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A Guide to Eco-Friendly Ways to Disinfect Your Clothing

Do you know what your dirtiest piece of clothing is? While it (unsurprisingly) is your underwear, what’s your go-to habit to tell if a piece of clothing is dirty or clean? Like many, you might try “the sniff test” to decide if something is dirty by its odor, but your nose can’t detect the scent of germs. Or you might be an “over-cautious” washer and throw a piece of clothing in the hamper the second it hits the floor. 

Either way, we all want our households and clothing to be clean and safe, however, there’s a huge opportunity to lower our environmental footprint by the way we wash and disinfect our clothing. 

As if keeping our clothing clean isn’t enough to be concerned about, 39% of a garment’s environmental impact comes from our care. Between 75 and 80% of our clothing's life cycle impact comes from washing and drying, because it takes so much energy to heat the water and run the dry cycle. While we’re not saying to give up on your laundry routine completely, there are easy ways to reduce your family's impact.

Before jumping into these strategies, let’s first look at the importance of creating good clean habits. 

Why We Should Disinfect...Everything

These days, it seems there are never enough ways you can keep your family and loved ones safe and healthy—and for good reasons too! The amount of bacteria that can stay on your hands, clothes, or even cleaning appliances is astonishing. So let’s dig in, shall we? 

Viruses and fungi may die within a few days but other germs like E. coli and salmonella, which can cause diarrhea (oh boy), may survive a few weeks. Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections on the skin, may survive a month plus if clothes are moist (think swimsuits or workout clothing) those germs can breed as dirty clothes pile up. 

But where are all these germs residing you might ask? You’d be surprised to know that many of the dirtiest areas in your laundry room are the places your clothes frequent the most. 

Hampers & Baskets 

Hampers while helpful for laundry storage can build bacteria as dirty clothes wait to be washed. Dead skin cells, grime from your sweaty workout clothes, and whatever else gets on you throughout the day, are all lurking in that laundry hamper. In an experiment to test the number of bacteria in laundry hampers, Amy Hurst, a professor at Rose State College used diagnostic plates to show specific bacterial cultures from swabs taken from dirty laundry hampers. After testing two hampers (one inside the laundry room and another in a room with less moisture) Hurst reported that both hampers were covered in E. coli. 

Not to mention we use laundry baskets to carry clean clothes from our washers causing them to come back into contact with these germs. Obviously, you should be wiping your laundry baskets and hampers down when you see that they’re dirty; however, germs and bacteria can’t be seen with the naked eye. 

Tip: Clean and disinfect clothes hampers and baskets often. If possible, consider placing a bag liner in your hamper that can be laundered.  

Towels & Cleaning Rags

Another area where germs and bacterias hide is on your towels and cleaning rags. Since towels are so thick, they stay damp longer and can contain far more bacteria than clothing. Ask yourself, how often do you wash that old beach towel in the back of your car, or the wet towels your kids leave on the floor? These types of fabric can hold much more bacteria than normal clothing and can allow germs to survive and spread. Don't believe us? Hear it from the experts. 

“When you say you wash off bacteria, you’re partially correct—you wash off some bacteria,” says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor of pathology and microbiology at NYU School of Medicine. But other bacterias linger and they get on your towel during your post-shower dry-off. Once those bacteria are on there, they’ll start to multiply. 

While we’re on that train, think about how often you use kitchen or bathroom rags to wipe up messes. Do you wash them off and use them again for another task? Dish towels that come in contact with raw meat can have salmonella and E. coli. Bath towels can pick up E. coli and other fecal bacteria and reusing these towels is only spreading the bacteria throughout your home. A study led by Dr. Chuck Gerba Ph.D., a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, found that used hand towels have 1,000 times more coliform bacteria than newly bought ones.  On that note, the research also found that 90% of bathroom towels carried coliform bacteria, and 14% were even harboring E. coli (gross)!

Tip: Separate rags and towels from other clothing and wash them after two to three uses. 

