Why Laundry Detergent is NOT Enough to Kill Bacteria

Laundry detergent is a must-have item in every household. It helps us keep our clothes and fabrics clean and fresh. But how does it actually work? And is it enough to kill the bacteria and other microbes that might be lurking in our laundry? Generally, no! But let's find out more.

How Laundry Detergent Works

Laundry detergent contains several ingredients that work together to remove dirt, stains and odors from our clothes. The main ingredient is a surfactant, we often just call these surfactants "soaps" or "detergents", and they have specific chemical properties useful for cleaning. Surfactants can interact with both water and oil because they have two ends: one that is attracted to water (hydrophilic) and one that is attracted to oil (hydrophobic). When we wash our clothes, the surfactant molecules attach their hydrophobic ends to the grease and dirt particles on the fabric, and their hydrophilic ends to the water molecules in the wash. This way, they form tiny spheres that trap the dirt and grease inside them. When the washing machine rinses and spins, the micelles are carried away with the water, leaving our clothes free from dirt and oil (most of the time).

Laundry detergent also contains other ingredients that enhance its cleaning power, such as:

- Alkalies, which are substances that react with acids to neutralize them. Alkalies help dissolve dirt and grease, and also make the water more effective at removing stains .
- Enzymes, which are proteins that break down organic substances. Enzymes help remove stains that are caused by proteins (such as blood, egg, milk), fats (such as butter, oil, chocolate) or starch (such as pasta, bread, rice) .
- Optical brighteners, which are chemicals that absorb ultraviolet light and emit visible light. Optical brighteners make our clothes look brighter and whiter by reflecting more light.
- Fragrances, which are compounds that add a pleasant smell to our clothes. Fragrances can also mask any unpleasant odors that might remain after washing. But be aware that many fragrances are toxic and countries are progressively phasing out many fragrance molecules.

Why Laundry Detergent Is Not Enough to Kill Bacteria

While laundry detergent is great at removing dirt and stains, it is not very effective at killing bacteria and other microbes that might be living in our clothes. This is because most laundry detergents are designed to work at low or medium temperatures, which are not hot enough to kill most germs. Also, some bacteria can form protective structures called spores and biofilms that can survive harsh conditions, such as high heat, dryness, some chemicals, or even UV.

Bacteria and other microbes can cause various problems, such as:

- Bad smells, which are caused by the breakdown of sweat and body oils by bacteria. These smells can linger in our clothes even after washing, especially in synthetic fabrics that trap moisture.
- Skin infections, which can occur when bacteria enter our skin through cuts, wounds or pores. Some common skin infections caused by bacteria are acne, impetigo, boils, and cellulitis.
- Illnesses, which can spread through contact with contaminated clothing or towels. Some common illnesses caused by bacteria are strep throat, urinary tract infection, food poisoning and tuberculosis.

Therefore, it is important to take extra steps to kill the bacteria and other microbes in our laundry, especially if we have been sick or exposed to someone who has been sick.

How to Kill Bacteria in Laundry

There are several ways to kill bacteria and other microbes living in our laundry, such as:

- Washing at high temperatures, which is one of the best ways to kill most germs. The recommended temperature for killing bacteria is at least 60°C (140°F), but some fabrics may not be able to withstand such high heat. Always check the care label on your clothes before washing them at high temperatures.
- Using bleach or vinegar, which are both powerful disinfectants that can kill bacteria and other microbes. Bleach is effective for white clothes, but it can damage colored clothes or fabrics that contain wool or silk. Vinegar is a natural alternative that can be used for both white and colored clothes, but it may not be as effective as bleach. To use bleach or vinegar, add half a cup of either one to your wash cycle along with your regular detergent.
- Using a dryer or an iron, which can also kill bacteria and other microbes with heat. After washing your clothes, dry them in a dryer for at least 45 minutes, or iron them on high heat. This will help eliminate any remaining germs that might have survived the wash. Be careful though as dryers in humid areas can end up trapping microbes in the lint filters, which can make your clothes smell even worse.
- Using UV light or steam, which are both alternative methods that can kill bacteria and other microbes without using chemicals or heat. UV light can damage the DNA of germs, while steam can penetrate the fabric and kill germs with moisture and heat. However, these methods may not be as widely available or as effective as the ones mentioned above. To use UV light or steam, you will need a special device that can emit UV light or steam, and follow the instructions carefully. Leaving your clothes in direct sunlight can help, but sunlight does not penetrate completely through all fabrics.

- Using silver-based products, which allows for the bacteria to be killed in a natural and sustainable way.

Tips and Tricks for Killing Bacteria in Laundry

Here are some additional tips and tricks for killing bacteria and other microbes in your laundry:

- Wash your clothes regularly, especially if they are sweaty, dirty or have been in contact with someone who is sick. Don't let your clothes pile up in the hamper or the floor, as this can create a breeding ground for germs.
- Separate your clothes by risk level, such as underwear, towels, face masks and face cloths, which are more likely to contain pathogens. Wash these items separately from other clothes, and use the hottest temperature and the strongest disinfectant that they can handle.
- Clean your washing machine regularly, as it can also harbor bacteria and other microbes that can contaminate your clothes. Run an empty cycle with bleach or vinegar once a week, and wipe down the rubber seal, the filter and the detergent drawer with an anti-bacterial cleaner. Also, leave the door open slightly after each wash to let the machine air out and prevent mold growth.
- Wash your hands before and after handling laundry, especially if you are dealing with high-risk items or someone who is sick. Use soap and water, and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. This will help prevent the spread of germs from your hands to your clothes or vice versa.

- Use SWIFF Spray on your clothes before or after washing, especially if you want to kill persistent odors and prevent future ones.

Laundry detergent works by using surfactant molecules to lift dirt and grease from our clothes, and other ingredients to enhance its cleaning power. However, laundry detergent is not enough to kill bacteria and other microbes that might be living in our clothes. To kill bacteria in laundry, we need to use high temperatures, bleach or vinegar, a dryer or an iron, UV light or steam, or a combination of these methods. We also need to wash our clothes regularly, separate them by risk level, clean our washing machine regularly, and wash our hands before and after handling laundry.