• Don’t get your knickers in a twist!

    Dr Lisa Ackerley mulls over hygiene in the laundry

    I’ve found some people think that no matter how dirty the laundry is, when you shove it in the washing machine, it will come out pristine! But it’s not that easy. Not wanting to be too graphic, but if there are poo or sick deposits on your clothes, nappies, towels or bedding, then where do you think they go?

    Once someone I know put a dog blanket in the machine, full of bits of twigs and bones that the dog had been chewing, and was quite surprised when the bits were still there in the bottom of the machine. Equally after someone has been sick, I’ve seen all the bedding put in the machine, and of course, it comes out with diced carrot still on it.

    Bacteria are even more tricky, because you can’t see them. But if you put something ridden with germs in the washing machine, unless you do something to kill the bacteria and viruses you will be simply swishing them all around, for example transferring bacteria such as E. coli from your poo and putting them on to your tea towels, which you then use to wipe the dishes!

    So some simple laundry tips:

    • Any deposits need to be put in the loo
    • Soak really badly-soiled items in an anti-bacterial pre-soak solution such as those used for re-usable nappies.
    • Wash at a temperature as high as you can – the higher the temperature the better the germ kill! 60°C or higher
    • Use the best laundry powder you can afford
    • Use a laundry sanitiser to help kill bacteria and viruses if you are washing at lower temperatures
    • Wash underpants, socks and knickers in a separate wash from cloths and tea-towels, especially if you are using a low-temperature wash
    • Wash towels and bedding at temperatures above 60°C to till bacteria, viruses and dust mites
    • Tumble drying on hot will help kill the bugs too
    • Leave the washing machine door open to allow air to circulate
    • From time to time clean the rubber seal and detergent drawer
    • Don’t shake dirty clothes near food surfaces – you’ll only spread the bugs further
    • Wash hands after handling dirty clothes
    • By doing at least one wash a week at above 90°C you will be doing a spring clean on your machine and making sure it’s not a reservoir of infection, or my favourite term, bacterial soup!

    The Hygiene Doctor talked to Anne Robinson on BBC’s Watchdog about the importance of keeping your washing machine, as well as your washing, clean


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  • Cristina says:Reply
    1st September 2013 at 3:02 pm

    i am really trying to understand whether is is more hygienic to line dry one's clothes and sheets and towel or tumble dry them. Any infos would be really appreciated, CR

    • Lisa Ackerley says:Reply
      2nd September 2013 at 10:29 am


      There is nothing better than the smell of line-dried clothes! If you are lucky enough to be able to do this, then certainly it is believed that there may be an anti-bacterial effect from the sun's UV rays – not that we get a huge amount of this in the UK! Heat destroys bacteria, so tumble-drying at a hot setting will also help, but of course is not as eco-friendly as line-drying. However, if you have family members who are ill, for example with diarrhoea, vomiting or colds / flu, then I would make sure that all items which could be contaminated are put through a hot wash (if the fabrics can take it) or that you use one of the laundry additives that are now on the market which kill bacteria even at lower temperatures. As we have just heard that some washing machines aren't heating to 60 °C even though they claim to be, then it may be wise to use an additive where you are concerned, just in case.
      Happy washing!

      Lisa Ackerley

  • Patrick Taylor says:Reply
    28th September 2013 at 9:57 am

    Which? reported that they had recently tested several machines on the 60C setting , they normally only test at 40C,, and found out not all machines approached 60C. The worst, a Hoover machine ,topping out at 43C.

    Beko came out well with a wash above 55C for 30 minutes, longer than any other machine. The charity Allergy UK also test machines at hotter washes though this aspect of their work was omitted from the Which? article. Which? testing is based on stain removal at the commonest washing temperature 40C.

    I was very surprised at the Which? findings but it did lead to some interesting research into the areas of allergen removal [ pollens, bed bugs, dust mites etc] , hygiene [bacteria, viruses] and the body that decides on fabric wash symbols.

    Sociologically it is interesting also as alone in the EU do nursing staff have to wash their uniforms at home in domestic washing machines! A concern for the Royal College of Nurses – and patients I suspect.

    • Dr Lisa Ackerley says:Reply
      30th September 2013 at 9:27 am

      Hi I was shocked about the washing machine study. It's disgraceful that you can't trust the dial on your machine! I hope trading standards take up this issue and get to the bottom of it.

  • Toby Hayes says:Reply
    29th September 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Very interesting stuff.

    As most of our machines have a 60 centigrade and 90 centigrade wash for higher temperature, how can we wash at over 60 centigrade when tests on washing machines show was temp of just over 40 centigrade and most of our fabrics can not last in a 90 centigrade wash. Perhaps 90 is really 70 centigrade.

    You advise using a 'laundry additive' in a wash but what is that? Is it washing powder or liquid or do you mean something extra to that?

