How To Disinfect Laundry For Bacterial and Viral Infections

Sick girl in bed
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While 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 and discard the gloves after use. Laundering is the preferred method of cleaning because of the heat, water and cleaning products used in the laundering process.

Disinfecting your home laundry can be done inexpensively, easily and without damage to the fabric. Microbiologists at U.S.D.A.’s Textile and Clothing laboratory have identified 4 categories of products which are effective, safe for fabrics and are available in local stores. Use the amount of disinfectant listed on the product's label.

Types of Laundry Disinfectants

  • Pine oil disinfectants, which 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 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) may be used in hot, warm or cold water temperatures on white fabrics only. To be effective, there must be a 5.25%–6.15% 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.
  • The last category, quaternary disinfectants, is 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.

NOTE: Oxygen-based bleaches (OxiClean, Clorox 2, Tide Oxi are brand names) do not provide disinfectant qualities when used in home laundry processes.

How to Use Laundry Disinfectants

Enterovirus, Chicken Pox, Measles, Mumps, Hepatitis A and B, Herpes, AIDS, Legionnaire’s Disease and Meningitis are all bacterial or viral infections. They can be transmitted from person to person contact or contact with body fluids. However, transmission of any of these diseases from inanimate objects, such as clothing, is believed to be extremely rare, if not impossible.

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. For your own protection, place the sheets in a laundry basket or hamper to carry them to the washer. If you carry them in your arms near your face, some germs can remain on your clothing or hands and cause problems. If you are highly susceptible to bacterial diseases, wear disposable gloves while handling a sick one's laundry.

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 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.