What's with the 'wash in cold only' tags lately?

gardenspudsJune 7, 2010

I was at the store this weekend looking at towels. It seems that every towel I picked up, whether white or dark colored, said "machine wash cold".

I didn't end up buying any towels, but did come home with a new set of sheets. After opening the package, the label says "machine wash cold on gentle cycle".

What the heck? All of my other sheets and towels say "machine wash warm". I haven't bought towels in a few years.

Even with "machine wash warm" I always wash my towels and sheets on either "hot" (125 F) or "temp boost" (150 F).

Have fabrics changed in towels and sheets? I've seen so many sheets that are "no-iron", are they treated with something, thus the cold water recommendation? I haven't bought any of the "no-iron" sheets, and haven't bought any of the towels with the "wash in cold" label.


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It could be compliance with the "save the planet" thing to do, or a CYA moment for the manufacturer should the material shrink.

I had a set of microfiber sheets, which are 100% poly and supposed to be as warm as flannel, and they were cold water wash. I'm sure hot water would have set wrinkles in them. I absolutely hated them and they quickly found their way into a box destined for the Goodwill.


    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 3:06PM
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It might be the dyes will fade/run in warmer water.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 4:02PM
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I know, I find this new trend sort of bizarre and very diappointing.

I'm a careful launder-er and I've learned to *ignore* most of those "wash in cold" tags.

According to my washer manual "cold" is 86° anyway, a temperature most people would probably think of as "warm." I think this is a really important point that is often misunderstood.

A long time ago, before I read a few really good books about houskeeping and laundry (and before I had heard of the Laundry Room Forum!) I used to use follow those tag instructions and use tap-cold water on dark colors, etc. In my experience doing that just doesn't get stuff clean after awhile. It was kind of gross, actually, now that I think back on it.

I wash dark cottons (even black) and cottons with 5% spandex on "very warm" 122° and "hot" 140° all the time now. Everything comes out looking great. (most dryers heat the clothes up to more than 140° anyway)

100% cotton or linen sheets and towels get 140° with an occasional 158° cycle as needed.

I wouldn't buy sheets or towels with any synthetic content... to me they're just not worth it if you can't wash them properly (in hot water).

Honestly if I had a new cotton towel or sheets shrink horribly or come apart just because they were washed in hot water I'd make a complaint and return them.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 6:19PM
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You might be interested in these pages:

Clothes Captioning: Complying with the Care Labeling Rule

Threading Your Way Through the Labeling Requirements Under the Textile and Wool Acts

While I also often wash stuff at higher-than-labeled temps, I realize that I may be degrading them in some way, immediately or over time. For example, some of my cotton towels come out of a 158F wash with the edges puckered. This is probably because some parts of the towel (trimming, threads, whatever) contain non-cotton fibers that aren't disclosed on the label. The puckering doesn't matter to me, but it might matter to you, say in a guest bathroom.

I own Hanes colored cotton T-shirts of two kinds: Lighter fabric without pocket, labeled warm wash, and heavier fabric with a pocket, labeled cold wash. All of them get washed at 122F ("very warm" on the Miele, "hot" on most American washers). The only evident damage is on the cold-wash shirts, where the printed-on care information has gotten blurred from the hot water. Not sure if the label-printing technique is the only reason for the cold-wash recommendation.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 9:01PM
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If a clothing tag says "wash in cold water only", I usually do. My washer has a Cool wash setting, so I usually use that. My clothes always come very clean and I've noticed they stay new-looking ever since I got my Maytag Bravos washer. I do always turn knits and t-shirts with logos on front inside out before washing.

However, when it comes to towels, I ignore any cold water labels. I just feel they need a better cleaning than cold water can give (don't know if Coldwater Tide would make a real difference, or not, and it's pretty expensive here). I wash them in warm water, not hot. So far, I have not seen any towels fraying, and most of ours towels come from Walmart or Penney's (usually bought 50%-70% off).

