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How to Sanitize
Laundry Without Bleach

March 17, 2021

We often use bleach as a whitener and sanitizer for laundry and for disinfecting surfaces, but it can be harsh on fabrics and users. It can discolor many fabrics, it can harm your skin and eyes, and it’s highly toxic. Even though many clothing labels don’t prohibit the use of bleach, learning how to sanitize laundry without bleach is good for your laundry, family, and the environment. From good old steaming hot water to everyday products found in most households, learning how to disinfect clothes may be easier than you think.

Before we get started, we want to mention that while most of us use sanitize and disinfect interchangeably, there are some differences in their effectiveness.

The Difference Between Sanitizing and Disinfecting

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are all different, but do the differences between disinfectants and sanitizers really matter when you’re learning how to sanitize laundry? In most cases, probably not. But when there is an increased risk for infection from viruses or when someone in your home is sick, you want to sanitize laundry and other items regularly and use disinfectants on commonly touched areas.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sanitizers decrease the number of germs to recommended safety levels, while disinfectants kill germs like viruses and bacteria. While the differences are important, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definitions for these terms shows that the primary difference is in strength. An EPA-approved sanitizer can kill at least 99.9% of germs on hard surfaces and 99.99% on surfaces used for food service. Approved disinfectants kill 99.999% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces.

Why You Should Learn How to Sanitize Laundry

Workout clothes, throws that rarely get washed, pet blankets, face masks, and other items that can harbor germs are perfect candidates for frequent sanitizing. You don’t need to sanitize every time you wash a load, but knowing how to disinfect clothes and other “at risk” laundry can make your home a healthier place. If your household includes family members with asthma and allergies, reducing allergens by sanitizing your laundry can minimize the severity of their symptoms.

While regular machine washing removes plenty of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, it doesn’t remove enough to stop them from spreading. Sanitizing laundry helps stop the spread of germs to the rest of the family, especially when someone in your home is sick.

In an article published by Time, Dr. Kelly Reynolds with the Environmental Health Department at the University of Arizona makes it clear that germs can spread quickly in laundry:

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“One germy item in the washer will spread to 90% of other items. When it comes to molds that cause skin or respiratory infections, or organisms that cause colds, flu and stomach flu, most of them will survive the wash cycle.”

Those are some pretty compelling reasons to learn how to sanitize laundry. And because sanitizing doesn’t require potentially harmful chemicals, here’s how you can skip the bleach and use proven natural sanitizers that get the job done.

How to Disinfect Clothes With Bleach Alternatives

Bacteria thrive at temperatures of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the reason many of us are familiar with the dangers of not storing or cooking food at the correct temperatures. That’s also the reason regular machine washing doesn’t sanitize clothes—the water just isn’t hot enough to kill bacteria. But if you have a washer with a sanitizer cycle, you’re in luck.

Hot Water and Steam

Sanitizing laundry with hot water is about as effective and natural as you can get, but it may not be the best option for fabrics that don’t mix well with high heat. A typical sanitizing temperature on washing machines comes in at about 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s more than enough heat to kill viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Manufacturers like LG Electronics say their sanitize settings are designed to remove 99.9 percent of bacteria as it sanitizes your laundry.

How long you sanitize with hot water makes a difference. When you use the longest wash cycle possible and the sanitizer setting, you’ll get the best bang for your buck as far as killing germs goes. Do you have clothing that isn’t machine washable? If you have a dryer with a steam or sanitize selection, you can usually sanitize delicate and dry clean-only clothing.

To sanitize individual clothing, home steamers that provide steam above 212 degrees Fahrenheit can get the job done quickly and conveniently. While steam between 175 and 212 degrees will kill many viruses and bacteria, higher temperatures offer more powerful disinfecting and can kill nearly all germs. Steamers not only sanitize clothes; we can also use them all over the house to sanitize in bathrooms, bedrooms, and kitchens.

No sanitizing settings or steamers? No worries. There are plenty of safe, effective alternatives for sanitizing laundry without using bleach.

Distilled White Vinegar

From cleaning to deodorizing, white vinegar is a safe, natural product that has many practical uses around the house—and it’s a powerful laundry disinfectant, too. Add one cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle when you want to sanitize a load of laundry. The white vinegar kills bacteria, deodorizes your laundry, softens fabrics, and even helps maintain bright colors. Who knew vinegar might be the ultimate eco-friendly clothes detergent? To make sure there are no lingering odors, use a second rinse cycle.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Despite its technical-sounding name, hydrogen peroxide is one of the most eco-friendly compounds you can use. That’s because it’s a naturally occurring element formed by sunlight acting on water, making it perfectly safe for many uses—including sanitizing laundry. Just keep in mind that hydrogen peroxide can have a bleaching effect on some fabrics, so don’t overdo it. To sanitize laundry, add one cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide to a regular wash cycle. And just like white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide has other benefits for your laundry, like whitening, brightening, and disinfecting.

UV Radiation

That’s sunlight to you and me, but UV radiation sounds more scientific. Sunlight is a natural laundry disinfectant, so line drying your laundry in the sun can provide an extra sanitizing booster. Know that sunlight is also a natural whitener, so don’t leave your clothes out in full sun for longer than a couple of hours. To sanitize clothes using sunlight, hang your dry clothing facing the sun for 30 minutes and then flip the garment to the other side. Sunlight does a surprisingly good job at killing plenty of surface bacteria, making it a great natural choice to sanitize your laundry.

Pine Oil

Pine oil is an effective cleaner and natural laundry disinfectant when it’s used in the right concentrations. To sanitize laundry using pine oil, you’ll need a true pine oil product, not a pine-scented or low concentration formula. While pine oil is safe for most fabrics in your washer, a general rule of thumb is not to use pine oil on clothing like wool or silk. Add one cup of pine oil directly to your washer once it’s full. Since the odor of pine can be strong, expect to use a second rinse cycle to remove the oil residue and smell.

Essential Oils

Organic essential oils are natural pathogen killers and safe to use for sanitizing laundry. In undiluted forms, essential oils are effective antibacterials, antifungals, antiseptics, and they can smell pretty good too. Be sure to always use 100 percent natural essential oils for sanitizing, and know that at such high concentrations, these oils can be toxic to pets and aggravate skin.

Not all essential oils have the same sanitizing properties, so choose either tea tree oil, lavender oil, or thyme oil. Tea tree oil is a strong disinfectant, so adding only two teaspoons to a wash load will sanitize your laundry. Lavender oil isn’t as strong as tea tree oil, but it still has plenty of antibacterial power and many people find the aroma less offensive. Shake about 10 drops of lavender oil into a full washer and you’ll end up with fewer bacteria and a pleasant, fresh smell.

So now you know how to sanitize laundry using bleach alternatives that are just as effective but easier on you, your clothes, and the environment. Because The Maids is the only residential cleaning service to clean for health specifically, we want everyone to be aware of safer, more natural cleaning solutions. Find out more about cleaning for health and get your free estimate to see how affordable a healthier home can be.

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