Did you know that the average household washes about 50 pounds of laundry per week? That amounts to more than 6,000 articles of clothing a year, according to the American Cleaning Institute.
Every week your washing machine is hard at work cleaning your clothes of the dirt, germs and grime of the day. But have you thought about what happens to that dirt – where does it all go?
According to Canadian microbiologist Jason Tetro, all that dirt can build up in the washing machine and land back on your clothes, affecting the quality of your garments and lifespan of your washing machine.
“Everyone thinks they’re going to wash their clothes and they’re going to be clean,” Tetro says. “We didn’t have to [clean our washing machines] at one time… Back in the day we would boil the water in the kettle and use it in the washing, or wash using hot water. As long as [the water] was over 70 degree Celsius, which is about what it used to go to, it would kill pretty much everything in there.”
And by “everything,” Tetro means bacteria, fungus and anything else that has the potential to grow in these types of environments.
“Then you’d add the bleach, and of course bleach is another way to kill the bugs,” he adds. “And you would end up with nice, fresh smelling clothes that would be lasting, and you wouldn’t’ have to worry about the washing machine basin either.”
But today many of our clothing requires a cold wash, which doesn’t make for an ideal environment to kill pathogens, Tetro says.
“We don’t use hot water very much anymore and we definitely don’t use the bleach anymore,” he says. “So what happens is that the bugs will get broken up in the fabric and then come out of the fabric, but they won’t necessarily go into the holes [of the washing machine]. They just don’t know to go into the holes so they end up on the sides and can stay there.”
And depending on the environment – if it’s humid or warm – they may have an opportunity to grow, Tetro adds. They may also just hang around and end up on your clothes again, which lessens the life of garments and cause an unpleasant odour.
Most of the time this means human skin bacteria, which for the most part won’t be a problem. However, Staphylococcus aureus (also known as MRSA) has the potential to live in washing machines, as well as other parts of the home. It can cause impetigo (a highly contagious bacterial skin infection) and other types of rashes and is antibiotic resistant, Tetro points out.
“You may also see some fecal bacteria sticking around in there,” he adds. “But usually you don’t see people sucking too much on their clothes. Babies, on the other hand, you definitely want to be using the hot water with their clothes.”
So does that mean the bacteria on your clothing can make you sick?
Yes, but it’s unlikely, Tetro says.
“In order for the bacteria to cause an infection it still has to get in you,” Tetro explains. “You would literally have to wet your clothes and then suck on them – and since the likelihood is that after you’ve done the washing the numbers will be fairly low, you’d probably have to drink a whole cup of [water from] the T-shirt in order for you to really have a chance to get sick.”
Tetro suggests that a family of four who does laundry once a week should be cleaning their washing machine at least once a month. Single people who do only one or two loads every two weeks can wash their washing machine once every season.
This can be done by running a cycle with a mixture of hot water and bleach (without a load of laundry, of course).
“You want to make sure you’re getting rid of whatever is growing in there and it’s giving you a fresh start,” he says.
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