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 2:03PM
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I have read articles concerning infection control and the typical home laundry practices, like not using bleach and using cold water. I am not at all comfortable washing laundry with high contamination possibilities in anything other than hot water and with a disinfectant. This includes any kitchen linens and bath linens, undergarments and as far as I am concerned sheets. So, I use cotton, and usually white.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 8:44PM
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Thanks for the excellent links suburbanmd!!! The first link is very interesting. I now understand why I don't see "dry clean only" as often as I used to. Like you, I have noticed puckering of my towel edges because I wash towels in hot water, but it does not bother me.

calliope- While I don't work in infection control, I do have a background in microbiology. Unless someone in your household is immunocompromised, it's really not necessary at home to be concerned about infection from your laundry. E.coli and Staphlococcus are normal organisms that we all carry and are not harmful. Only certain strains of these organisms cause significant illness. I personally wash in warm and hot just because I feel it gives the enzymes in the detergent a better chance to clean soiled clothing, and clothes seem to come out looking brighter and smelling cleaner, but I rarely use bleach because I don't feel my linens, etc need to be sterile. Public places such as hosptials and hotels need to take precautions because they are mixing linens from unkown individuals, sick as well as healthy. At home, normal laundry practices won't make you sick. I personally am more concerned about making sure that food is properly prepared in my kitchen.


    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 10:35PM
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I'm not a germophobe and generally go out of my way to avoid the 'antimicrobials' so many products contain anymore. I don't think my laundry has to be 'sterile' either, but laundry water is grey water for a reason. There were several news blubs about the study microbiologist Charles Gerba conducted. He said that after doing a load of just underwear there will be about 100 million E. coli in the washwater. They do not go away magically from the inside of your washer before the next load goes in. You should really wash your hands after transferring wet laundry to the dryer. LOL. Unless you use hot water, bleach, or detergent with some sort of disinfectant action, when you do those sorts of articles some of them will remain on your clothing and in your washer. Also dryer heat on some cycles may not be adequate to kill certain pathogens.

I think about things like that when I wipe my mouth with a cloth napkin.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 1:43AM
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calliope- I am familiar with the type of studies you are referring to. Similar studies have been done doing swabbing toilets and kitchen sinks. I get irritated when seeing such studies floating around- they only create fear among people that do not understand microbial ecology. There is a big difference between the normal bacteria in our environment that we are exposed to daily, and pathogenic bacteria that make us ill.

My point is, you are immune to the E.coli in your washer- it naturaly lives in your intestines, and believe it or not, if you placed your WASHED hand on a petri dish, E.coli would grow. Similarly, if you left a petri dish open in your bathroom for even a short time, or touched your toothbrush to a petri dish, E. coli would grow. It is naturally in our environment. While it may seem gross that 100 million E. coli bacteria are lurking in your washer, they are not harmful.

That said, in different areas, people tend to have slightly different strains of E. coli. This is often the cause of "traveler's diarrhea", from drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food in a new country. Why don't the native people there get sick? Because they have developed resistance to their local E. coli strains. If one lived in that new area for awhile, that person would also eventually become immune to the new E. coli strains.

There are only a few strains of E. coli that make persons severely ill- O157:H is the most common. This strain makes one sick when eating tainted food. This is not the strain that naturally lives in our intestines. Most people will never become immune to this strain of E. coli because of how fast it damages the intestines- the person may die before gaining immunity to the bacteria. E. coli O157:H, along with the high incidence of Salmonella in raw chicken, are the reasons I am more concerned about people using clean practices in the kitchen than in the laundry room.

I am not trying to challenge, only trying to educate.


    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 10:51AM
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I'm pretty familiar with all of that, because I started out in science and engineering and ended up in nursing. And yes, food prep is an area where attention is best spent. I used E. coli as an example, since it's the indicator flag of human waste, but it's not the only pathogen of concern. Hepatitis A, adenovirus and some rotavirus can survive heats up to 131 according to another article.

I also agree that news articles aren't the best millieu to carry information like that to the general public because it all has to be taken in context. However, it is well within most people's grasp to understand that poop germs can survive cold laundry and other germs can also survive low dryer temperatures. It's your own choice if you want to lay your head on them or put them on your children knowing they probably won't cause illness. I prefer not to.

The superbugs are also something we are having to deal with now we didn't have to deal with when the shift to cold water washing was happening. I see care givers routinely out doing their shopping in their hospital scrubs after shift is over, eating in restaurants, running errands. It makes me cringe. I suspect down the road we will be rethinking some issues like doing one wash a week in hot water or looking for detergents with some sort of oxidizer in them for intimate clothing and articles. I also know that the very young and the very old are also age groups where immunity isn't at the same level as the general population. Lots of households have babies and elderly. As a personal choice, I'd much prefer to have puckered towels than clothing with bacteria or viruses on them, however safe we think they are. It's that simple.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 11:57AM
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I walked all around what I was getting at, so thought I'd clarify a little. If you really did understand microbiology the discourse on the dangers of E. coli would be unnecessary. I took coursework in water and waste in civil engineering class and have done those cultures myself. When tests are done for e. Coli it's not that e. coli is considered dangerous and it's understood that it is normal gut flora, even though exposure to strains you are not used to does cause illness. I've traveled on several continents and have been there and done that.

