Here’s How the Sanitize Cycle Works to Kill Germs in a Dishwasher or Washing Machine

published Apr 2, 2020
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While cleaning supplies like bleach and disinfecting wipes can help keep germs from spreading throughout your home, there might be an easier way to disinfect your stuff. The sanitizing cycles on certain appliances are designed to reduce germs found on everyday items—from clothing and bedding to dishes.

If you have a sanitize cycle on your dishwasher, washing machine, or dryer, now’s the time to use it. We asked two experts from GE Appliances, Adam Hofmann, Director of Engineering in Dishwasher Advanced Systems and Steve Hettinger, Director of Engineering in Clothes Care to help us break down the science at work in their machines.

See all of Apartment Therapy’s disinfecting coverage.

What is the sanitize cycle on a dishwasher? 

Your dirty dishes are rife with more than just grease and food debris—they can be covered in harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria, that spreads the longer it sits in your sink. And since food and grease buildup can make it difficult to thoroughly disinfect your dishes, the sanitizing cycle on your dishwasher is always your best bet. Hofmann says the magic happens with a combination of a high-temperature rinse and spray arms that reach out to ensure that hot water makes contact with every inch of your dishes. During the rinse, water reaches at least 150° F and circulates through the dishwasher to reduce a range of bacteria commonly found on dishes, glassware and stemware,” he says.

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What is the sanitize cycle on a washing machine or dryer? 

Your clothes and cleaning cloths can host a range of bacteria, including norovirus, rotavirus, salmonella and E. coli. Just like with a dishwasher, high heat is the active germ-fighting factor when you switch on your laundry’s sanitizing cycle. (First a warning: Hettinger says that your machine’s sanitizing cycle is only effective if your home’s hot water connection is working at a temperature of 120°F or higher.)

“The ‘Sanitize’ cycle uses elevated water temperature and a longer wash cycle to kill bacteria,” according to Hettinger, while an extended rinse cycle and purge pump ensure that any pathogens lingering in the wash water are removed. GE Appliances also feature a special cycle that’s designed to maximize the sanitizing effects of a bleach alternative like OxiClean. “The ‘Sanitize with Oxi’ cycle is designed to remove bacteria when using an Oxi additive with detergent,” he says. “This cycle includes an initial lower water fill for a super concentrated, high-temperature sanitization followed by a heavy wash.”

With regard to dryers, the heat from a normal drying cycle is not sufficient on its own to sanitize your laundry.  However, the sanitizing cycle on a dryer gets hot enough to help destroy germs or bacteria lingering on your laundry. “High heat is used during a portion of the drying cycle on GE Appliances, and cool down is extended to protect users from a hot garment,” Hettinger says.

Will the sanitize cycle shrink clothes?

Depending on the age and the material of the clothing item, there’s a chance the sanitization cycle of your washing machine or dryer might shrink your laundry. Hettinger says that risk is higher if your garment is fresh off the rack, but when it comes to clothes that have already been washed several times before, there shouldn’t be any difference in shrinkage when using your laundry’s regular or sanitizing cycles.

Will the sanitize cycle kill bed bugs?

Good news: Hettinger says that the heat from the sanitize cycle of your dryer is enough to exterminate any bed bugs hanging onto your stuff. “GE Appliances are not tested or certified to kill bed bugs, however, the heat level of the sanitize cycle on GE Appliances’ dryers is sufficient to kill them,” he says. According to the pest experts at Orkin, 125°F is sufficient to kill both adult bed bugs and their eggs.