How to Disinfect Laundry for Bacterial and Viral Infections

Sick girl in bed
KidStock/Getty Images

We all hope that no one in our family will become ill with bacterial or viral infections like enterovirus, influenza, or even a bad cold. But when it happens, it is important to prevent the spread of the disease to others in the household. Fortunately, the scientists at Cornell University's Cooperative Extension Yates Association have done the research and provided the information necessary on how to kill bacterial and viral infections in your home laundry.

Research shows that it is rare to become infected from handling biologically infected garments. However, until these clothes and bed linens are washed or dry cleaned, you are encouraged to wear disposable rubber gloves when handling soiled laundry and discard the gloves after use. It is best to use a plastic laundry hamper that can be wiped down with disinfectant to carry laundry and keep it away from your face.

Types of Laundry Disinfectants

Disinfecting your home laundry can be done inexpensively, easily and without damage to the fabric. These four categories of products are safe for fabrics and are available at local stores. They are recognized by microbiologists at the USDA Textile and Clothing Laboratory. Follow the product's directions carefully and use the amount of disinfectant recommended on the product's label.

  • Pine oil disinfectants: These are effective in hot and warm water, and can be used on both white and colored fabrics. Some brands include Pine Sol, Spic-n-Span Pine and Lysol Pine Action. They should be added at the beginning of the wash cycle. To be effective, the product must contain 80 percent pine oil.
  • Phenolic Disinfectants: These are also effective in hot and warm water and can be used on white and colored fabrics. Lysol brand disinfectant is available in most areas. Phenolic disinfectants may be added to the wash or rinse water if the rinse water is warm.
  • Liquid chlorine disinfectants (sodium hypochlorite): Also known as chlorine bleach, it may be used in hot, warm or cold water temperatures on white fabrics only. To be effective, there must be a 5.25 percent to 6.15 percent concentration of sodium hypochlorite. Not all chlorine bleach formulas are that strong, so read the labels. Chlorine bleach should always be diluted with water before adding it to the washer, and should never be poured directly on clothing. It is not suitable for use on wool, silk, spandex, or certain dyed and finished fabrics and will cause permanent damage. Be sure to read the care labels on all items to be washed. Examples of liquid chlorine bleaches include Clorox and all supermarket house brands.
  • Quaternary disinfectants: These are extremely effective in all water temperatures but is less readily available than the other products. Lysol and Clorox offer quaternary formulas, as well as other brands. The Amway company manufactures Pursue, which is not recommended for laundry but can be added to the final rinse by following the dilution rate per gallon of water recommended on the label. Many household cleaners contain the effective disinfecting ingredients but are not recommended for laundry purposes because they can damage fabrics.

Note that oxygen-based bleaches (OxiClean, Clorox 2, OXOBrite are brand names) do not provide disinfectant qualities when used in home laundry processes.

How to Use Laundry Disinfectants

Transmission of most viruses and bacteria is from person to person or contact with body fluids and it is believed that transmission from inanimate objects, such as clothing, is extremely rare. Normal laundry procedures using a hot water, a normal disinfectant concentration and followed by machine drying kills any virus in question, even the AIDS virus. 

  1. When someone is ill, opt for white 100 percent cotton sheets. Why? They may be boring but are easy to disinfect with hot water. Sheets that are bright colors and a synthetic blend can not stand up to the rigors of disinfecting chemicals.
  1. One of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to wear rubber gloves when handling soiled laundry. At the very least, keep the sheets away from your face and body.
  2. Always wash the linen as soon as possible to prevent cross-contamination in the hamper with other clothes.
  3. Your washer can harbor germs and bacteria and should be cleaned regularly especially after an illness has run rampant through a household. This is especially important if you mainly use cold water for washing. Protect your family with some simple steps that will leave you with a clean washer.

Cleaning Sick Bed Laundry Stains

  • Medicine stains: Pharmacies and manufacturers add flavors and colors that make taking liquid medicines more appealing but the dyes also leave stains. Learn how to get them out.
  • Ointment and salve stains: These can leave greasy stains on sheets and clothes. It is important to remove these stains as soon as possible to prevent permanent staining—especially on clothes. Always use the edge of a spoon or dull knife to lift away as much of the ointment as possible. Do not rub. That only pushes the greasy mess deeper into fabric fibers. Learn how to get out the stains that get left behind.
  • Vomit, urine, and feces: Keep an extra set or two of sheets in the room of the sick person. That will save middle of the night fumbling as you try to find clean sheets. All of these stains are protein stains and are treated similarly to remove stains and odor. Master one, master all. Learn how to remove vomit stains and odor and how to remove urine stains and odor (including carpet stain removal tips).
  • Blood stains: Blood is also a protein stain and needs to be handled with the correct water temperature to prevent excessive stains. Treat blood stains as quickly as possible and they should be simple to remove by following some easy steps.

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are a different story and clothing can be contaminated with the plant sap. Many times individuals re-expose themselves by wearing contaminated clothing again without laundering or dry cleaning. This is mostly true of outerwear, such as shoes, jackets, hats and gloves that normally do not need cleaning after each use. If you or a family member has been exposed to one of these plant poisons, then follow these tips for removing the sap.