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Does Bleach Kill Germs from Viruses and Bacteria in Laundry?

When cold and flu season hits, people worry about killing germs in the laundry. Research shows that viruses aren’t the only problem: bacteria in the laundry and clothes washer is a problem all year long.

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By Mary Gagliardi

Germs in the laundry can cause illness throughout the year, not just when the temperature drops outside and cold and flu season starts up. That’s because bacteria and viruses found on your clothes can transfer to your hands and then your mouth, eyes or nose, and make you sick. 

Research conducted by Dr. Charles Gerba from the University of Arizona has examined bacteria and viruses present throughout the laundry process, and found that washing with detergent by itself leaves a lot of germs behind.

In one study simulating typical home-laundry practices using warm water, he observed that after washing, bacterial contamination from fecal matter was found throughout the clothing and on the machine tub itself. The bacteria left behind even showed up in subsequent laundry loads!

Fortunately, adding sodium hypochlorite (the bleach active in Clorox® Disinfecting Bleach) will disinfect your laundry. Knowing the different ways germs can spread during the whole laundry process is also important. Read on so you can take steps to stop virus and bacteria transmission when doing laundry.

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Handling laundry

Your first chance to get sick starts here

Sorting the laundry of a sick person means handling fabrics with a potentially high amount of germs that can transfer not just to your hands, but also to the laundry basket and exterior of the clothes washer. 

Using Clorox® Disinfecting Wipes to clean hard, nonporous surfaces that come into contact with the laundry during sorting and loading the washer will kill viruses and bacteria before they can spread to other family members. And of course washing your hands after handling dirty laundry (and being careful not to touch your face, eyes, or nose until you do) is also important to prevent illness. 

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Using bleach to disinfect

Still the go-to-for killing viruses and bacteria

For over 100 years, Clorox® Disinfecting Bleach has been used to kill viruses and bacteria and disinfect the laundry. Always follow the directions for use, starting with making sure your laundry is safe for bleach. Always avoid bleaching wool, silk, mohair, leather, spandex and non-fast colors.

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hot setting on washing machine

Wash water temperature

Warmer is better

A warmer wash temperature reduces pathogens more than cooler temperatures, so whenever you can be sure to select a water temperature greater than 40℃ (105℉). This is especially important when trying to reduce viral loads in laundry you can’t safely bleach. 

washing machine knob

Dryer heat setting

Hotter is better

Transfer the wet laundry from the washer to the dryer as soon as possible after the wash cycle is complete. Wet laundry sitting around is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow, so getting it into the dryer quickly is important. 

Just like with water temperature, dryer heat also has an impact on reducing pathogens, so select a high heat setting. Be sure to wash your hands after transferring wet laundry to the dryer because any remaining pathogens (in a load that wasn’t disinfected with bleach) can transfer to hands when handling the laundry. 

Clean the inside of your washer

Run a bleach clean out cycle

Soils and odor-causing bacteria that thrive in the small amount of water that remains in the machine after the cycle finishes can build up inside the inner workings of a clothes washer, especially newer high efficiency models. Bacteria can transfer from the washer to the laundry during the wash cycle, resulting in smelly laundry. Periodically running a bleach clean out cycle keeps the inside of the washer free of soil build-ups and kills odor causing bacteria.

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