Common Laundry Disinfectants

February 18th, 2012 9:27 PM | 29 Comments

how to disinfect laundry

How to disinfect laundry is a hot topic among cloth diaperers and those with compromised immune systems. While disinfecting is not something you need to do for every load, you may have to disinfect the laundry if someone in your household is sick.  In general, add your disinfectants after the machine has filled with water.

Different fabrics will react differently to disinfecting methods so always test a small area of the garment first to ensure there is no damage to the color or to the fabric itself. Also, it’s a good idea to not mix and match disinfectants, use one at a time.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This is meant for reference purposes only.  The statements made in this article are not meant as a guide to treat or cure any disease or illness. If you have a need for disinfecting or sanitizing something please do your own research or consult a medical professional. This is merely meant as an overview of different ways and options that can be used for laundry, and not all are viable options for every situation.  If disinfecting laundry is a priority, look for EPA registered laundry products for disinfecting and use at their suggested amounts – these products are  scientifically proven to work.

Here are some common laundry additives and methods that many people use to disinfect:

Hot water:  This isn’t a laundry additive but is the most common way to disinfect laundry. The CDC guidelines state that you need to wash items at 160°F for 25 minutes to remove germs with just detergent alone. If you are disinfecting diapers, hot water is a must. Hot water doesn’t kill everything, but most additives work best in hot water because the high temperature speeds up the chemical reaction. It’s a simple, easy method to help clean clothes that are really soiled. If no one is sick in your house and there is no pressing need to disinfect something, you don’t need to go any further with disinfectants. Your immune system will usually take care of anything that survives.


Chlorine Bleach: chlorine bleach is a common disinfectant and is registered as an EPA disinfectant. The downside is that straight bleach will ruin your clothes (so be careful what you’re wearing when handling it). While many online sources will talk about testing for color fastness on colors, I don’t advocate using it for anything other than whites.  Color safe bleach does not disinfect, either. There are other options for colors.

Never pour bleach directly into the machine as it can ruin/weaken the fabrics it touches before diluting.   Bleach also works much better in hot water. Make sure you are washing on hot before you add your bleach.

Do not mix bleaches. This means don’t mix chlorine bleach with oxygen bleach or colorsafe bleach. Use one bleach to avoid a potentially hazardous chemical reaction.

Bleach is the second most common disinfectant after hot water and it is effective and kills just about everything. The major cons of using bleach are that it can ruin clothes and can cause clothes to wear out/fade more quickly. It is dangerous to inhale and while it kills yeast, it doesn’t kill yeast spores (for yeast spore killing, see Grapefruit Seed Extract below)


Oxygen Bleach:  Oxygen bleach is a commonly used item to disinfectant for laundry, though its effectiveness at disinfecting laundry is not proven.  Oxygen bleach (sodium percarbonate) decomposes in water to form sodium, carbonate and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide then breaks down rapidly into oxygen and water. When oxygen bleach is used at its suggested amounts in a washing machine, it may be too diluted to disinfect, though it does have disinfecting properties in water just as hydrogen peroxide does. Most companies that sell oxygen bleach have not registered it as a disinfectant with the EPA and therefore cannot claim that the product is a disinfectant, however it breaks down into hydrogen peroxide which is registered (for surfaces), though the amount of hydrogen peroxide that is created may be too little to properly disinfect. Unlike chlorine bleach, Oxygen bleach is color safe and works effectively on stains. Like regular bleach, oxygen bleach works best in hot water. Oxygen bleach does not harm fabrics while having the bonus of whitening and removing stains.  Oxygen bleach works best in hot water, although be aware that your garments may have to soak in it for 6 hours or overnight (start with hot water) for it to really work on tough stains.


Tea Tree Oil: One of the better known disinfectants, though not an EPA registered disinfectant for laundry. Tea tree oil is available in different grades, so it’s smart to educate yourself on what the grades mean when you buy and use. You want to look for a quality Australian Tea Tree oil (melaleuca).

Two major chemical components that make up tea tree oil are called 1,8 Cineole and Terpinen-4-ol and you want to look at the numbers associated with those components when selecting your tea tree oil for disinfecting.

1,8 Cineole is the compound that gives tea tree its camphor-like scent and is also found in eucalyptus oil. Cineole is a skin irritant so you want a low number for disinfecting. If a bottle says “for aromatherapy” there’s a good chance it has a high cineole percentage and will not work for disinfecting or any kind of application that will touch skin.

