If you assume the inside of your washer is the cleanest place in your home because you put detergent through it with every load of laundry, join the club. Most people think that. 

So why is there dirty residue on the agitator? Why do washed clothes sometimes come out with stains they didn’t have before they went in? Why do towels and the washer get stinky?

The answer is germs.


Experts tell us that most washing machines are teeming with bacteria that sit and multiply, finding their way back into the washed clothes. 

According to Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, if you wash a load of just underwear, there will be 100 million E. coli in the wash water, and they can be transmitted to the next load of laundry. Yikes!

If you rely on your detergent to get rid of all the dirt and germs, but are not occasionally using bleach and very hot water, you’re not killing the bacteria. In fact, they’re getting on your hands when you remove the wet laundry and also staying behind in the washing machine.

Do Not Panic

Now before you panic, it’s good to know that of the more than 60,000 kinds of germs, only one to two percent of them are potentially pathogenic. But the other 98 percent, when allowed to accumulate, can produce a terrible odor in clothes, towels and linens—and inside the washer, too. 

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Getting Rid of Germs in Laundry

Chlorine Bleach

Using the right concentration of bleach and water, you can easily kill the bacteria. If chlorine bleach isn’t appropriate, such as when washing delicate lingerie or colored clothing, hydrogen peroxide or Clorox 2 (which contains peroxide), are reasonable alternatives.

Keep in mind that bleach is not necessary for every load of laundry provided you are following a routine cleaning protocol (to follow) and washing with bleach and hot water when it is appropriate.

On a personal note, along with detergent, I add two tablespoons of chlorine bleach to each load of white laundry—clothes, towels, and linens.

Hot Water

If possible, turn up your water heater to at least 140 F. the day you do laundry or when you wash linens and underwear. Then use the HOT setting for items that can tolerate being washed in hot water.

CAUTION: Be sure to return the water heater setting to 120 F. to avoid unintentionally scalding, especially if there are children or elderly living in your home.

Clean the Machine

Washing machine manufacturers almost always include a cleaning directive in the owner manual. My 6-year old GE front loader even has a setting on the dial for “Clean Basket,” as do many newer washers. Start following the directions in your owner manual if you have such a setting, or follow these general instructions:

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