Many people recommend using cold water to do most of your laundry, and there's some sense to that. Cold water is cheaper, saves energy, and doesn't fade dark colours. That makes it the smart move, right?
Well... not exactly. Unfortunately, only washing clothes in cold water risks bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and S. epidermidis growing inside the machine and attaching to your clothes.
From there, entire families can quickly develop staph infections and other problems.
Let's take a look at some quick facts, then talk about what you can do to protect your family.
Washing Around The World
In the UK and Europe, most clothes (and especially coloured clothes) are washed between 30°C and 40°C. In the USA, only around 5% of laundry is washed above 60°C.
That's much too cold to kill bacteria, many of which can survive water as hot as 50°C.
Even worse, few people clean their washing machines on a regular basis, regardless of nationality. It's just not something that most people take the time to care about.
All of this leads to one unfortunate conclusion: Most people are considerably more at-risk for bacterial infection than they realize. This is especially true after they've (knowingly or unknowingly) come into contact with anyone carrying the bacteria.
Why Don't People Care About This?
Most people don't realize how vulnerable they are. Everyone knows that raw food can make you sick, so we know to clean countertops and avoid cross-contamination when preparing food. On the other hand, most people don't know that washing machines are breeding grounds for bacteria.
Of those who do, some assume that the washing process - and the detergents they use - naturally kill bacteria on a regular basis and keep the insides clean.
The truth is that most detergents do not kill bacteria. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from these infections.
The Three-Step Process Of Doing Laundry Right
Here are the things you can do to keep your washing machine clean.
Step One: Regularly Wash With Sufficiently Hot Water
Exact temperatures vary by machine, so I'm not going to tell you what setting to use - but you should regularly wash clothes with water hotter than 50°C.
Now, contrary to some beliefs, you don't have to use hot water for every load.
Instead, use hot water at least twice a month, as well as any time you recall being exposed to a sick person. If you don't have many opportunities to bring bacteria into your house, you're not as at-risk as people who are frequently around sick people.
However, those who work with food should also follow this advice as another bacterial pathogen found inside washing machines is salmonella (which we previously wrote about here).
Step Two: Use A Bleach-Based Detergent
Bleach is the exception to the rule that detergents don't kill bacteria. This cleaner is excellent for getting rid of them, and you should use it anytime you're not washing with hot water.
Now, I know what you're thinking - "Bleach is bad for coloured clothes."
That's true, but what you're thinking of is sodium hypochlorite ("chlorine bleach"), and that's not the only bleach available.
For coloured clothes, it's usually safe to use hydrogen peroxide bleach instead, even on many colours and fabrics that say "do not bleach."
Hydrogen peroxide isn't quite as strong as sodium hypochlorite, but it's more than good enough to kill bacteria.
How Can I Tell If Hydrogen Peroxide Bleach Is Safe For My Clothes?
That's easy. First, apply one drop of your detergent to your clothes, taking care to test each color.
Make sure you apply it to a hidden area, such as a seam on the inside of the article.
Once you've done that, wait at least five minutes for the detergent to work its way in, then rinse with water.
After letting the item dry normally, check for a change in color. If you don't see any discoloration, it's safe to use hydrogen peroxide bleach on that article.
Step Three: Clean Your Washing Machine Every Month
Finally, even if you wash with hot water and regularly use a bleach-based detergent, bacteria can grow in your washing machine.
To counter this, thoroughly clean your washing machine at least once per-month.
As a bonus, clean washing machines tend to help clothes smell nicer - and if you haven't washed yours in a long time, you will notice the difference.
Special Note: Martial Artists And Other Gatherings
Staph infections are a particularly common problem in martial arts, especially grappling styles like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
If you're participating in one of these sports - or attend any other sort of gathering where you can contact a lot of people in short order - it's vital that you keep your clothes clean.
One infected person can quickly sicken a whole gym, and from there, it can spread to families, schools, and workplaces.
In these cases, it's best to use hot water and a bleach-based detergent appropriate for your gi.
To make things easier, consider sticking with a white gi - it won't be harmed by sodium hypochlorite bleaches, and it's always better to be safe.
Remember to wash your clothes immediately after each training session, and don't forget to clean whatever carried or was in contact with your clothes.
(Yes, even the mats - your gym should already clean them at least nightly, and preferably at least once during the day as well.)
This may seem a little extreme, but every decent BJJ instructor knows the dangers of staph infection - but they are not responsible for washing your clothes!
Here is a great video about hygiene rules from the world-famous Machado gym. At the time of writing it only has around 1,500 views!!!
Is There Anything Else I Should Know?
Yes! We've talked a lot about staph infections here, but the truth is that most cases of staph aren't particularly dangerous.
They can be - and if it's worse than a minor infection, staph can be very dangerous indeed - but it isn't a problem for most people.
Other bacteria that lurl in your washer such as E.Coli can be more dangerous - and the same techniques we outlined above can be used to thwart them as well.
For more information about the bacteria in your washing machine and how to protect yourself, check out this blog post.
You don't know everything you're exposed to on a regular basis, but a few simple steps are all it takes to protect your family.