How to Prevent the Spread of Athlete's Foot in Laundry

A female athlete from behind

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You don't have to be an athlete to have Athlete's Foot, which can cause blisters and itching, stinging, and burning between toes and the on the soles of feet. While the infection is usually not seriously life-threatening, it is extremely uncomfortable. If someone in your home has Athlete's Foot, you should know how to handle laundry to prevent it from spreading to others.

What Is Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's Foot (tinea pedis) is caused by a fungus. Infected humans shed the tinea fungus spores onto hard surfaces like locker room floors and swimming pool decks and quickly multiply. The spores can also shed onto socks, shoes, damp workout clothes, towels, gym bag interiors, and sports uniforms from wrestling singlets to cheer uniforms. Skin that is exposed to excessive moisture and warmth, like feet in shoes, encourages the fungus to grow.

Researchers from the Institute for Hygiene and Biotechnology at the Hohenstein Institute in Boennigheim, Germany, completed a study that shows infected socks and other garments can transmit the fungus to other textiles in an open laundry basket or hamper. If fabrics are not washed in hot water and disinfected, the fungus can even survive in the washer and continue the chance of infection or reinfection. The athlete's foot fungal infection can spread to hands and other parts of the body if left untreated.

A diagram of avoiding athlete's foot
The Spruce / J. R. Bee

How to Prevent the Spread of Athlete's Foot in Laundry

  • Separate infected socks, towels, and other exposed laundry from other items until they can be washed. This can be done with a mesh bag for holding laundry, which can be thrown into the washer to be cleaned with each load. If using a plastic basket or hamper to separate fungus-exposed laundry, wipe it down with a diluted solution of chlorine bleach and water while each load is in the washer.
  • Disinfect gym bags and backpacks regularly. If they cannot be washed in hot water, use disinfectant wipes or a cloth dipped in diluted chlorine bleach and water for a thorough inside cleaning. Allow to air dry completely before using it again.
  • Clean and disinfect shoes after each wearing, if possible. Allow at least 24 hours between wearings to allow shoes to dry completely.
  • Use hot water (140 F or 60 C) and your regular detergent for infected laundry. Lower temperatures will not kill the fungus and can transfer spores to other fabrics in the same load.
  • For white cotton socks, you can use chlorine bleach along with the hot water to disinfect the fabric. 
  • For colored socks and clothes that cannot be washed in hot water and should not be exposed to chlorine bleach, use a non-chlorine method of disinfecting.
  • For wool socks that cannot be washed at a high temperature, disinfect using a non-chlorine disinfectant and cold water wash.
  • Dry athlete's foot fungus-exposed fabrics on the highest suggested temperature in a tumble dryer to ensure further that the fungus is dead.

Following these steps will help in the prevention of athlete's foot to others in the household by killing the fungus. Disinfecting exposed fabrics will also speed up the treatment of athlete's foot and prevent reinfection.

Article Sources
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  1. Hammer, Timo R., et al. Infection Risk by Dermatophytes During Storage and After Domestic Laundry and Their Temperature-Dependent Inactivation. Mycopathologia, vol. 171, no. 1, 2010, pp. 43–49, doi:10.1007/s11046-010-9347-9

  2. Gupta, Aditya K., and Sarah G. Versteeg. The Role of Shoe and Sock Sanitization in the Management of Superficial Fungal Infections of the Feet. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, vol. 109, no. 2, 2019, pp. 141–149., doi:10.7547/17-043