The importance of finding e. coli in tests is that plainly put, it means you have found fecal contamination. Where there is e. coli there could also be found any other pathogen capable of being spread by fecal contamination. Labs don't have to test for each and every one of them, the presence of e. coli (an relatively easily killed pathogen) is enough. Any other pathogen COULD be present.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 12:58PM
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Well, I'm a firm believer in washing things in either warm, or very hot water. At times, depending on the soil, I use bleach. I do not want E. coli or any other bugs in great numbers lurking in my towels, sheets, or underwear.

I used to have a career in the medical profession. Most microbes in the world are not harmful, or we develop resistance to many of them to the point we can co-exist. I still do not want underwear with "racing stripes" or my sheets spreading their joy around. Yuckk! I also did not wear my hospital work clothes out and about. I went staight home and they went in the washer...by themselves. I think it is gross that after handling sick people all day or night that someone would wear their work clothing all over the place. On the way to work is one thing. After work is another.

When my children were young we went on vacation to visit our in laws, at which time we all went to a water park. Two of my children developed a nasty strain of a staph skin infection, that my doctor linked to the water park. It spread through the whole family, except for me, via towels and such before realizing we needed lysol or bleach in the loads (also per doctor instructions). It took several rounds of differing antbiotics, expensive ones at that, to finally get rid of it. I do not EVER re-use towels anymore. And we do not do water parks or public pools.

When we sold our home in Upstate N.Y. back in 1997, we had to have water testing done for E. coli, typhus, and nitrates, prior to the sale of the home. The well had to be clean before the sale could close. Sorry, but I disagree that E. coli is harmless, and obviously N.Y. State feels that way as well. That said, when one of our daughters was 3, she drank some water from a friend's well, and became critically ill from E. coli contamination from that well. Again, our doctor traced things back.

I buy white towels so I can bleach them from time to time. I hang them outside if possible because then the UV does what the bleach would have done. I buy white or colorfast sheets. Everyday clothes are washed on warm to hot water depending on the type of soil. Usually hot. I haven't seen where it has harmed good qaulity clothing. Silk is a different matter, but a silk blouse wouldn't likely be getting E.coli on it anyway.

I'm not a germ phobic by any means. I don't own a bottle of antimicrobial soap and I use natural "green" cleaning products. Good old soap and plenty of water do the trick. I'm suspecting many cases of washed hands that have tons of germs weren't washed correctly. Observe people in a public bathroom. I don't touch the doorknobs.

Like someone mentioned above, lots of other, nastier things than E.coli lurk inside human intestines. Poop is not nice stuff. That's why it smells bad.

I don't "get" the cold wash delicate cycle thing either for towels. They won't get clean. Period. I don't buy those either.

Just my two cents.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2010 at 4:12PM
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A few years ago I had a rash that flared up from time to time. I finally consulted a dermatologist. He asked how I wash my undergarments. I told him in Warm water with detergent only. I told him they come out clean that way and the labels said warm wash.
The dermatologist said to wash undergarments in hot water with some bleach from time to time. He said that some microbes can survive warm washing and even though the clothes look and smell clean, they still can harbor stuff.
Sure enough, we switched to washing underwear in hot water with bleach every other wash and I have had no more problems with rashes.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2010 at 4:06PM
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I'm betting it is a "save the planet" thing. :)

    Bookmark   June 13, 2010 at 7:34PM
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I'm sure that's part of it, and it's an economy thing as well. Modern washers eat a lot of water, even the FLs if you consider that many people are double rinsing. LOL.

I am a tree hugger myself and I have very few chemicals in my household arsenal but bleach is one of them. I have a monstrosity of a hot water heater clad in ceramic and it only comes on once a day in off-peak hours and I don't feel particularly guilty using enough once a week to fill one laundry tub to adequately sanitize a load of white wash and underwear. In fact, I took the cool thousand I was going to use toward a new FL and instead bought a new wringer washer. The first wash is whites and intimates and the water is so hot you can't put your hands in it, and it is also laced with bleach. The second load uses the same water and it's light colours. The third and subsequent loads are darker or soil covered from our work. Then they all go out on the line for a dose of UV rays.

The silver drums in some laundry appliances are for the same purpose and many detergent manufacturers are now incorporating a disinfectant in their product for the same purpose.

