We’ve all been there before — you’re rushing to check off chores on your to-do list, and quickly toss a load into the washing machine. Fast forward to 11 p.m. that night. As you crawl into bed about to doze off — EEK! — you immediately remember your load of laundry, which is currently still sitting in the washing machine. As you lay there exhausted, you wonder if it really matters. The quick answer? Pull those covers back up and catch some Zzz’s, because your clothes should be just fine overnight. But there is indeed a time limit before those clothes do start to smell like mildew and will require a rewash. Read on to discover just how long can clothes sit in washer, what to do if you do detect any musty, mildewy odors and the expert-backed ways to nix smells from your laundry and washing machine.
How long can wet clothes sit in the washer?
Leaving wet laundry in a washing machine for anywhere from a few hours to overnight usually isn’t an issue, but home and lifestyle expert Jill Bauer of JustJill suggests letting your nose be the judge. Simply give the clothes a sniff to see if they have a sour or musty mildew smell. “If you don’t detect an odor, you’re probably okay to move the clothes to the dryer,” she says.
However, the humid, moist environment of your washer is a breeding ground for mold and mildew, and the smell on your wet clothes is due to the mold- and mildew-causing bacteria and fungi releasing funky-smelling gases. If you let your wet clothes sit too long and notice they’ve developed an odor, you may have to deal with not only the mildew smell in your clothes, but also potential stains and patches of rotten fabric, says Bauer. Yuck! To avoid this, it’s best to take your wet laundry out of the washing machine as soon as you remember.
Lucinda Ottusch, a home economist spokesperson from the Whirlpool Institute of Fabric Science, has said that laundry can be left for up to 12 hours in the household appliance. Over an eight to 12 hour period it is unlikely an unwanted odor will form, and even more unlikely for bacterial mildew to develop.
But the best way to know how long clothes can sit in the washer is to break it down by just what you left in there: “The type of fabrics you’re washing can determine how prone they are to developing an odor,” notes Bauer.
How long can clothes sit in washer if they’re made of heavy fabrics?
Thick, heavier fabrics, like sweatshirts, coats and blankets are more absorbent, so they’re going to trap the moisture that makes them more likely to develop mold or mildew problems compared to lighter-weight materials, says Bauer. If these types of thicker items have been sitting wet in your washer longer than 12 hours, it is wise to rewash them using detergent before moving them to the dryer.
How long can towels sit in the washer?
Like the heavier, thicker fabrics mentioned above, towels are absorbent and therefore can harbor more moisture that can lead to mold or mildew formation, says Bauer. If wet towels have been sitting in your washer longer than 12 hours, you should rewash them before moving them to the dryer.
How long can clothes sit in washer if they’re delicate fabrics?
Lighter-weight materials that can be considered delicates, like satin, lace or chiffon are thinner and more breathable fabrics that tend to trap less moisture than their above heavier counterparts, making them less likely to develop mold or mildew. While Bauer says that a rewash should be in order for any laundry that has been sitting wet for more than 24 hours, delicates can be an exception to the rule. “If you washed the delicates in cold water and you don’t detect an odor, you’re probably okay.”
How long can cotton and linens sit in washer?
According to a report from the Cooperative Extension of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, molds develop most often on the following fabrics: cotton, linen, rayon and silk. That’s because these natural materials are very absorptive and soak up water quickly, yet dry slowly. If these types of fabrics have been sitting wet in your washer longer than 12 hours, it is wise to rewash them using detergent before moving them to the dryer.
How to avoid leaving wet clothes to sit in the washer?
Bauer’s go-to trick for never letting another load of wet laundry sit too long: “I use the timer on my cell phone for everything!” she says. “And make sure the signals on your washer are set to loud so you can hear when your load is done.”
Another smart way to remember how long your clothes were in the washer for? Jordan Page of YouTube Channel Millennial Moms suggests keeping a dry erase marker next to your washing machine and using it to jot notes about what’s in the load on the side of your machine. Simply write the time and day you placed the clothes in the washer. That way you won’t struggle to remember just how long it’s been sitting in the machine, and you can save your nose the trouble of figuring it out. Then, just wipe it right off with a towel when you no longer need it!
How to remove the mildew smell from clothes with white vinegar
If your wet clothes do have an unpleasant odor, the good news is you don’t have to waste detergent by rewashing the load with it, says Bauer. “We know the laundry is clean, so it’s the odors we need to address.” Her favorite natural fix? Re-washing the clothes with a little white vinegar! Acetic acid in white vinegar kills mold and mildew-causing bacteria while also lifting any trapped smells. And there’s no need to worry that your clothes will smell like vinegar afterward since the water dilutes it.
To do: Whether you have a standard or high-efficiency washing machine, simply add 1 cup of white vinegar to your machine’s detergent dispenser and run a cycle on the hottest temperature setting suitable for the clothes you’re washing (the heat will help further kill the mold and mildew-causing bacteria). “Whites can be on hot, but your colors should be on warm or cool,” says Bauer. Dry as normal to finish.
No white vinegar on hand? Use baking soda
A little baking soda sprinkled on the wet clothes before running them on another wash cycle should do the trick, and the natural cleaner is safe for use in both standard and high-efficiency washers. “Baking soda neutralizes odor-causing chemicals on fabrics,” says home expert David Cusick, editor at TodaysHomeOwner.com. “Your fabric will come out smelling like new!”
Just sprinkle ½ to 1 cup of baking soda over the wet laundry, then wash (without any detergent) on the hottest temperature that’s suitable for the clothes you are washing. Dry as normal.
What to do if your washing machine has a mildew odor
So you left your wet clothes in the washer and they smell fine, but turns out your washing machine now has a mildewy smell?
To clean the machine and nix any mold or mildew hiding inside, Laura Mountford, author of the forthcoming book Live, Laugh, Laundry, says to add 2 cups of white vinegar to the detergent drawer of your empty washing machine, then run a hot wash cycle to leave it sparkling clean and smelling fresh. This method is safe for both standard and high-efficiency washing machines.
How to deep clean your washer even if you didn’t leave clothes to sit inside
To ensure your clothes smell fresh even if you take them out right away, Bauer suggests doing a full, deep clean with a washing machine cleaning product, like Affresh Washing Machine Cleaner (Buy from Amazon, $10.70) about once a month.
Check out this TikTok video from house cleaner @CleanHappyCo , for the easy steps for deep cleaning a washing machine.
Also smart: Be sure to keep the washer lid open after every load you wash so the inside can properly air dry, and regularly use a microfiber cloth to wipe out the moisture in the detergent and softener compartments and around all of the rubber gaskets and interiors, Bauer advises.
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