Fighting Germs in Your Laundry

Even if you're washing something that's safe for a washing machine, the fabric may not come clean. It may have some dirt or stain remaining that it was unable to remove, or it may not have rinsed well, leaving detergent trapped in the fabric fibers. One big concern in laundry is killing germs. A high-temperature wash and rinse may not be enough to kill all the germs in your clothes and linens. You can kill most germs if you use one of the following: a liquid chlorine bleach with at least 5.4-percent sodium hypochlorite (Clorox, Purex), a quaternary disinfectant (Roccal, CO-OP Sanitizer), a phenolic disinfectant (Lysol, Pine-Sol) or a concentrated pine oil disinfectant that's at least 80 percent pine oil. [source: Wright]

Washing Machine Cycles

A washing machine has one or more programs from which you can choose. You should be able to find these described in the owner's manual, and they may be referred to as cycles. Each program is a sequence of stages with varied times, speeds and temperatures. Each stage may also be called a cycle. For this article, we'll define cycle to mean the individual stages and use the word program to mean some combination of those stages.

The following are descriptions of the cycles you might use on your washing machine:

  • Wash -- Fill the machine to a certain water level, dispense any chemicals from dispensers, agitate the load for a certain amount of time and drain the water
  • Rinse -- Fill the machine to a certain water level, agitate the load for a certain amount of time and drain the water
  • Spin -- Spin the basket rapidly for a certain amount of time with the drain open so most remaining water is removed by the centrifugal force

These cycles make up parts the following common programs, identified here by what makes them unique:

  • Cotton, linen or normal -- Higher spin speeds and average cycle lengths
  • Permanent press, casual -- Average or slightly slower spin speeds
  • Colors -- Cold wash and rinse temperatures
  • Quick or speed wash -- Hot water and less time in the wash cycle
  • Delicates, hand-wash, wool -- Cold water wash and rinse, plus spin slower or not at all
  • Pre-soak -- Pause for a certain time during the wash cycle between filling the machine with water and starting agitation
  • Bulky or heavy -- Slower spin cycle
  • Sanitize -- Hottest water available during the wash cycle

Depending on your washing machine, you may be able to control certain program details like water level and temperature manually. Many high-end washing machines also use sensors to automatically adjust the water level, cycle length and spin speed based on the size and bulk of the load. Use your owner's manual to find all your program and cycle options.

Take a spin over to the next page for loads more about how washing machines get clothes clean.