A Cautionary Laundry Tale

Along those not every green thing is good lines, here’s a lesson I learned recently.
Before I could afforded fancy things like a washing machine, I had to go to the laundromat. I hated dragging my clothes to the laundromat. It was an inconvenient and annoying chore that I tried to do as little as possible. Plus, I never had enough money–or quarters, really–to wash my clothes, which stressed me out.
So I tried to reduce my wash. I got in the habit of re-using clothes that weren’t dirty. I wore shirts several times in a row. I would use a towel two or three times before I washed it, always hanging it to dry in between. I had an elaborate system where I divided a wash cloth into thirds and used it three times before hanging it to dry and then putting it in with the dirty clothes. This system worked great and reduced the number of times I had to go to the laundromat greatly. And no I never smelled.
During this time of, oh say 10 years, I never had anything sour. I didn’t even know that laundry could sour, that’s how unfamiliar with souring I was. Then about three years ago, something changed. Although I now had a washer and dryer and could do laundry more frequently, my towels started souring. I thought it was because I had gotten lazy about moving wet clothes directly from the washer to the dryer and tried to be more on top of that. It didn’t work. One by one our towels soured until we had to replace them all with new towels.
Then a weird thing happened: Our new towels started souring too. I was perplexed. I started washing towels after one use, something I have never had to do before. Still, our new fluffy new white towels started to smell gross. What was going on here?
I thought back to what changed three years ago, and I figured it out. Three years ago, I switched to all cold water washing. This is a common frugal/green tip: wash all your laundry in cold water and not only do you no longer have to sort laundry into colors and whites, you save money on your electricity bill because you aren’t paying to heat the water.
However, soap alone is apparently not enough to kill the bacteria that was gathering in my towels. While they could take hanging for 2-3 days and then a nice hot wash, they could not take the repeated cold washes, which kept the bacteria alive enough to grossify everything.
So I learned a hard lesson: Washing everything in cold water doesn’t work. At least, it didn’t for me. It took me three years and two batches of new towels to learn this lesson. On top of that, I never noticed much of a difference in my electricity bill from using all cold water. This is officially an expensive lesson, folks. It’s back to sorting and hot water washes for the Savvy Housekeeper.

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5 thoughts on “A Cautionary Laundry Tale”

  1. I never thought of that. I still go to the laundromat, and I usually wash most things on cold because I have to combine loads and my clothes cannot be washed on hot. I have had my towels for a long time, but I think this never happened to me because I do wash them with my sheets on hot (that makes a full load).

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  2. Huh, I have always washed almost everything in cold water and never had this problem, and my towels go more than 2-3 uses between washings (more like a couple weeks). Maybe it also has to do with the hardness/softness of your water or something along those lines.

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  3. Hiya. Thanks for commenting.
    B–I admit it sounds strange and I know it isn’t something that happens to everyone. But the cold water is the only constant in the last few years with this situation. We’ve moved around a lot, using different waters and environments. I’m using warm again and I’m already seeing a difference. I’ll probably still use a cold water wash for clothes and save the hot water for blankets/towels/dish cloths, etc.

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  4. I wash everything in cold water (have for over 10 years) and haven’t had this problem. I have heard of people washing just their towels and sheets in hot water though, but not their actual clothes.

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  5. Canadian–Yeah, that’s what I seemed to have settled into. I wash everything in cold except for towels and sheets, which I wash in warm. The problem hasn’t reoccurred. I still don’t know why it was happening in the first place–lots of people wash in cold and don’t have this issue.

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