Terpinen-4-ol is what gives the tea tree oil its germicidal properties. It’s related to alcohol and is a good antibacterial and antiviral. You want a high number.

Top quality tea tree oil for disinfecting has a maximum of 5% cineole and a 35-40% Terpenin-4-ol

For diapers, don’t put it directly on diapers. Add it to the water after the machine has filled.  If you are using a frontloading machine, add the tea tree oil to some water and put that in the soap dispenser.

Many people use anywhere from 5-10 drops for normal “everyday disinfecting”. It may be too diluted in laundry to have a significant effect on killing germs.

Kills: bacteria, mold, some viruses, yeast, but not yeast spores (for yeast spores see Grapefruit Seed Extract)


Grapefruit Seed Extract: synthesized from the seeds and pulp of the grapefruit, it’s a very broad spectrum microbicide, bactericide, fungicide, antiparasitic, and anti-viral.  Grapefruit Seed Extract is the only natural way to kill yeast spores. It also kills staph, strep, salmonella, and e.coli.  It also kills herpes and influenza.

GSE has been tested and found to be anywhere from 10 to 100 times more effective against these offending microorganisms than chlorine bleach, tea tree oil, colloidal silver, and iodine.

It is expensive, so the other options on here are far more economical for other disinfecting, but when it comes to yeast – this is the single most effective way to stop it in its tracks on your clothing and cloth diapers. You can buy it at your local health food store.

GSE can also be diluted and used as a swab on affected areas, for cleaning, or even internally for parasites, but I am a laundry queen, not a doctor, and not an expert on treating any kind of human infection – though there’s plenty of other books and websites that can tell you all about it. Please consult with the manufacturer to find out if their product is something they would recommend for laundry and how much they recommend to use.


Hydrogen Peroxide: This is a liquid oxygen bleach and breaks down into water and oxygen. It is an EPA registered disinfectant but only for use on surfaces. The amounts suggested here are just a speculation based on other internet sources.

Use a 3% solution (what is normally available at most drugstores).

Be aware that straight hydrogen peroxide can damage clothes the same way bleach can, so test for colorfastness and never pour directly on your clothes.

It has been suggested to use ½ cup in the bleach cup of your laundry machine. If you don’t have a bleach cup, start the machine without putting clothes in. wait until your machine is filled with water, then add the peroxide and let the water agitate with the peroxide in it before adding clothes.

Do not mix Vinegar and Hydrogen peroxide! They combine together to make peracetic acid which has different properties than vinegar or peroxide and is very corrosive, and can have dangerous effects and can bleach fabrics.


The Sun: This is a free and overlooked disinfectant in the western world but it can be just as effective as chlorine bleach. Line drying exposes your garments to ultraviolet radiation and infrared light.  Too much exposure to the sun can ruin fabric however by permanently fading it. It’s a great way to get impossible stains out of whites, though. In small doses you won’t see any damage so it’s fine to leave laundry out in the sun for a day. A few hours is sufficient to kill bacteria.  After a week you will see fading. Delicate fabrics can also be damaged by direct sun, so use filtered sunlight (underneath an umbrella or a tree).


Lemon Juice: Lemon juice is great on perspiration stains and is a great disinfectant. It will also help whiten fabrics as a bleach alternative. You can use ½ cup  or more in the laundry. The disinfecting property of lemons comes from its high acidity. It changes the pH levels in bacteria so the microbes can’t survive. Lemon juice is best utilized in a separate wash cycle or in the rinse cycle from using other additives like borax or baking soda because borax and baking soda are both very alkaline, and will kill a different range of microbes. Adding lemon juice at the same time as other alkaline additives can alter the pH and not kill anything or create a reaction.


Vinegar: Another acidic disinfectant. You should use it on a separate wash cycle from Borax  as you will lose the benefits of the pH changes each does that contributes to killing germs (Borax is basic and Vinegar is acidic). Lots of people add it to the rinse but I recommend another plain water rinse after using to bring the pH back to neutral.  Contrary to popular belief, vinegar is not a strong disinfectant for laundry and while the disinfecting properties of vinegar are well known, vinegar is not registered as an EPA disinfectant.  It does have disinfectant properties, but it is not as acidic as lemon juice. It is better utilized in the rinse cycle to help get rid of soap residue.