    • Dr Lisa Ackerley says:Reply
      30th September 2013 at 9:27 am

      Hello thanks for your comment – there are some products available that can be added to the laundry to kill bacteria at low temperatures. In the US for years they have added a cup of bleach to white washes but obviously this wouldn't work on coloured items! Napisan has been available for a long while for nappy cleansing and you add that to the powder drawer. Dettol has just launched a Laundry cleanser that you add to the softener compartment. Vanish also has an additive for the powder drawer. In commercial situations there are also silver-based additives designed to reduce bacterial levels.
      I've not seen the science behind these additives yet, but hope to be taking a look and possibly carrying out my own studies soon. Watch this space!

  • Toby Dayes says:Reply
    30th September 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Hi Dr Lisa

    Thanks for your response. I shall keep an eye here to see the result of your studies. My mother used to pop soda crystals in the wash. I don't know how effective it was because we did not have any serious infection to kill, except the usual childhood diseases, winter colds and flu.

    • Dr Lisa Ackerley says:Reply
      1st October 2013 at 9:28 am

      Hi Toby, good on your mother! I'd rather not take the chances on colds and flu or any infectious diseases either – all preventable with a bit of good hygiene, including hand-washing.

  • Chris Palmer says:Reply
    18th November 2013 at 11:32 am

    Hi Dr Lisa,
    I've just been listening to UCB & was interested by what you said about washing machines. My wife & I spent some time recently trying to clean the powder drawer. Even though we always leave it out when not in use and the washing machine door open for ventilation we had been getting a lot of smell from the machine.
    My wife is dermatologically very sensitive, so we only use non-bio fragrance-free washing liquid. Is this more likely to allow microorganisms to thrive in our washing machine?

    • Gabi Smith says:Reply
      21st November 2013 at 10:50 am

      Thanks for your message. The best thing to do in your circumstances is to run a hot wash every month – go for 90 °C if possible, and that will swish out the bugs and nasty smells that come from them! Personally I have heard more stories about smell build up from liquids rather than powders, so you may like to try a non-bio powder as well – there may be more abrasion from a powder which can help to remove the biofilm.

      Hope that helps,
      The Hygiene Doctor team

  • Redruby says:Reply
    26th March 2014 at 9:46 pm

    Hello Hygiene doctors and readers, I found your page searching for the new Dettol Laundry disinfectant online which would ship outside of UK. It seems to be hard. Anyway, being a hygiene freak who worked with cleaning professionaly I know a bit about it, but I was rally surprised that the UK washing maschines do not reach 60* C! And that the nurses in your country are trusted to clean their own uniforms! Abolutely amazing! I can really recommend a brand named ASKO which makes great maschines that have won a number of test and have 50* C, 70*C, and 80*C temperature cycles apart from the ordinary 40* and 60* i use the 50* C programme on most clothing which requires 40* and so far it worked well.

    Also, the aproach to hygiene and laundry is very culturally determined, I noticed that many home textile vendors in UK recommend washing bedding, towels and down duvets at 40* or even 30*! It´s madness. I think hygiene should be tought in schools just like any other important suject. I love vintage clothing and buy a lot of it. Many people think it´s disgusting wearing something some one else wore, but as Dr Ackerly wrote, they still wash panties and tea towels together at 40*! I love vintage clothing, and everything new is washed in with a disinfectant before wearing, I found something named Eradicil which is a medicated detergant/disinfectant.

    • Dr Lisa Ackerley says:Reply
      19th May 2014 at 8:49 pm

      Hello, Redruby, Dettol is called other names in other countries, eg Sagrotan in Germany – that may help you. Certainly culture is very important. I have read about it being common to use the left over bath water to wash clothes in Japan. Good luck with your laundry – certainly a good point about vintage clothes.

  • Lauren says:Reply
    8th May 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Hi, my washing machine has broken and I've been looking at second hand ones, I have a baby. Is it possible to fully clean a washing machine? If so, how? Thank you

    • Dr Lisa Ackerley says:Reply
      19th May 2014 at 8:12 pm

      Hello I would advise giving it an initial clean of all the parts you can get at, first using hot soapy water with a brush if necessary. Check out the rubber seals around the door and get the detergent drawer out and scrub that with very hot water and then an anti-bacterial spray product. Then look inside where the drawer goes and scrub that too, and spray with anti-bacterial cleanser. Most machines have a drawer at the bottom where you can drain water and remove any debris that has got caught – remove any rubbish (you would be amazed what collects there) and give it a scrub and spray. Then put it on the hottest wash – preferably 90 degrees and use a laundry cleanser as well – Dettol make one. Use a premium powder with bleach added (look on the box for the small print or use a well-known brand such as Arial or Persil bio) – again I would use a hot wash and do my whites and towels. After that you should be good to go!