten minutes to be killed. Cold water washing with detergents does not kill dust mites, though it will remove around 90% of the allergens they produce.
- After washing a load of laundry that you are trying to disinfect, use a disinfectant wipe to remove any germs that may be left in the washer drum to prevent them from getting into the next load.
- Always remove your clothing in a room that has hard surfaces, which are easy to disinfect.
- Put your dirty clothes into a laundry bag after removing them. When doing the laundry, wash a fabric laundry bag at the same time (remove the clothes from the bag for washing though), or wipe out a plastic laundry bag with disinfectant.
- Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Things by Reader’s Digest
- Home Comforts; The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson
- Clean & Green by Annie Berthold-Bond
- Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook by Martha Stewart
- Joey Green’s Cleaning Magic by Joey Green
- Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond
- The Naturally Clean Home by Karyn Siegel-Maier
- Lemons and Lavender by Billie Sharp
- The Cleaning Encyclopedia by Don Aslett
- Cleaning Plain & Simple by Donna Smallin