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Washing Laundry in Cold Water: Is It Safe?  Smart Choices Archive

Washing Laundry in Cold Water: Is It Safe?

There are ways to maximize killing germs while washing in cold water.

Safety

By Kathy Roth Eastman, Smart Choices editor

For many years, I have washed all of my laundry in cold water as an energy-saving measure. All the while, I believed that detergent would kill any germs that cold water didn’t rinse away. And while no one in my family has gotten sick from germs relating to laundry (at least, I don’t think so), several articles I’ve read recently have caused me to rethink my cavalier attitude toward my all-cold laundry procedures.

The first article I read mentioned that dust mites survive low temperatures, and to rid bedding of these pesky critters, laundry should reach 130-140 degrees F. So, I started washing linens in a hot water wash (my washing machine does not offer an option for a hot or even warm rinse). A more recent article was even more startling, indicating that underwear carries high levels of germs not killed by cold water washes. In addition, Philip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine and author of the book, “The Secret Life of Germs,” is quoted in an article as saying that bacteria such as staphylococcus can be found on clothing and towels. He says that it takes water temperatures between 140 and 150 degrees F to kill these bacteria.

The water temperature requirements raises yet another issue: Even if I do wash some loads of laundry in hot water, my water heater is set at approximately 120 degrees, to save energy and to avoid accidental burns by hot water coming from the faucet. To me, 150 degree water coming out of my faucets can be dangerous. I don’t want to routinely use water that hot.

So, how do we balance the need for germ killing with saving energy?

Here are possible ways to sanitize laundry while maintaining a sensible water temperature coming through your pipes. While I’m not sure that all are sound, and some items may be difficult to purchase in stores, they are worth considering as options or looking for more information.

1. Chlorine bleach is the obvious germ-killer mentioned by many sources. However, bleach is not recommended for colored clothing and if too concentrated may not be good for the environment. One way to use bleach is to sanitize your washing machine periodically. Simply run a load with no laundry in it, then allow the rinse cycle to wash away the traces of the bleach.
2. Color-safe or oxygen bleach. While not as powerful as chlorine bleach, it does have some germ-killing properties. It is also more environmentally safe, because it breaks down to harmless soda ash in your washing machine. It also will brighten colored clothing, however, stain removal properties are not as good as chlorine bleach. A University of Illinois document on reducing staph infections says that color-safe bleach reduces the number of bacteria but doesn’t totally eliminate them. In addition, it says that oxygenated bleach is not approved for disinfecting and sanitizing by the Environmental Protection Agency.
3. Other interesting additives are mentioned by experts, including the Utah Extension service. Those include quaternary, pine oil, or phenolic disinfectants, noting that pine oil products must contain at least 80 percent pine oil to kill germs. This article suggests that these additives are important when a family member is ill, and sanitizing is important anytime you are using public laundry facilities. Products mentioned in the article and where to find them include: quats (CO-OP Sanitizer is available in certain supermarkets; Roccal is available from janitor, dairy, and poultry supply houses); pine oil disinfectants include Fyne Pyne, Fyne Tex, White Cap, and King Pine; phenolic disinfectants include Al Pine and Pine-Sol.
4. Other additives suggested through a variety of sources include: borax, vinegar, tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract (several sources indicate that hospitals are using this additive in their laundry facilities)
5. Drying methods can also kill bacteria. A hot dryer will reduce the number of bacteria, as will that old-fashioned method of drying on a clothesline in the hot sun (one study suggests that a dryer set on the hottest setting is more effective than line-drying).
6. Relying on rinsing to rid your laundry of “bad stuff” is another option. A study in Seoul looked at methods of removing allergens: dust mites, dog dander, and pollen and determined that hot water at 140 degrees removed the allergens, but so did adding an extra cold rinse cycle, for a total of at least two 10-minute-each rinse cycles. The researcher, Jung-Won Park, MD, PhD., also recommends that wash cycles be at least 30 minutes for cold-water washes and 40-50 minutes for hot water washes.
5. When replacing your washing machine, look for one that has a sanitizing cycle. National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certification assures that at least 99.9 percent of organisms are removed, and there is no carryover of organisms to later loads of laundry.

Other laundry precautions
While researching these options, I also ran across a few other interesting laundry tips. They come from healthierprograms.com:

  • Don’t let your clean laundry sit in the washing machine more than 30 minutes before removing it. If it sits for as long as an hour, you should rewash it. That’s because your washing machine contains bacteria, which will begin to reproduce in your wet laundry.
  • Let your machine air out between loads. Mold grows in wet environments; to avoid this, keep your machine door open. Using HE detergent also helps; it leaves fewer suds—and thus less moisture—behind after you remove clothing.
  • Ventilate your laundry room to prevent mold growth. That’s because doing laundry is a very moist operation; moisture allows mold to grow.
  • Cut back on scented laundry detergents and dryer sheets to prevent breathing problems and irritated skin. Instead of dryer sheets, substitute PVC-free plastic dryer balls—they help more air pass between clothes to cut down on static cling. As a softener, add 1/2 cup of baking soda to the rinse cycle of your wash. 
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