Hot water is the most effective way to clean and disinfect laundry. While the ideal is to get the wash water above 140 degrees, in some instances that is hard to do since water heaters are not normally set at that high temperature. Warm or cold water will clean laundry, but will not kill germs. Other methods can be used to adequately disinfect clothes.

Methods of Disinfecting

According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension Yates study, Killing Bacterial/Viral Infection in Home Laundry, there are basic methods of ensuring that clothes are clean and disinfected.

• Pine Oil Disinfectants are used at the beginning of the wash cycle. These disinfectants can be used in hot or warm water, and include products such as Pine Sol.
• Liquid Chlorine Disinfectants can be used in hot or warm water. These are bleach products and should always be diluted in water before putting in the laundry. Bleach will effectively kill germs, but can be very harsh on clothes.
• Phenolic Disinfectants can be used in hot, warm or cold wash cycles, but if adding to rinse cycle should always be used in warm water. These include products such as Lysol.

To effectively disinfect laundry, start the wash cycle, add the disinfecting product and then detergent. After the washer has agitated a couple of times put the clothes in the water. This gives the products a chance to distribute throughout the water.

Disinfecting White Laundry

For white laundry, another good disinfectant (other than bleach) is 3% hydrogen peroxide, the kind most commonly sold in stores. If the washer has a bleach dispenser, pour ½ cup hydrogen peroxide in the dispenser. If not, add the hydrogen peroxide to the wash water as mentioned above.

Disinfecting Colored Laundry

Since you do not want to use bleach on colored laundry, the first thing to do is to wash the colored clothes and use ½ cup vinegar in the rinse water. This will set the color and prevent fading. Laundry detergent and Borax will disinfect colors.

Natural Disinfectants

Adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle can disinfect clothes and also get rid of any soap residue. It is an inexpensive way to get rid of any germs in laundry. Add approximately ¼ to ½ cup to the rinse cycle. Vinegar can be safely used in any water temperature, and the small amount will not leave any lingering odors in the clothes. Boost the vinegar further by adding baking soda along with detergent at the beginning of the wash cycle.

Another natural product that disinfects is grapefruit seed extract (GSE). GSE can be found in health food or vitamin stores. It is a natural disinfectant for many things. A few drops (1/2 to 1 teaspoon) in the rinse cycle will disinfect laundry in any water temperature.

Tea Tree Oil is also a good disinfectant. Always use high quality tea tree oil, and add 2 teaspoons to laundry rinse water.

Essentials oils such as lavender and peppermint have disinfectant properties and can be used in laundry rinse cycles. A couple drops in the rinse cycle can also make your laundry smell fresher.


When using any disinfecting product, always test the clothes on a small area first. Some harsh products can fade or damage delicate clothes.

Use a warm or hot setting when drying laundry. This will also help to disinfect and kill germs. And the old favorite of hanging clothes outside in the sun will work, as the sun will disinfect laundry naturally.

For more information, see the following web sites: Cornell, How To Clean Stuff.

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