3 laundry tips to prevent germs spreading

Physical agitation, detergent and heat can help keep your household laundry germ free.

Smiling woman putting clothes in washing machine.

During normal daily wear or use, clothing, household linens and cleaning cloths pick up bacteria, viruses and fungi. To minimise the chances of catching (or passing on) a lurgy, we suggest a three-pronged attack when it comes to washing your laundry: physical agitation, detergent and heat.

1. Choose a washer that removes dirt and rinses well

Physical agitation can dislodge germs. During the rough and tumble of a wash cycle, microbes can “lose their grip”. If they’re dislodged from the fabric in the dirt-removal phase, they’ll drain away in the rinse.

With regards to dirt removal, our test results are conclusive: front loaders are streets ahead of top loaders, with the former averaging 77% and the latter just 69%.

When it comes to rinsing, though, there’s no clear winner: top loaders are often just as good.

To see which washing machines perform the best, see our test results.

2. Use a laundry detergent with enzymes

A laundry detergent with enzymes can kill germs. If your machine is only so-so at removing dirt and rinsing, pathogens could still make it through. That’s where detergent is useful.

To stun remaining germs into submission, use a product with enzymes and activated oxygen bleach (often listed on the ingredients panel as sodium percarbonate). Take care, though, as some enzymes can destroy wool and silk and irritate skin.

We’ve tested 63 laundry detergents. To find out which contain enzymes, see our test results.

3. Use a hot cycle

Running your washing machine on a "hot" cycle comes at a cost, but good laundry practices mean it's OK to lose your cool sometimes. Hot water will almost certainly knock tenacious microbes on the head – but check the fabric care label first, as some materials can’t withstand high temperatures.

Top loaders usually draw heated water from your domestic supply (about 60˚C), but some bacteria can survive these conditions.

Front loaders, however, incorporate a heating element, so even though they’re taking in only cold water, they can generally wash at temperatures above 60˚C, with some reaching 95˚C. Such high temperatures are usually limited to “cottons” programmes, but they’re also good for cleaning your machine (run an empty, extended hot wash every so often).

Our test results show which washing machines are "hot stuff" – and not just when it comes to delivering a clean bill of health.

More tips for good laundry practice

  1. Sort laundry according to pathogenic risk (see our “Rule of thumb” guide below).
  2. Hang it to dry in the sun or use a tumble dryer.
  3. Iron everything. Where possible, start ironing when the laundry is still damp, or else use steam.
  4. Store fabrics only once they’re completely dry.

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