Here’s How Long You Can Leave Wet Clothes in the Washer, According to a Laundry Expert

updated Aug 16, 2022
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We’ve all done it plenty of times, and we’ll likely do it again: leaving wet clothes in the washer for hours (or more), whether because we forgot about them or didn’t have time to switch the laundry over to the dryer before running errands or heading to work. But how bad is that habit, really? We asked Marisa Murphy of Pioneer Linens, a third-generation, family-owned linens and housewares shop based in Palm Beach, everything we need to know about leaving wet laundry in the washer to keep our workout clothes fresh time after time. 

Quick Overview

How Long Can You Leave Wet Clothes in the Washer?

A good rule of thumb is to avoid leaving clothes in the washer for more than 8 to 12 hours. However, Murphy says there’s more to think about than just timing to prevent your clothes from smelling and mildewing, especially if you’re prone to letting your laundry sit for hours at a time. 

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 How to Prevent Your Laundry From Smelling Bad

“When you leave wet clothes at the bottom of the hamper, that can create a stale smell even before you start washing,” says Murphy. Here’s what to do.

 Hang Wet Clothes Before Washing

“Hang wet or damp pieces, like gym clothes, somewhere while they wait to get washed so everything else in your laundry basket doesn’t get moldy or smelly.” Murphy often hangs wet stuff over the side of the laundry basket to let them air out, and you can also hang wet or damp items on a hanging rack until you’re ready to start a load. This will help prevent your clothes from mildewing in the wash. 

Avoid Overpacking Your Washer

Another simple preventative tip to keep your clothes from growing smelly in the wash is to avoid overpacking it to the top. A full machine won’t allow for your laundry to spin, move around, and be penetrated by the detergent, leaving some clothes feeling and smelling more clean than others. She advises washing a full set of sheets on its own and washing your week’s worth of gym clothes separate from your partner’s or roommate’s to make sure there’s plenty of room for them to be properly cleaned, especially if they will be sitting in the wash for a while after the cycle is done. 

Clean Your Washing Machine

Murphy also says that many people don’t realize they need to clean their washing machines to prevent or clear out mold and mildew. “Your washing machine can actually start to smell on its own, and you need to clean it,” Murphyshe says. “Front-loaders especially are prone to getting moldy, particularly in the rubber, so you need to avoid leaving clothes or materials in the washing machine overnight.”

This is because when you leave laundry in the wash for more than 8 to 12 hours, the machine doesn’t get to breathe due to excess moisture for a prolonged period of time. That leads to the machine not being able to have time to dry out between loads, so if you frequently leave laundry overnight, you may want to check your rubber liner for mold, as well as the drain where the water comes out of for built-up lint. She also advises leaving your washing machine door open overnight to help it dry out faster.

“An appliance specialist taught me that you can always run the ‘clean’ cycle with distilled white vinegar and that will clean out any odors or other smells,” she says. “Fresher laundry starts with a fresh machine.”