Could Your Laundry Be Making You Sick?

Did you know that contaminated laundry can make you sick? Learn how to protect yourself and your family from mold or other pathogens in your laundry.
Fuzzy towels hang out the door of a front-loading washing machine

When people think about their house making them sick, they often picture moldy air filters or leaky toilets. However, it turns out that even tried and true appliances may be harboring pathogens. Research suggests that many household laundry machines contain mold, viruses, and bacteria. Unfortunately, this contaminated laundry can make you sick. But there are ways to avoid the dangers of dirty laundry. We'll explain how laundry can make you sick and give tips for staying safe.

Can Washing Machines Spread Diseases?

Do washing machines actually spread illness? Like most healthcare questions, the answer isn't quite cut and dry. It tends to depend on factors like washing machine cycles and types of disease. Here are all the details about whether or not a washer can make you sick.

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Study Finds That Germs Can Survive Standard Wash Cycles

The first and most important thing to know is that a standard household washing machine doesn't automatically sanitize things. A 2022 study from the University of Arizona discovered that many problematic germs can survive the washing machine. After a normal wash cycle, laundry was found to still contain dangerous microbes like salmonella and COVID.

Why do germs stick around even after a thorough wash? There are two different mechanisms that let germs survive. Many modern washing machines are designed to work with cold water. Though this saves energy and increases the lifespan of your clothes, it's also gentle on germs. The researchers found that the average washing machine water is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, many pathogens can survive unless temperatures reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The other major way that germs survive is simply by using the wrong wash cycle or detergent. Any dust, skin cells, mucus particles, or other tiny bits of debris can be a feeding ground for microbes. Gentler laundry methods often allow some of these particles to stick around. Unless your washing machine does an excellent job, these bacteria and virus clusters can cling to clothes.

Contaminated Laundry Spreads Diseases More Often Than You Think

So, if your washing machine isn't killing germs, what is it doing? In situations where germs aren't actually eliminated, the washing machine is basically just shaking them up and spreading them around. Germs that were originally on the hem of one person's jeans might end up on someone else's shirt collar. This leads to surprisingly high rates of infection.

There are many different ways that contaminated laundry can harm your health. If you wash a batch of clothes that a sick person wore, germs may end up on a healthy person's garments. Therefore, a single garment from a sick person can end up infecting the rest of the household. There is a particularly high risk for the person actually doing the laundry. The University of Arizona study found that test subjects would put clothes in the dryer without washing their hands. They would then end up with germs on their hands which they could accidentally ingest.

Another potential danger is that one round of laundry can infect your next round of laundry. Germs can linger in the washing machine and end up on someone else's clothing. This makes it even harder to stay safe, especially in situations where you don't know who used a machine last. For example, researchers have linked certain respiratory outbreaks to laundromats.

Certain Types of Dangerous Diseases Are More Likely to Spread

Keep in mind that not all diseases are the same. Some can survive longer without water while others survive high temperatures more easily. The answer to "Can you get COVID from clothes?" will be different from the answer to "Can you get salmonella?" Unfortunately, the diseases that spread most easily tend to also be the most dangerous.

The 2021 University of Arizona reported that the following pathogens were all found in contaminated laundry.

  • Salmonella

  • MRSA

  • Staph bacteria

  • Hepatitis A

  • Hepatitis B

  • Smallpox

  • Rotavirus

  • Influenza

  • Papillomavirus

  • Coronavirus

  • Rhinovirus

All of these various pathogens have different rates of spreading. The lowest level of danger comes from respiratory illnesses like COVID or the flu. These viruses usually cannot survive for more than a couple of days at room temperature, and high heat kills them quickly. Infectious bacteria, like salmonella and MRSA, are more concerning. These bacteria can live for weeks on clothes, and warm water and soap won't kill them all off.

The final, most dangerous category is enteric viruses, which affect the gastrointestinal system. Not only do they survive for weeks and don't die in a normal wash, but they also have a very low infectious threshold. Just coming into contact with a few tiny particles can be enough to cause long bouts of intestinal illness.

