Help! My White Laundry is Coming Out Dingy Gray

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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How to Clean Front-Loading Machine 

This is a multi-step process, which should be performed monthly.

  1. Make sure the drum of the machine is completely empty—never include wash clothes while cleaning the machine. Select “Basket Clean” or “Tub Clean” on the wash settings. If your frontloader does not have such a setting, select the hottest, largest and longest load settings. 
  2. Add 2 cups of white vinegar to the detergent reservoir. This is going to help get rid of the odors and any mildew that has accumulated inside the machine. Allow the machine to run through an entire wash and rinse cycle.
  3. Set the washer a second time on the same cycles as above—“Tub Clean,” or “Basket Clean,” or the hottest, largest and longest cycles. Pour 2 cups of liquid chlorine bleach into the detergent reservoir. This is going to kills germs and bacteria that have accumulated inside the machine. Allow the machine to run through another entire wash and rinse cycle.
  4. Run a third cycle without adding anything to the detergent reservoir. This will rinse away any remaining residue.
  5. Fill a bucket with a solution of 1 cup liquid chlorine bleach and 1 gallon water. Dip a clean rag into the solution, ring it out. Pull back the rubber seal around the washer door, looking for mildew and other deposits. Clean this area well with the rag, rinsing it as needed in the bucket. Follow with a clean, dry cloth to remove any remaining moisture from the seal area.

How to Clean Top-Loading Machine

This process is quite similar to cleaning a front-loading machine and should be repeated monthly.

  1. Making sure there are no clothes in the machine, set it to the hottest, largest and longest cycle available. Add 4 cups (1 quart) white vinegar to the tub (no detergent). Close the lid and allow the machine to agitate for one minute or so. Open the lid (or press “Pause”) so agitation stops and allow the machine to sit for one hour. After one hour, allow the machine to complete a full cycle including rinse and spin.
  2. Leaving the same settings, fill the machine with the hottest water available and add 4 cups (1 quart) liquid chlorine bleach. Close the lid and allow to agitate for one minute, then open the lid to stop the agitation for one hour.
  3. After one hour, allow the machine to complete a full cycle including rinse and spin, again.
  4. Run a third cycle on the same settings without adding anything to the detergent reservoir. This will rinse away any remaining residue.
  5. Finally, using a clean cloth dipped into a mixture of 1 cup liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon water, clean the area under the rim of the washer—between the basket and machine’s housing. Wipe down the detergent reservoir and clean all of the nooks and crannies of the washer that you can reach easily, where bacteria and dirt may have accumulated.  

CAUTION: Be careful to never mix vinegar and bleach. Ever. The foregoing process allows for these substances to go into the machine separately, followed by complete rinse cycles to clean out the reservoir.

Special Invitation for Friends and Readers in Kansas City Area

I will be delivering the keynote address at the “2018 Women and Money Day” next Sat., Oct. 6, and again on Sat., Oct. 13, in the greater Kansas City area.

You are invited to sign up for this free event sponsored by the Topeka Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc., and the Topeka & Shawnee County Library and Johnson County Library Systems, as space is available. (See today’s post for more deatils.)

Following my Q and A sessions, I will be participating in a short book-signing.  I’d love to meet you and say “Hi.”  Make sure to tell me that you’re one of my readers!

P.S.  And, if you’re free on Fri., Oct. 5 at 2:00 p.m., you’re invited to an informal coffee and conversation hour with me on the Country Club Plaza,  about 4-5 miles south of downtown Kansas City, Missouri.  Send an email to my assistant, Suzanne, at suzanne @ with the subject line Coffee and Conversation) and she will send you the location information and a reminder about this gathering.

I look forward to meeting you!