Washer Machines 

Lastly, you might not consider the bacteria that comes from washing your clothes. Germs from your clothes may stay in your washing machine and spread to your next load of laundry. Also, because washing machines are inherently warm and damp, they provide an environment conducive to bacteria growth. If water pools in your machine between loads, germs may breed there, too. According to research done by the University of Arizona’s professor of environmental biology, Chuck Gerba, Ph.D., 44% of home washing machines tested positive for the presence of fecal bacteria. Bacteria that we’re talking about include E. coli, salmonella, and Klebsiella oxytoca all known to cause pneumonia, skin infections, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Tip: To give your washer some TLC, create a mixture using 1/4 cup of baking soda, 1/4 cup of water, and 2 cups of white vinegar. Then, pour your mixture into the detergent receptacle of your machine and run through a regular cycle. Avoid using bleach and other harsh chemicals that would leach into our waterways. 

Tips to Prevent Laundry Day Becoming Germ Day

So whether your laundry day also becomes cleaning day we’re here to arm you with additional tips to keep your family safe and home clean! 

  1. Wear reusable rubber gloves: Make sure you’re washing your hands after dealing with dirty laundry or wearing reusable rubber gloves during.
  2. Don’t shake dirty laundry: This will minimize the possibility of dispersing germs throughout the air. Tiny droplets containing germs can travel as far as 6 feet and can spread by landing on surfaces or in another person's eyes, nose, or mouth.
  3. Separate clothing: Separate germy clothing like towels and underwear from other laundry. Little ones are known for being germ monsters, so make sure to separate their clothing as well.
  4. Limit Bacterial Soup: Separate very dirty garments like underwear and towels from other “cleaner” clothing and from each other to limit cross-contamination. For example, combining a load of dishtowels containing trace amounts of salmonella from raw meat with underwear containing trace amounts of fecal and genital bacterial will allow for what hygiene expert Dr. Lisa Ackerley, calls “bacterial soup.” When these different germs cross contaminate they can increase your family’s chances of getting yeast infections, Pinkeye and other unpleasant bacterial infections.

    Best Practices for “Greening” Your Laundry 

    By avoiding brands and using natural products you can ensure you are properly disinfecting your home and keeping your family safe. The good news is that a lot of these practices are easy and many natural products can be found right in your home! Let’s explore them below. 

    Before You Wash 

    The easiest way to limit your environmental footprint is to lower the amount of water and energy used to clean your clothes. Before you even begin cleaning, distinguish what laundry is actually dirty and needs to be washed. How many washes deem a dirty piece of clothing? Here’s a quick rundown from the Cleaning Institute to set you straight. 

    1. Bed sheets should be washed at least every two weeks, more often if you sweat a lot at night.

    2. Pajamas should be washed after three or four wears.
    3. Bath towels should be hung to dry between uses and washed after three to five normal uses. Towels need to be allowed to dry before they are used again. 
    4. Underwear, socks, T-shirts, tank tops and camisoles should be washed after each wearing.
    5. Bras can be worn two to three times before washing. 
    6. Outer clothes like dress shirts and khakis can be worn three to five times before washing.
    7. Jeans can typically be worn three times before washing.
    8. Leggings and tights should be washed after every wear.
    9. Suits typically can be worn several times before dry cleaning.
    10. Bathing suits should be washed after every wear.

        As You Wash 

        You can still disinfect your clothes while washing with cold water. Talk about saving energy! And although experts recommend to avoid using your washing machine, there are other ways to be eco-conscious and do your laundry in a timely fashion. Whichever way you wash, eco-experts recommend using wash bags to catch microplastics from unnatural fibers getting in and down the drain. Examples of clothing with these plastic fibers are nylon, acrylic and polyester where natural fibrous clothing includes hemp, wool and cotton. If you’re choosing to use a washer machine ensure you are washing heavy loads. Now, let’s talk detergent. 

        When it comes to laundry soap, here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for products. 

        1. Opt for vegetable-based detergents instead of standard petroleum products
        2. Perfumes are a no, no (except for essential oils)
        3. Mix concentrated detergent with water to prolong its use. 

        After You Wash 

        Here are a few best practices for after you wash. While choosing not to use a dryer is best, we’ve provided eco-friendly tips for both air and machine drying. 

        1. Repurpose “green” water (meaning not filled with chemicals) by watering plants, washing your car or doing other household chores. 
        2. Let clothes line dry. Ultraviolet rays from sunlight should kill any germs still on your clothing. If you have allergies try to dry your clothes where the wind won’t blow pollen on them. Air drying clothing also keeps its quality nice too!  
        3. If you do use your dryer be sure to keep your lint screen clean so air can flow and dry your clothes faster.
        4. Use the moisture-sensing setting if your dryer has one rather than timed drying.
        5. Try dryer balls to reduce dry time and soften clothes.