To use, add ¼ to ½ cup in the rinse cycle or regular wash load. Vinegar can be used safely at any water temperature.


Borax: Borax is a pH buffer and raises the pH of your water to make it slightly basic. It works by converting some water molecules to Hydrogen Peroxide and works best in hotter water. The pH buffer it create in the water make a stable environment for chemical reactions to occur between the soap and your clothes, thus its “laundry booster” qualities. The reactions that borax undergoes in hot water does some disinfecting.

To disinfect with borax, wash on hot and add ½ cup per load. Use in the wash cycle and not the rinse cycle.  Borax can also be toxic if consumed, so keep away from little ones and pets.

As stated above, don’t use borax with vinegar or lemon juice.

Baking Soda: This isn’t a disinfectant but a lot of people think it is.

There you have it!  What methods do you use to disinfect your laundry?


For Pinterest: This article is available for your repinning pleasure here


The views, opinions, depicted results and experiences expressed in this article and in user-submitted comments are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Eco Nuts and may not be representative or typical of the product under actual conditions or use as directed. User comments are not edited for accuracy or safety. The statements made in this article are meant to be for reference and not as a guide to treat or cure any disease or illness.

  • Mona

    please email me at with details and let’s talk!

  • Lucas777tab

    Hello I saw on wikipedia that borax may have developmental issues with the testes especially in infants. Do you know if this is true? Is this if they swallow it or do you think it can be caused by using with our cloth diapers? Thank you so much for help and this was a great article!

    • EcoNuts

      I read the study by the EPA and it mostly focuses on borax being used as a pesticide and effects to the body if it is ingested in small or large quantities. According to studies on mice and rats, it can be harmful to the male reproductive system if ingested. Because Borax isn’t readily absorbed by human skin, the EPA did not consider that a route of exposure when looking at toxic effects and states it causes minimal or no dermal irritation (meaning it is unlikely it will bother your skin).

      The study states:
      Dermal exposure scenarios for residential handlers were not included in this
      assessment because boric acid and its sodium salts are not well absorbed across intact skin and are not anticipated to be a significant source of internal dosing.

      When in doubt, consult a doctor or use a different disinfectant/additive. it is up to you to decide if borax is something you want to use.

      • Kristina

        Hi, do you know how disinfect sheets after pink eye infection? The label says wash in cold water and that is not enough here.

        • EcoNuts

          I would consult a doctor to see what they recommend.

  • Katie

    Wow! I learned so much and I’ll be bookmarking this blog as a reference. Can’t wait to show my husband! Thank you for doing the research.

  • Jessica

    Wow, thanks for all the info. So would T36-C5 tea tree oil or T40-C3 be better?? The later is more expensive, but you said higher C number so I wasn’t sure if the 36 vs 40 on the T made that much difference!!

    • Jessica

      I just re-read it…ooops Low C number-so my question is would the T40-C3 be twice as good as the T36-C5, because it is TWICE as expensive!

      • EcoNuts

        the T40-C3 would be the best for disinfecting, but T36-C5 is still acceptable.

  • This is a great article! Thank you. Now I know how to disinfect the pads I use for cleaning floors.

  • Effa_haniza

    When you mentioned vinegar can be used with baking soda, does that mean we can add bith in the same rinse cycle?

    • EcoNuts

      yes, you would have to add them together. you can use vinegar or vinegar and baking soda, but not just baking soda. You can add them at the beginning or middle of the wash. If you add them in the rinse cycle make sure you can do another rinse.

    • EcoNuts

      yes, you would have to add them together. you can use vinegar or vinegar and baking soda, but not just baking soda. You can add them at the beginning or middle of the wash. If you add them in the rinse cycle make sure you can do another rinse.

  • Meredith

    Thank you so much for this information!!! If I use borax in the wash cycle and vinegar in the rinse cycle, is that separate enough or would they cancel each other out? You mention that lemon juice can be used in the rinse cycle with borax in the wash cycle – is vinegar the same way?

    • EcoNuts

      yes that would be fine

  • Jem

    Dear Mona, thank you so much for this information! I found your site while looking for clues about our infant’s tenacious yeast infection, and only now realize that we need to disinfect our cloth diapers much more thoroughly.

