When, Why and How Often Should Clothes Be Washed?

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floridahealth.com Infographic listing how often to wash clothes, bedding, towels and other laundry

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Each of us sheds body fluids, oils, over 1 quart of sweat AND 500 million dead skin cells per day (yuck! that's 1.6 lbs. of dead skin per year), much of which ends up in our clothing, bedding and towels.1 Here, they're the perfect food for odor-producing and possible infection-spreading bacteria, fungus and more.

So, in order to stay healthy and non-smelly, how often should we wash items? Here are recommendations from the American Cleaning Institute2 and a dermatologist.3

(These guidelines assume you don't perspire more than normal or have open sores, athletes foot, etc., that the items aren't soiled by blood, food, dirt, etc., and don't smell sour. The guidelines also assume you don't share towels and that you hang garments and towels to dry between uses.)

Wash all newly purchased garments

Laws regarding commonly-used dyes, wrinkle-preventing formaldehyde resin, mold-preventing dimethyl fumarate (all of which are major allergens) and other chemicals vary between countries, which is of concern since few items of clothing are fully made in the U.S. Plus, that "new" garment may have been tried on (or bought and returned) by others prior to you purchasing it... spreading body secretions, feces, yeast, dead skin and other gross organisms.4

Regular laundry washing guidelines

Comforter and Pillows: wash twice a year.
Bedding and Bath Mat: wash every 2 weeks.
Loose-Fitting Items and Bath Towels: wash after 3-4 uses (e.g., dress clothes, pj's, jeans, sweaters).
Snug-to-the-Body Garments: wash after each use (e.g., t-shirts, underwear, socks, swimwear). Wash bras after every 2-3 wears.

Dandruff and other dead skin cells that we (and our pets) slough off also land in rugs and carpets so vacuuming regularly is another good idea!5

8 Examples of why clean laundry matters
While dirty laundry is often not a serious health issue until we get a cut or other skin abrasion, there are still plenty of reasons to wash clothes regularly. For instance, norovirus, a leading cause of diarrhea and vomiting, can live on clothes for up to 12 days!6 Other concerns include odor-causing bacteria, head lice, bed bugs, e. coli, ringworm, mold, fleas and everyday exposures (poison ivy, staph bacteria including MRSA, etc.).

7 Laundry Tips for cleaner clothes, saving money, and extending the life of machines.

1. Don't Overload the Washer or Dryer
Laundry needs to move freely in order for wash water to carry away dirt and garments to dry quickly and wrinkle-free. (3/4th full is max).

2. Cold Water Works Great for Most Loads
In the old days, hot water made detergents work better. Today's detergents, however, work perfectly well in 65 °F water, which is about what comes out of the cold water faucet in most US homes (except in the some northern-most areas)7. This is great news since heating water accounts for up to 90% of the cost of washing clothes at home8! Plus, hot water can cause clothes to shrink. And even warm water may cause colors to fade. If garments are super dirty, presoak and spin them dry before washing. Cold water is always advised for the rinse cycle.

3. Empty Pockets
Don't trust that a drain filter will catch small items left in pockets. (Our top-of-the-line washer doesn't even have a drain filter, which resulted in a $300 service call to remove a quarter and toothpick jammed in our washer's drain pump.)

4. Go Easy on Detergent
Using too much laundry detergent leaves dirty suds behind in the clothes, so they aren't as clean as they should be. Plus, excessive suds shortens the life of your machine. Use only HE labeled laundry detergent in high-efficiency, front-loading washers and use no more than what's recommended on the detergent bottle or box (but, in most cases, even that is too much). *Lid cup indicator lines are difficult to see so highlight them with a paint pen or buy pre measured, toss-in detergent pods.

5. Keep Washer Door or Lid Open Between Uses
The washer tub needs to dry between uses to prevent mold from growing and rubber seals from rotting. So, always wipe rubber seals dry and keep door open.

6. Clean Dryer Line Filter After Each Use
A lint-filled filter makes the dryer work harder and takes more time and energy to dry loads. Plus, it is a fire hazard.

7. Consider Drying Clothes Outside
Though not nearly as powerful as chlorine bleach, the oxidation that occurs when you dry clothes outdoors in the sun sanitizes them better than if you put those clothes in the dryer. And it's free! If you're an outdoors type, however, the heat of the dryer is perfect for dehydrating and killing any ticks or fleas hiding in garments.