How to Tell If You Are at Risk for Catching Illnesses From Laundry

Whether or not your laundry will make you sick tends to depend on your circumstances. Normal washing habits are usually fine if your household is healthy and hasn't been with anyone sick. However, ensuring that your clothes haven't been around anyone sick is hard to guarantee. Risks are even higher if you're sharing a washing machine with people whose lifestyles you aren't aware of. Therefore, it's helpful to understand the types of situations where you need to exercise particular care with your laundry.

Infectious bacteria, like salmonella and MRSA, can live for weeks on clothes, as warm water and soap won't kill them all off.

Of course, the most obvious time to be careful is when one member of the household is sick. Whether they have a common cold or a severe illness, you need to handle their laundry with care. Keep in mind that gastrointestinal diseases are most likely to spread, and clothes can be contagious weeks later. You should also wash clothes more thoroughly if you were in a public space where disease spread was likely. Any time you get someone else's blood, saliva, vomit, or waste on clothes, wash them thoroughly.

Some households need to be careful even when no one is sick or spending time with sick people. People who work in healthcare facilities or as first responders always need to be cautious with work clothes. Those who are immunocompromised also need to be careful. If your house has young children, elderly people, or those with chronic illnesses, it's important to thoroughly clean all laundry.

Many Illnesses Are Also Linked to Moldy Machines

A gloved hand inspects a washer's rubber gasket

Even if your clothes aren't carrying any bacteria or viruses, your washing machine can spread illnesses. How does this happen? It turns out that the culprit is mold. Mold grows in damp environments, so it often flourishes in washing machines. The mold in the machine then gets all over your clean clothes, contaminating them with spores. Are you at risk for a moldy machine? Here's what you need to know.

Research Indicates Front-Loaders Frequently Have Mold Problems

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Technically, any sort of washing machine can develop mold. However, the recent increase in moldy washing machines is linked to a specific type of machine. Research from Consumer Reports indicates that front-load washing machines are over five times as likely to develop mold as top-loading washing machines. This happens because front-loaders require a special rubber seal to keep water in the tank. Unfortunately, after the load is over, the seal continues to trap moisture, allowing mold to grow.

It's worth pointing out that you're more likely to experience mold in washing machines if you have older models. Front-loaders produced in the early 2000s were far more likely to develop mold. Since then, manufacturers have taken a lot of steps to prevent mold. However, even advancements like adding air holes and changing the gasket shape haven't stopped mold. If you have a front loader, there's a pretty big chance you'll experience mold at some point.

How to Tell If Your Washing Machine Has Mold

A moldy washing machine can be surprisingly hard to spot. Mold tends to start growing in small cracks and crevices you can't easily see. Instead, the first sign of mold is typically the smell. The exact smell will vary depending on what mold species you have. Most people describe the smell as sharp, sour, musty, or earthy. The smell will be present when you open the washing machine, but even worse, it will be on your clothes. No matter how well you wash and dry your clothes, they'll still smell dirty.

Experts recommend keeping your washer's door cracked open between loads to increase airflow and inhibit mold growth.

There are also visual signs of mold. Mold is typically black, green, brown, or gray. It often looks powdery or slimy. Typically, the mold will be inside the creases of the rubber seal on your washing machine door. In severe outbreaks, the mold may also start to grow between the drum and the outer shell of the machine. Spotting mold in these hard-to-reach locations can be tricky. However, you should also check your clothing. In many cases, mold leaves little black spots or discolorations on your clothes.

Large Mold Outbreaks Can Cause Health Problems

Mold does more than just make your clothes stinky and dirty-looking. The main problem with mold in the washing machine is that it harms your health. Each time you run a load of laundry, the mold gets spread around your home. This constant mold exposure can cause a variety of health problems. In smaller doses, it can just be physically irritating. People can feel congested, experience blurry eyes, have a sore throat, or get itchy eyes.