When I was between washers, I had to take my clothing to a laundromat for awhile. You bet, you bet I used bleach in the first load in those machines.

It's a personal choice and if you feel comfy washing entirely in cold and it works for you..fine. I interjected because I believe that many manufacturers just make the assumption the majority of their customers do cold washes. I did for awhile. And hey, cold water is kinder to dyes. But, in the year since I've slapped my clothing silly with a wringer and hot water, they haven't deteriorated any faster than previously and in fact, the white loads are so white you need shades to take them off the line, lol, and there are no yellow collars, grey spots on hand towels, or shadows on the crew sock bottoms.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2010 at 9:53PM
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Even among the immunocompetent, some strains of E. coli can cause GI disorders. But those will come from outside (the home) sources like contaminated food or foreign water. If you aren't exposed to outside sources, you won't get sick from E.coli no matter what temperature you use for laundry. Nor will high temp wash water prevent disease since cell phones and keyboards are typically laden with bugs. Your level of "bug vigilance" needed will depend on your lifestyle-how often you travel, eat out, shake hands, etc. A rural farmer who raises his own food and has homeschooled kids, has less to worry about than a traveling saleperson with kids in preschool, for example.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2010 at 11:45AM
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That's true, but there are other bacterias out there that need lots of soap and hot water. I sited some of my examples because there are "bugs" that are picked up from traveling and such, (as you mentioned), that a person is typically unaware of immediately. The bad strain of staph and my towel saga for example.

Children can also pick pinworms up from school, and can be spread from dirty laundry. My children are grown now, but I had to go through the lice thing once and the pinworm thing once. It was a royal pain.

Most of us aren't going to get sick from our own germs. However, I like to make sure certain soils are washed out completely from my laundry.

I'm a fan of hot water and good detergent. My clothes still look as good as anyone else. And I don't feel oily sweat based soil is going to wash out in cold water. I certainly can't get vegetable oil off my hands in cold water. Microbes from underwear has to be eliminated as well. Female infections can be caused, or recurr from microbes that just don't want to die. I never saw where using hot water was such a sin, anyway. I see more ridiculous waste to the environment in many, many, other ways.


    Bookmark   June 16, 2010 at 3:09PM
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I too am a firm qbeleiver of washing whites and light collared items in hot water. jeans I do in warm except for the first time and that is only only the black ones. I do not use Chlorine bleach, just a quality detergent and make sure everything is rinsed properly. No issues here with dingy whites. And such. my Fl take watt to 153 degrees and to my knowledge not too much bacteria survive that.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2010 at 6:28PM
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Ok so I'm not nuts. A while back everyone was talking about washing towels in hot water and I was saying "I can't do that". All the towels I have bought thus far all say wash in warm or cold and when I washed a few in hot they shrunk and got really scratchy.

I'm wondering whats going on too. When I was a kid a lot of things said wash in hot.

Now I have found some things that say wash in cold that I have been able to wash in my hot setting with no problems. However, some things I am still too nervous to wash in hot.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 10:26AM
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Kind of on this subject....
A few years ago after we would arrive at our home after shopping with a shopping cart. We would wash our hands even before unloading the groceries. Some stores have those towel wipes, but the containers are usually empty.
Since we have started this process we haven't had any really bad colds in a long time.

Here is a link that might be useful: dirty shopping carts

    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 3:59PM
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IÂm not paranoid, but I like the idea of sterilized laundry. I bought the Laundrypure system for this reason only. It claims you donÂt need detergent or hot water but I use both sometimes. When I wash in cold water with delicates or black clothing I know everything is getting sterilized (smells great also) . However when items are heavily stained I do tend to make an exception and push the temperature limits. ItÂs just nice knowing every load is sterilized regardless of wash temp. In combination with my Miele and Persil, my laundry results off the hook amazing. ItÂs all been money well spent.

As for everything labeled as "wash in cold", I think manufactures artificially lower wash temperature to try to over protect their items. The way I see it, whatÂs the point of trying to make clothes last forever because if its stained IÂm not wearing it.


Here is a link that might be useful: Laundrypure System

    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 8:08PM
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First and foremost, laundry is SANITIZED not STERILIZED. There is NO laundry appliance, residential or commercial, that can sterilize textiles.

Textile sterilization can be accomplished via Steam Autoclave, Ethylene Oxide Sterilizer, Cobalt 60 Gamma Irradiation, and low temperature Hydrogen Peroxide Gas Plasma Sterilization.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 4:36PM
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K smarty pants, letÂs just say super clean.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2010 at 4:08PM
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