How to Properly Do Your Laundry Right Now


A fabric care scientist breaks down how to wash our clothes

Our Wake-Up Call newsletter (subscribe here!) recently broke down how to actually clean and disinfect our homes — and today, we’re tackling another aspect of cleaning that many of us have wondered about during the coronavirus pandemic: How, exactly, should we be washing our clothes right now? To find out, we chatted with Mary Johnson, a fabric care scientist at P&G. She explained how we should do our laundry during normal circumstances — and revealed the precautions we should be taking now.

Wake-Up Call: First, we’d love to cover the basics under normal circumstances. How often do you recommend people do laundry, and what level of clean do we typically need?

Mary Johnson: That’s a great question. Things like underwear and socks should be washed after one wear. Things that are a little further removed — a T-shirt or leggings — we’d say about two to three wears before you need to wash. Even a bra sometimes falls into that category. And then, you might want to clean outerwear less regularly under normal circumstances, like once a month or certainly in between seasonal changes.

Now what changes is if you’re exercising or sweating lot. On a typical day, without exercising, you actually release one liter of sweat. That’s just us sitting around. And along with that, our bodies also produce 40 grams of sebum, which is a skin oil. That’s the equivalent of about four packs of butter. Along with the sweat comes 10 grams, or a teaspoon, of salt — and then two billion skin cells.

That’s a lot…

Sometimes you can tell — especially in the winter when your skin is dry or even now if we’re inside and the heat’s on the humidity’s low. When you take off your socks or your clothes, sometimes you see this like just white cloud of dust. That’s dead skin. In fact, most of the dust in your house is dead skin. So 30% of the soils that are on your clothes, you can see. These are food stains or things like that. And 70% are these body soils. So that’s why we recommend you wash your clothes more frequently — because they may not look soiled.

So, as an expert, can you explain how we should even wash our clothes under normal circumstances?

Typically, under normal circumstances, everyday clothes can actually be washed in cold water. That’s very sustainable, especially if you use a good quality detergent like Tide, which has enzymes that are optimized to break up the stains and other types of soils. They kind of do the same function as inside your tummy when you’re digesting your lunch. Then other cleaning agents pick them up and clean them away.

Some things that may need a warm water wash would be underwear; sometimes outerwear if it’s heavily soiled; sports clothing, because this is where you’re sweating a lot; towels and sheets. By warm water, we mean 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher — and you want to use the appropriate dose of a high quality detergent.

Now, let’s look at this weird new normal we’ve found ourselves in. Many of us are living in the same pairs of sweatpants and using the same blankets and other fabric items each day. How should our laundry routine happen now?

The advice that we provide depends on whether you have access to laundry facilities. Do you have laundry in your own home? In that case, what we’re seeing is quite an increase in people doing more loads of laundry now that they’re home. We do want people to be diligent about that because those body soils, if you rewear too often, they really get layers on there. So that’s why we recommend, after two to three wears, to wash things — especially if you’re home more often. Because these items are exposed to your body soils more often.

For folks who don’t have washers in their home, that becomes a little bit more problematic. There are some products that can help, in between washes, to extend the life of your clothing. One great example is Tide Antibacterial Fabric Spray. It’s proven to kill 99.9% of bacteria on fabrics. That can actually help your clothes stay fresher for longer until you can do laundry. Otherwise, if you don’t have access to a laundry machine, you can certainly hand wash certain items in a sink, a bucket or even a bathtub.

A question on our minds, given what’s going on in the world: How effective is a regular load of laundry in disinfecting our clothes?

So typically with laundry detergents, and even deep clean laundry detergents like Tide, you’re cleaning — not a disinfecting. You’re removing moving body soil, dirt and microbes through cleaning, lifting them off of the fabrics and they’re basically getting rinsed down the drain. If you intend to sanitize or disinfect, in that case you need to use a product that’s registered with the EPA as a sanitizer or disinfectant. One example of that is chlorine bleach — but be really careful. You have to absolutely check the care label on your clothes, because many clothes have synthetic fabrics that could be ruined with chlorine bleach.

Any tips for handling clothes potentially exposed to Covid-19?

The CDC guidelines actually instruct you to clean your clothes. So from a CDC guidelines point of view, they’re asking you to wash in the warmest water allowed by your care labels. Again, you need to check before washing things in hot water — because your clothes aren’t going to be useful to you if they’re ruined from laundering. The question then is: Do you suspect Covid-19 in the people wearing those clothes or who are exposed to those clothes? Or has it been confirmed? Because then the CDC asks you to take additional steps.

First of all, they want you to wear disposable gloves, and you’d wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you remove the gloves. You don’t shake the laundry. The reason being is that you don’t want any of the Covid-19 particles to become airborne, so that you can potentially breathe them in or spread onto other surfaces. You launder the items according to the manufacturer’s instructions. So again, checking the care label, using the warmest water setting and using a good quality detergent. And then you’ll want to make sure you dry that item as completely as possible.

Right now, the CDC also says that those clothes can be washed other people’s items — because you won’t get transfer of the virus from clothes and levels that can cause infection in someone else. You will also want to go ahead and disinfect your clothes hampers, according to the guidance they provide for surfaces on their website. One of the things that people may want to do instead is to use a disposable trash bag as their temporary laundry hamper. That way, if someone is ill, you don’t have to necessarily go through that disinfection process. You can just carefully throw the bag away and wash your hands with soap. And if you need to do laundry at a laundromat, follow the CDC’s guidelines for surface disinfecting as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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