In higher doses, mold can cause chronic health problems. You may experience repeated migraines and find yourself getting sick more frequently. Many people end up with respiratory issues like sneezing, coughing, and trouble breathing. The effects are particularly strong in young children, elderly people, and immunocompromised people. Research shows that children exposed to mold in the first year of their life have a higher risk of asthma. Mold exposure can also trigger bouts of pneumonia that can cause major breathing problems.

Can Cleaning Your Washing Machine Reduce Risks of Illness?

So, what can you do about all the dangers associated with contaminated laundry? There are a few different strategies available. You should always start by properly maintaining your machine and keeping it as clean as possible. Experts recommend keeping your washing machine door cracked open between loads. This increases airflow and inhibits mold growth.

You can also deep clean your washing machine to remove mold and other potential pathogens. A monthly cleaning can remove mold and other debris. If your washing machine was recently used for contaminated laundry, you might also want to deep-clean it after using it. All you need to do is follow these steps.

  1. Empty the washing machine and remove all clothes.

  1. Set a normal wash cycle with the water set to the hottest setting.

  1. Pour a cup of bleach directly into the washer drum and start the washer.

  1. While the cycle runs, make a cleaning solution of one part bleach and eight parts water.

  1. After the cycle ends, use a microfiber rag dipped in the solution to clean the rubber gasket.

  1. If desired, use a fine-bristled toothbrush to thoroughly scrub all crevices in the gasket.

Keep in mind that some older washing machines were made with a faulty gasket that almost always has mold. If you find that a monthly cleaning isn't enough to keep mold at bay, it may indicate that you need a replacement seal. Talk to your appliance servicing company to see if you have other alternatives.

How to Keep Dirty Clothes From Spreading Disease

Keep in mind that the machine itself isn't the only source of contamination. There can also be pathogens in your laundry. Keeping laundry from spreading disease to other people in the household can be a little trickier. You'll need to put some extra effort into doing laundry.

Ways to Thoroughly Sanitize Your Clothes

If you are washing clothes that may contain microbes, you need to exercise caution. Not all types of contaminated laundry will require the same treatment. However, you may want to try one or more of the following strategies.

  • Use higher-quality laundry detergents that contain enzyme cleaners and multiple surfactants.

  • Wash with hot or extra hot water.

  • Run your washing machine on a special sanitizing cycle.

  • Wear disposable gloves when handling contaminated laundry.

  • Disinfect hampers and other surfaces that dirty laundry touches.

  • Avoid washing dirty laundry for a sick person with the rest of the household's laundry.

  • Dry on the highest possible heat setting.

  • Wash hands both before and after handling laundry.

  • Add registered sanitizing laundry detergents to the washing machine.

  • Avoid shaking dirty laundry.

  • Wash clothing from sick family members in separate batches.

Adjust Your Cleaning Habits Based on Your Situation

Keep in mind that the same exact laundry methods aren't always necessary. For example, if everyone's healthy, using boiling hot water and super-strong detergent just wastes resources and wears out your clothes. However, if a stomach bug is running around, that type of care is important.

Therefore, you'll need to adjust your machine settings and equipment depending on the situation. Don't worry, this doesn't have to be some big, complex production. You just need to slightly adjust your habits if someone in the household is sick or near sick people. Here are some expert tips on how to properly clean laundry in a variety of circumstances.

An infographic of recommended strategies for home laundering

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it pays to think a little about your laundry process. Even when your clothes seem clean, they can harbor potentially problematic microbes. This can lead to respiratory issues or cause family members to pass an illness around the house. However, being aware of these risks doesn't mean you need to panic and quit using your washing machine altogether.

Though laundry can spread some types of disease and illness, these risks are very easy to manage. With a few simple laundry techniques, you can fight germs. Things like cleaning your machine regularly and using hot water whenever someone is sick make a big difference. By following these helpful strategies, you can ensure that your clothes are as clean as they look.

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