How To Disinfect Laundry?

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.


Neil Wardlow has been writing professionally since 1989. Neil discovered he enjoyed writing when he suffered an injury during his 15-year building construction career. Neil now writes full-time, whenever he’s not occupied with entertaining family and friends, growing things, or making repairs in and around his beautiful ranch house.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. They are constantly telling us of all the bacteria and germs our bedding, towels and even clothing harbor after laundering. I’m on this site to find something to use to resolve the problem.
    So far, every thought I had has been buried.
    Hot water shrinks cotton and really is not good for various other reasons.
    After watching the news last nite, I’m becoming phobic since my dogs sleep with me. I know but I’m trying to change that as of last nite.
    So why or when will they provide for purchase, an affordable disinfectant laundry detergent?
    Affordable is the key and I’m sure there is something out there now, why don’t they give a solution, after scaring us half to death.
    I was old fashioned but older I get the more I realize, I am subjected to the whole world now and there are new contaminates coming here my immune system are not familiar with.
    Therefor, doesn’t know to protect me.
    Thank you everyone for your input.

  2. Vinegar is a very weak disinfectant, especially when diluted by gallons of wash water. Borax is not a disinfectant. Hot water and a hot dryer are not enough to kill microbes, Same with drying.. Someone needs to offer a consumer-brand colored laundry disinfectant.

  3. Lysol is toxic. Do not use it in your laundry — ever.

  4. I’ve been going crazy trying to find out how to disinfect colored laundry using chlorine bleach.  Nobody seems to list an actual amount needed to kill germs.  In sanitizing beer bottles, it’s pretty common to use a tablespoon in a gallon of cold water.  In today’s water saving washers, there has to be SOME level of chlorine bleach that can used safely with MOST colored fabrics to kill germs.  I don’t have a dryer and consider them a horrendous waste of energy and environmental killers.  Since I have no real data to go by, I have been using about a quarter cup of bleach with my colored towels and such in attempt to sanitize them, but I have no real data to determine if it’s enough.    Articles like the one above are not helping.  Most (of course not all) colored clothes can be washed with a small amount of bleach without doing serious damage to them, but how much is needed to kill the germs is not reported, anywhere from what I can see.  From what I have read, vinegar, while a fine cleaner for many purposes, is NOT a powerful enough disinfectant to do the job.

    1. John, in most cases, using just hot water combined with a hot dryer setting are enough to effectively kill off bacteria.  Since you’re not using a dryer then you may luck out by having the bacteria killed by the ultraviolet rays and heat of the sun. Vinegar will kill off some forms of bacteria, but not all forms of it.  However, if it makes you feel better about killing the germs with chlorine bleach, then you might want to watch this video about using bleach on colored fabrics:

  5. I remember growing up with my mom and grandmother both using vinegar in the rinse water.  I use the same method that they did, which is to had baking soda in with the detergent for the wash cycle, and then add vinegar to the rinse cycle.  Only instead of letting the rinse cycle run, you stop the washer and let the clothes soak for 10-30 minutes, then restart the machine and let it finish the rest of the cycles. The primary purpose for using vinegar was to get rid of the dinginess left by detergent residue and to soften the clothes, like most fabric softeners due now.  It was also used to soften the hard water.  Bleach or pine oil was added if someone wanted to disinfect the clothes, but most people assumed using hot water got rid of most of the germs.  However, most textile fabrics used in clothing now mostly call for cold water washing.

    The EPA also tells kids this(”This is a bottle of vinegar. Vinegar is commonly used in certain foods, like in salad dessing or vinegarettes, pickles and even candy. But did you know that vinegar can also be used for cleaning?Vinegar has been used for several generations Â- in fact, perhaps your grandparents or great-grand parents may have used it to clean items from windows to pots and pans. Today, vinegar is sometimes used instead of household cleaning products because it is non-toxic.”. However, many people are now trying to claim that vinegar is not a disinfectant because it does not meet the EPA’s strict standards.  The CDC created a report that has to do with meeting EPA standards for disinfecting areas used for home health care and hospital care of severely ill patients.  This is what the report says about vinegar: (;”Some environmental groups advocate “environmentally safe” products as alternatives to commercial germicides in the home-care setting. These alternatives (e.g., ammonia, baking soda, vinegar, Borax, liquid detergent) are not registered with EPA and should not be used for disinfecting because they are ineffective against S. aureus. Borax, baking soda, and detergents also are ineffective against Salmonella Typhi and E.coli; however, undiluted vinegar and ammonia are effective against S. Typhi and E.coli 53, 332, 333. Common commercial disinfectants designed for home use also are effective against selected antibiotic-resistant bacteria 53.
                Public concerns have been raised that the use of antimicrobials in the home can promote development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  This issue is unresolved and needs to be considered further through scientific and clinical investigations. The public health benefits of using disinfectants in the home are unknown. However, some facts are known: many sites in the home kitchen and bathroom are microbially contaminated 336, use of hypochlorites markedly reduces bacteria 337, and good standards of hygiene (e.g., food hygiene, hand hygiene) can help reduce infections in the home 338, 339.  In addition, laboratory studies indicate that many commercially prepared household disinfectants are effective against common pathogens 53 and can interrupt surface-to-human transmission of pathogens 48.  The “targeted hygiene concept”—which means identifying situations and areas (e.g., food-preparation surfaces and bathroom) where risk exists for transmission of pathogens—may be a reasonable way to identify when disinfection might be appropriate 340.”
    If one reads these two paragraphs, you can see that it does claim that vinegar is effective against certain types of bacteria, just not all of them.  They also claim vinegar is not a legit disinfectant because it isn’t on EPA’s approved list of disinfectants.

    So although it may not be the best disinfectant available, vinegar may still be suitable for doing the laundry, especially if you combine it with some other natural ingredients.  The tests and studies were mostly conducted on diluted vinegar in labratory conditions.

  6. Billie,
      How do we know if what you’re saying is true or if you are just promoting your vitaloxide product?

  7.  Dear Neil,
    Nice article however… according to the EPA, vinegar is most definitely not a disinfectant. A lot of people believe that vinegar is a disinfectant and I have certainly read this online quite often which I find completely unnerving. If people use something they think is a disinfectant that actually isn’t, they could spread harmful bacteria through the home.
    Please check it out and re-post.
    [email protected]

  8. Thanks for the tips! Will definitely use!

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