How to Hand-Wash (and Sanitize) Clothes at Home

updated Jan 22, 2024
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If you usually wash your clothes at a laundromat, what’s the best way to clean — and sanitize — at home without the luxury of a washing machine? Laundry expert Patric Richardson, founder of the Minneapolis-based boutique Mona Williams, says not only is it possible to effectively hand wash your clothing at home, but it is also surprisingly easy (so much so that you may never go to a laundromat again). 

Have a load to wash, but no washer in sight? Here’s how to take care of your clothes, one step at a time. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The Best Way to Hand-Wash Clothes

Follow these four steps to hand-wash clothes at home.

Step 1: Clean the sink.

Clean out (and then fully clean) your kitchen sink, because that’s the best place to hand wash your clothes. There are a few reasons Richardson recommends the kitchen sink. Not everyone has a bathtub at home, and the average bathroom sink usually isn’t all that spacious. Most kitchen sinks, he says, are roomy enough to wash a few pieces at once.

“When you use a machine, you put in all the pieces at once, so fit as much as you can in your sink,” suggests Richardson. “Just make sure to follow your method of separating colors and whites.”

Step 2: Put clothes in warm water.

Immerse your clothes in warm water, which is the best option for germ-killing without burning your hands. No laundry detergent around? That’s honestly for the best. Richardson recommends skipping the detergent and using gentle hand soap or shampoo instead (but never dish soap). If you have a laundry soap (not detergent), use that. Detergent will be close to impossible to rinse out of your clothes, and he says soap is powerful enough to both keep your clothes fresh and kill any germs that might be lingering on them. 

“If I had to go to the store and buy soap, I would buy foaming hand soap, which is the most gentle soap you can get,” he says. “Don’t go crazy with it — you only need four or five pumps total for a kitchen sink load.”

Step 3: Soak and wash your clothes gently.

Now, to actually do the washing. Richardson says it’s important to leave your clothes in the soapy water for around 20 minutes, manipulating them with your hands every three to four minutes without getting too hard or aggressive. 

When you’re done, pull the stopper, let the water run out, then fill the sink as full as you can with cool (not ice cold) water. Swish the clothes again — you’ll notice the water is relatively clearer.

Step 4: Repeat a final clean.

Finally, put the stopper one last time, swish the clothes with your hands, and the water should be clear. Your clothes should be clean and ready to dry! Just make sure to clean your hands and sink (again) once you’re done.

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How to Sanitize Your Clothes and Remove Germs

When germs abound, you’ll want to prioritize sanitizing your clothes, not just cleaning them. The good news is, if you’re using soap to hand wash, you’re likely taking care of lingering pathogens. 

The soap we wash our hands with, Richardson explains, contains lipids, which attach to bacteria and viruses. So when you wash, the soap literally takes the germs off the garments and they go down the drain. Antibacterial products, on the other hand, kill the germs, which then stay on your clothes.

For traditional washing, laundry detergent also attaches to germs, but not to the same degree regular soap does. It’s the heat that does most of the sanitizing action when you’re machine washing — on a “sanitize” setting, a washer reaches temperatures your hands can’t handle, 160 degrees Fahrenheit or more. If you want to harness heat to kill germs on your clothing when hand washing, you can steam or iron your clothes after you wash them. According to the CDC, heat of 167 degrees or more is sufficient to kill flu viruses, and many steamers can reach temperatures of 200 degrees or more.

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How Often Should You Wash and Sanitize Your Clothes

Generally, Richardson isn’t normally a fan of washing your clothes more than you need to. If you’re just hanging out at home, wear your clothes until you absolutely need to wash them — until you spill something or the garment appears truly dirty. Usually clothes that aren’t exposed to outside germs can go without sanitizing for six to seven wearings, Richardson says. 

If you’re going out in public, you’ll need to up your laundry game. Just like you wash your hands first thing upon arriving home, take care of your clothes; germs can stay active on your clothes for a few hours. The exception to the rule is if you have a dedicated place for your dirty clothes, like a hamper. If there’s any chance those germ-exposed garments could end up on a chair, wash them.

“Right now, if you are out and among people, you’ll need to wash your clothes right when you get home,” Richardson says. “Just change clothes right away and hand-wash the dirty ones.”

For garments you don’t want to wash every time, like a jacket, Richardson says you can spray a few spritzes of vodka (which is odorless) to fend off some germs — just don’t rely on that kind of alcohol to clean hard surfaces or, of course, your hands.

No matter what you’re washing, the important thing is to be realistic. If you’re around someone who was sick, wash your clothes just like you would wash your hands. If you can’t wash the dirty clothes immediately, quarantine them in a hamper until you can. It might not sound fun to re-invent your laundry routine, but think of it as another way to take care of your health — and do your part to keep others healthy, too. 

Credit: Minette Hand

How to Air-Dry Clothes Quickly

If you’re not used to doing laundry without a machine, you might be surprised just how long it can take for your clothes to dry. To make sure you’re maximizing air flow, invest in a large, foldable drying rack. It will give you enough space to lay out an entire load and still fold up out of sight (under the bed, for example) when not in use. If you don’t have access to a drying rack, try and lay your clothes over open-air surfaces like the backs of chairs, window curtain rods, and shower curtain rods.

For smaller loads and single garments, a salad spinner can mimic the spin-dry action of a laundry machine when you’re not able to make it to a laundromat (but your garments will probably still need to be air-dried afterwards).

If it feels like your clothes are taking a really long time to dry, you might want to monitor the humidity inside your space. You can put a dehumidifier in the same area as your drying rack to help speed up the drying process.