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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Ammonia as a Sanitizing Alternative

By Dr. Laundry May 24, 2011

Q:  I know that bleach will sanitize laundry and washing machines, but I was wondering if household ammonia would also serve this purpose for non-bleachable fabrics.  If it can be used as a sanitizing alternative, how much ammonia would I need?  I know there are other options like Quats and such, but they’re expensive and difficult to come by.

A:  The use of alternative sanitizing products is a frequently asked question, but the efficacy of ammonia as a laundry sanitizer is not simple.  Many people do not realize that any product sold in the US claiming to have disinfectant or sanitizer capabilities needs to be registered with the EPA, like Clorox® Regular-Bleach.  There is a great deal of information about this at http://www.epa.gov/oppad001/ad_info.htm.  As part of the registration process, the efficacy of the product is established for specific use conditions, targeting specific organisms.  Those conditions become the label instructions, which must be followed to get the desired results.  We, consequently, cannot extrapolate and conclude that the product will also work in different situation unless we have proved it and added it to the registration.  Unfortunately, there are many claims on-line that post sanitizing advice with various home remedies, but these can inadvertently mislead consumers.

Quats, or quaternary ammonium salt, is an ingredient in a registered sanitizer for hard surfaces.  However, that does not mean that you can also use Quats effectively in laundry, unless the product states otherwise.  The same is true for ammonia—without an EPA registration with usage instructions indicating what concentration, how to use it, and what bacteria/viruses it targets, I cannot verify its efficacy as a germicide.  Also, bleach and ammonia should NEVER be mixed since when the two combine, toxic gas is formed that could be fatal.  There is an EPA fact sheet on acetic acid, household vinegar, which identifies how to use it as a weed killer, but not as a laundry additive.  Again, this product cannot be recommended as a sanitizer for either laundry or hard surfaces.

The problem of sanitizing not-bleachable items is difficult to solve since there are not EPA registered color-safe laundry sanitizers available for general home use.  However, some of your colored items may actually be safely bleached with Clorox® Regular-Bleach.  You can check their colorfastness to bleach with a simple bleachability test:

•        Dilute 2 teaspoons bleach in ¼ cup water.

•        Apply a drop of this solution to a hidden part of the items.  Inside hems, cuffs, under collars, and seams work well.  For multicolored items be sure to check each color.

•        Wait 1 minute then blot dry.  No color change means the item can be safely bleached.

For clothing and items that cannot be bleached, such as wool, silk, mohair, leather, spandex and non-colorfast items, you can at reduce germ counts by washing laundry in the hottest wash water and drying with the hottest dryer setting recommended on the care label.  Note that dryer heat doesn’t completely kill germs, but it does reduce their count.