    We use Itti Bitti’s Bitti Tutto: PUL lined shells with snap-in liners. We’ve been washing at 60 degrees C for this infection, but that is clearly not enough. I assume that we need to disinfect both shells and liners (they share the wet pail), but we can’t wash the shells in warmer water. Will Tea Trea Oil and Grape Seed Extract work at 60 degrees C? And can I use them together in a wash cycle? And – with apologies if this is a silly question – do I put the oil and extract in with the detergent-powder, or somewhere else, or do I wash a cycle without detergent? We have a front loader and use perfume free powder. Thank you again for this really clear outline!

    • Jem

      I meant, of course, the grapefruit seed extract, not grape seed extract. Sorry! And I just reread what you said about mixing disinfectants as a no-no.

      • EcoNuts

        Yes at 60C they should both work fine. If you are worried about the temperature you can always do a pre-soak in water with the additive and then add the water with the diapers to the machine, however I don’t think at that temperature it should affect either additive. My preference is for Grapefruit Seed Extract . You can add either with regular detergent. I think the best way to add it is directly into the machine with the diapers.

  • MountainMomma

    Hi I’m looking to start a cloth diaper service and need a way to sanitize without using 160 degree water as it will destroy the PUL laminate on the outer layer of the diapers and I prefer to avoid chlorine bleach.
    I’ve done some research on using grapefruit seed extract and see a lot of conflicting information. Can you tell me where your info came from and/or how I can be assured it will sanitize and prevent any potential cross contamination between different children? What laundry process would you recommend for this type of sterilization requirements as the children will be unrelated yet sharing diapers.
    Thanks so much for any advice or input!

    • EcoNuts

      My information is compiled from multiple internet sources and scholarly articles. I will include some below but I cannot find this one really
      good website that had some more info (I should have cited them all on the article when I wrote it and I’m feeling silly now). But the more useful information is in the scientific articles anyway.
      To be honest, I do not feel I am qualified to comment on your situation, and I would recommend you seek out some different manufacturers of GSE who can give you a better idea if they can recommend it for your situation.

      Here are some sources:
      Z. Cvetnic and S. Vladamir-Knezevic, “Antimicrobial Activity of Grapefruit Seed and Pulp ethanolic extract” Acta Pharm, 54 (2004) 243-250

      Lee Reagor, Jean Gusman, Lana McCoy, Edith Carino, and John P.
      Heggers. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. June 2002,
      8(3): 325-332. doi:10.1089/10755530260128014.

      von Woedtke T, Schlüter B, Pflegel P, Lindequist U, Jülich WD Institute of Pharmacy, Ernst Moritz Arndt University,
      Greifswald, Germany. Die Pharmazie [1999,54(6):452-456]

      • MountainMomma

        Thanks so much for your reply. I will get in touch with the manufacturers. I really need a guarantee that it will sanitize and sterilize but all the conflicting information online makes it so hard to determine. I appreciate it!

  • Thanks for the great info. I’d love to pin it, but the Pinterest link at the bottom is broken.

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  • snow board

    Hi, i have a question regarding killing yeast and yeast spores in laundry. I see that grapefruit seed extract is effective in killing yeast spores, but is there anything else? It doesnt have to be fully “natural” as overall i feel effectively cleaning laundry of yeast will save the number of loads i will use and therefore save water. I have a yeast infection/jock itch and have recently almost cleared my dandruff and sebbhoreic dermatitis completely. These are caused by candida and melasazia. I notice after washing clothes on very high heat with chlorine bleach, i still feel itchyness from hats and pillow cases after washing. I wiwould like to try or know a few ways of killing yeast spores from clothing effectively. Would borax work? What besides gse kills yeast spores? I feel this will help many dandruff sufferers out there.

    • EcoNuts

      To my knowledge the only thing that kills yeast spores is GSE. Chlorine bleach is the next best option to kill live yeast, but not the spores.

  • Up

    While giving birth my cat pooped on our sheets and a pile of clean cloths/towels I had on the bed. She smeared it everywhere. I some of the towels were white so I can bleach them, though I’ve heard bleach doesn’t kill toxoplasMosis. Is this true? The cloths and sheets are colored so I can’t bleach them. Any suggestions for how to disinfect them? I’m pregnant so thats why id like to ensure that the toxo is killed. Thanks!!

    • EcoNuts

      I would check with your doctor and/or vet about the best way to handle your laundry.

  • Queen Purple

    Thanks for the great info. Can you just buy the lemon juice concentrate or lemon oil for the rinse? Would hydrogen peroxide with lemon juice/oil in rinse cycle work well to disinfect? Thanks