        Eco Ways To Disinfect Clothing 

        Now that we’ve covered best practices for disinfecting and “greening” your laundry habits, let’s go into tips for cleaning specific types of clothing. 

        Underwear & Whites 

        Underwear is the dirtiest garment in your hamper so we’ve pulled the strongest natural cleaners to ensure your family is staying safe. Let’s cover those below. 

        White vinegar and baking soda are natural cleaners and deodorizers. White vinegar is key to removing yellow underarm sweat stains and odor, removing mildew stains and whitening and brightening your clothes. Creating a mixture using ½ cup of baking soda with ¼ cup of white vinegar will aid in boosting detergent performance, whitening fabrics and reducing suds for quicker loads in washers. Here are a few additional benefits to using baking soda and white vinegar for your whites and undergarments

        1. They’re hypoallergenic: No more dry and itchy skin from harsh detergent chemicals.  
        2. They're earth-friendly: You can re-use this water on your lawn or in your garden and rest easy that animals and plants will be safe. 
        3. They’re safe for your washing machine: Using these products to clean your washing machine will reduce lint and soap buildup.
        4. They act as a neutralizer: Baking soda works as a neutralizer for any acid spills and can prevent damage to your washing machine.
        5. They naturally soften and whiten: Both baking soda and white vinegar act as natural softeners and whitening/brightening agents. 

          Real lemon or lime juice has a natural bleaching action on fabrics due to acetic acid. Adding ¼ cup of lemon juice (fresh or bottled) to white fabrics can help remove yellow underarm or rust stains.

          Another great alternative to the much harsher chlorine bleach when you need to whiten clothes is Hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is a compound made up of water and oxygen that naturally occurs in plants and animal cells. Like baking soda and white vinegar, it works well in removing coloration and dye from stains. Use 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide to brighten and clean a load of laundry. 

          Kids Clothing 

          When it comes to your children’s clothing you might want a cleaning product that is strong on germs but gentle on clothing. We’ve rounded up a few laundry soap recipes to help you wash these types of clothing with peace of mind. 

          Castile soap is a vegetable-based and free of animal fats and synthetic ingredients. This natural, non-toxic and biodegradable soap is an easy liquid laundry soap option and the best part is that you might already have it in your home! Add 1/2 cup of castile soap to a load of laundry to create a natural detergent best for anyone who gets dry or rashy from store-bought laundry soaps. 

          We’ve included a few more quick and easy laundry soaps to make for washing children’s clothing. 

          Liquid Laundry Soap:

          1. 7 L water 
          2. 1 cup soap granules 
          3. ½ cup baking soda 
          4. ½ cup washing soda 
          5. 20 drops essential oil (optional)

            Powdered Laundry Soap: 

            1. 1 cup soap granules 
            2. ½ cup baking soda 
            3. ½ cup washing soda 
            4. 10 drops essential oil (optional)

            Denim & Slacks

            For clothing that may induce stains, drips or dirt, kicking up the cleaning power is a must. Peruse the following stronger cleaning options to put your laundry in check. 

            Borax is a naturally occurring mineral composed of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water. It boosts the performance of any type of detergent in cleaning clothes and removing stains and is free of toxic fumes. Here’s a quick laundry detergent recipe using Borax.

            1. 1 quart Water (boiling) 
            2. 2 cups Bar soap (grated) 
            3. 2 cups Borax 2 cups 
            4. Washing Soda

            Talc-free baby powder, kitchen cornstarch or plain white chalk are all also wonderful natural treatments for helping to absorb oily stains. If you catch the oil or grease drip on fabric promptly, they can even remove it! For these powders, pour a tablespoon amount to treat specific areas before washing them. 

            Now that we’ve equipped you with the strategies and know-how to show germs who’s boss, begin incorporating these hacks into your laundry routine. While you’re separating, disinfecting and refreshing your wardrobe make sure to throw out any old pieces that you might have held onto for a bit too long. Replace those old threads with brand new pieces sure to leave you bright and shiny. Here’s to a clean home and a fresh new style!