How to Disinfect Laundry for Bacterial and Viral Infections

basket of laundry on a mattress

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

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, scientists have done the research and provided the necessary information for how to kill bacterial and viral infections in your home laundry.

Warning

Research shows that it is rare to become infected from handling biologically infected garments, even medical scrubs. However, until these clothes and bed linens are washed or dry cleaned, experts encourage the wearing of disposable rubber gloves when handling soiled laundry. 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 used linens away from your face.

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. Examples of liquid chlorine bleaches include Clorox and all supermarket house brands.

Tip

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.

  • 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 effective disinfecting ingredients but are not recommended for laundry purposes because they can damage fabrics.

Note: 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

It is believed that disease transmission from inanimate objects, such as clothing, is extremely rare. Normal laundry procedures should be using hot water (100°F or above with 140°F being optimal), a disinfectant product following product directions, and finally, a high heat machine drying cycle. These steps kill any virus in question.

  • 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 cannot stand up to the rigors of disinfecting chemicals.
  • 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.
  • Always wash the linen as soon as possible to prevent cross-contamination in the hamper with other clothes.

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. 
  • 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 grease deeper into fabric fibers. 
  • 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.
  • 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.
Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Background G. Laundry and Bedding. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  2. Disinfectants. United States Department of Agriculture

  3. Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Pine Oil. Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Disinfecting With Bleach. Arizona State University