To learn more about staying health (plus, tips for preventing offensive body odor), visit FloridaHealth.com

Sources (accessed 10/30/2015):
1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuoqHdarSgc&feature=youtu.be
2. http://www.cleaninginstitute.org/clean_living/do_i_need_to_wash_this.aspx
3. http://www.wsj.com/articles/do-you-need-to-wash-new-clothes-before-wearing-them-1431955513
4. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/gma-found-clothes-clean/story?id=9482373
5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110509114034.htm
6. http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/norovirus/tables/evidence-table-q3-ron.html
7. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/case-washing-clothes-cold-water-180955459
8. http://www.consumerenergycenter.ca.gov/residential/appliances/washers.html

© copyright 2015. floridahealth.com

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Feedback for When and How to Wash Clothes, Towels and BeddingAdd Comment
skipper
May 15, 2016
not only should you not add TOO MUCH detergent -- but never, ever use the wrong kind! i made the mistake recently of adding just a squirt of hand dishwashing soap (like dawn) to my automatic dishwasher since i was out of detergent. next thing i new, my kitchen floor was flooded with foamy water. i'd assume that using standard laundry detergent in a high efficiency, front loading machine may cause a similar foaming problem.
Katie
March 19, 2016
I see that your laundry tip #2 says that "cold water works great for MOST loads." What are the exceptions?
Randy at FloridaHealth.com
March 20, 2016
Thanks for your question, Katie. When clothes are super dirty, washing them in hot water is preferred... but you should still presoak and spin those clothes to remove the majority of dirt before washing. (That's according to laundry tips on the California Energy Commission website.)
Paula
December 19, 2015
My appliance guy agrees with you that almost all of us use too much laundry detergent. His rule of thumb is to use half of what's suggested on the detergent bottle.
Randy at FloridaHealth.com
December 21, 2015
Thank you for your comment, Paula. Because modern machines use a lot less water, many of us could get by with 1/2 to 1/8 of the detergent we're using.

So, if we see suds, we're probably using too much. And as a result, we're wasting money, unnecessarily fading our clothes and shortening the life of our washer. Plus, our clothes feel stiffer because we're leaving dirt and mold-causing bacteria on the clothes and in the machine.

PS: A really good NYTimes article on this very topic suggests that we go easy on diswashing detergent, as well.
Blair
November 1, 2015
Randy, if all of these dangers are lurking in our clothes, does it make any difference HOW we do our laundry? Cold water or hot? Bleach? etc.
Randy at FloridaHealth.com
November 5, 2015
Another great question! According to abc news, the energy-saving trend of using cold water and milder detergents may result in "clean" clothes harboring even more bacteria than before they were washed! Their recommendation for getting clothes truly clean is to wash laundry in hot water (140°-150°) or use bleach. The problem with that is, 140° water will burn skin within 6-seconds! So, 120° is the suggested hot water heater setting for homes, according to the US Product Safety Commission. Fortunately, Consumer Reports found that today's modern detergents do perfectly fine at cleaning clothes on the cold water setting.

Besides, the goal for most of us is to simply get clothes clean (remove dirt, food, blood, stains, sweat and other deposits where germs can grow) but not make them "germ free." If you're washing diapers or bedding after a person's been sick, then certainly sanitizing the laundry is important. If can't use chlorine bleach, Clorox 2 (peroxide) may be a good alternative. Unfortunately, color-safe bleach (also known as oxygen bleach) is not effective at sanitizing clothes.

And lastly, that abc news article emphasizes that germs can really go crazy in your machine between washings. So, if you're using a machine at home, keep the washing machine door or lid open between uses so that the inside dries out. I'd be very hesitant, however, to use cool water or skip on the bleach if you're at a public laundromat!
After considering your question, we felt it important enough to add the "7 Laundry Tips" section to the infographic above... so thank you again for your question!
Blair
October 31, 2015
Has anyone ever gotten sick from not washing clothes often enough? I would guess not. So, why not just leave it to the "smell test?"
Randy at FloridaHealth.com
November 1, 2015
Great question, Blair! Keeping bed sheets and pillow cases clean is important since almost every bed has allergy-triggering bed mites which feed on our dead skin. Pillows, blankets, comforters, towels and bath mats can host molds, yeasts and germs, which can cause respiratory problems and other illnesses. Pet bedding is a favorite breeding spot for fleas. And dirty clothing can harbor things like oil from poison ivy, greases and other toxic chemicals from work, body lice eggs, infectious mites (such as scabies), and lots of bacteria (not least of which could be the pimples, boils or other infection causing staph and MRSA). Thanks to your question, we have added the "8 Examples" section to the infographic which contains this information.
 
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