How to Disinfect Laundry With or Without Bleach

basket of laundry on a mattress

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 10 - 15 mins
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $5-10

Whether someone in your family works in the medical field, has been ill, or your pet has had an accident on your bedsheets, there are plenty of reasons to disinfect your laundry. There are distinct differences in cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting laundry. These definitions are set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to define the level of microbial contamination left on a surface after treatment. Just the simple act of washing clothes helps to sanitize fabrics by diluting the number of bacteria on the fabric and flushing it down the drain. Adding a disinfecting product boosts the process to help remove odor-causing bacteria.

But when you want to be sure laundry is as germ-free as possible, there is a disinfectant that is suitable for every washable fabric.

Before You Begin

It is essential to use the correct type of disinfectant for different fabrics and to follow product label directions carefully to prevent damage to your laundry.

  • Pine oil disinfectants: Effective in hot and warm water when added at the beginning of a wash cycle, pine oil can be used on both white and colored fabrics. Due to the extreme toxicity of pine oil for pets, this product is not suitable for cleaning pet bedding. You should not use any other laundry additives (oxygen bleach, for instance) in combination with these measures. Read labels carefully, the brand must contain 80 percent pine oil.
  • Phenolic disinfectants: Most products sold to consumers as laundry sanitizers contain phenolic disinfectants. These products are used at any water temperature and can be added in the wash or rinse cycles. They are safe for any washable colored or white fabric.
  • Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite): Chlorine bleach works in hot, warm, or cold water temperatures on white natural-fiber fabrics. It is not suitable for use on wool, silk, spandex, or certain dyed and finished fabrics because it will cause permanent damage. According to the CDC, there must be a 5.25 percent to 6.15 percent concentration of sodium hypochlorite to be effective.
  • Quaternary disinfectants: Extremely effective in all water temperatures, quaternary products are difficult to find except at commercial laundry supply outlets.

How Often to Disinfect Laundry

Unless someone in your home is immune-compromised, has been ill, or the fabric is soiled with human or animal fluids, most laundry does not need to be disinfected each time it is washed.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washing machine, laundry sink, bathtub, or large plastic tub
  • Clothes dryer, clothesline, or clothes drying rack

Materials

  • Pine oil
  • Phenolic-based laundry sanitizer
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Laundry detergent

Instructions

Materials and tools to disinfect laundry

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

How to Disinfect Laundry With Pine Oil

  1. Read Product Labels

    Be sure that the pine oil disinfectant brand you have selected contains at least 80 percent pine oil. Most product labels also include instructions on the amount to use per load of laundry—usually two to four ounces.

    Label from pine oil bottle being read before washing

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  2. Sort Laundry and Select Washer Settings

    Follow the usual laundry steps by sorting the hamper by color and type of fabric. Follow the care label recommendations for selecting washer cycles, load size, and water temperatures.

    Laundry separated into separate laundry piles by color

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  3. Add the Pine Oil and Laundry Detergent

    Add the pine oil directly to the washer drum. Add your usual laundry detergent to the drum or the detergent dispenser.

    Pine oil poured into empty washing machine drum

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  4. Load the Washer

    Load the dirty laundry and wash as usual.

    Tan and green laundry placed in washing machine

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  5. Dry the Laundry

    Dry the laundry in an automatic dryer, on an outdoor clothesline or indoor drying rack.

    Wet laundry placed in drying machine

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

How to Disinfect Laundry With Phenolic Disinfectants

  1. Read Labels

    Refer to the product label for directions on the amount and how to use the brand you've chosen. Some are added to the wash cycle with detergent while others are added to the rinse cycle. The product can also be used as a presoak for at least 15 minutes to kill bacteria.

    Product label being read from back of phenolic disinfectants

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  2. Sort and Wash Laundry

    Sort your dirty laundry and follow your usual steps for doing laundry. Add the phenolic disinfectant (around two ounces—follow label directions) to the washer drum or into the fabric softener dispenser (do not mix with fabric softener) if it should be added to the rinse cycle. Wash soiled laundry as usual.

    Phenolic disinfectant poured into fabric softener container of washing machine
  3. Dry the Laundry

    Follow your usual routine to dry laundry.

    Blue and white striped shirt hung outside on clothesline

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

How to Disinfect Laundry With Chlorine Bleach

  1. Separate White and Colored Fabrics and Read Labels

    Chlorine bleach is only safe to use on washable white and colorfast colored fabrics. Read care labels carefully to be sure that chlorine bleach can be safely used when washing the fabric.

    Tip

    While some manufacturers tout the disinfectant qualities of their oxygen-based bleaches or color-safe bleaches, they do not provide the same efficacy as chlorine-based bleaches and are not made to act as disinfectants or tested as such.

    Care labels being ready next to washing machine

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  2. Add the Chlorine Bleach Properly

    Never pour full-strength chlorine bleach directly onto fabrics.

    • To use the washer's bleach dispenser, add 3/4 cup bleach or fill to the max fill line.
    • Before adding clothes to the washer, begin filling the washer drum with water and add 3/4 cup bleach along with your regular laundry detergent.
    • If clothes have already been placed in the washer, fill the washer with water. Dilute the bleach by adding 4 teaspoons into one quart of water and add it to the washer at least five minutes after the cycle has begun. This ensures that all of the fabric is thoroughly wet to help prevent spotting.
    Chlorine bleach poured into washing machine's bleach dispenser

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  3. Wash and Dry the Laundry

    Wash and dry the laundry as usual.

    Orange and brown laundry placed in drying machine

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

Tips for Disinfecting Laundry

  • Always wash laundry (especially if someone is ill) as soon as possible to prevent cross-contamination in the hamper with other clothes.
  • Clean your washer frequently to kill bacteria and mold that may linger inside.
  • Use a plastic laundry hamper that can be wiped down with disinfectant to carry dirty laundry or a cloth bag that can be easily washed.
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. Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  2. Dosoky NS, Setzer WN. Maternal Reproductive Toxicity of Some Essential Oils and Their Constituents. Int J Mol Sci., vol. 22, no. 5, pp. 2380. doi: 10.3390/ijms22052380

  3. Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Home. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  4. Using Bleach in Laundry. The American Cleaning Institute.