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What the Sanitize Cycle is on Your Washer + When to use it

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Microbes are an integral part of the life balance in nature. They break down organic matter and act as a diligent waste management crew. 

Until they don’t. 

The dark side of the microbe world is when they cause infections and diseases. That’s when you need to get rid of them. Not just in your food but in the laundry too.

The sanitize cycle on your washer behaves as advertised. It uses steam or hot water to kill the laundry’s germs, allergens, dander, and parasites. Although it’s not for everyone, some, like healthcare workers and those exposed to all kinds of bacteria at work, will benefit from the sanitize cycle.

Besides knowing when to use it, you must know how it works. In some situations, you might take sanitizing the laundry into your own hands, literally. Read more to find out more about the sanitize cycle.

What the Sanitize Cycle is on Your Washer

Sanitizing Programs on Washers: Here's how they work
Here I talk more about the different sanitizing programs on washing machines.

As the name implies, the sanitize cycle uses heat to kill germs and parasites in the clothes to make them safe to wear. This usually comes in two forms: steam or hot water.

Even if you don’t work in hazardous conditions such as biological labs or the sanitation system, your clothes carry many bacteria and viruses under normal conditions. 

These include but are not limited to salmonella, norovirus, E. coli, and rotavirus.

If these viruses find their way into your food, they can cause serious diseases. In other words, everybody needs to use the sanitize cycle now and then.

Regarding health risks, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The sanitize cycle efficiently kills all of these viruses and bacteria if used correctly. The viruses and bacteria in the clothes will perish through prolonged exposure to high heat.

But for that to work, the hot water connection in your house must tolerate temperatures as high as 120 degrees F. 

The sanitize cycle not only kills the germs but also flushes them out of the laundry through strong water jets during the rinsing cycles.

A top-quality washer with an efficient sanitize cycle can kill up to 99.9 percent of the germs in the laundry.

Which brings up the question, how would you know if your washer has a top-quality sanitize cycle or not? It should have the NSF certification.

What is NSF Certification?

One of the easiest ways to tell if the sanitize cycle on the washer you want to buy is up to snuff or not is to look for the NSF certification

NSF is a company that checks for the safety of appliances you use at home and in everyday life. When a product passes the test, it’s awarded the NSF certification. 

NSF is an independent entity not affiliated with any particular industry or business. That’s what makes its certification all the more trustworthy. And one of the appliances they test is washers with a sanitize cycle.

To get the NSF certification, the washer has to kill at least 99.9 percent of the germs in the laundry regardless of which method it uses to achieve that result. 

If you find the NSF badge on the washer, you know it has an efficient sanitize cycle and that the laundry will come out of the washer germ-free. 

Keep in mind that not only does the washer have to kill the germs, but it has to remove them from the laundry as well physically. And that’s the guarantee that the NSF badge offers.

How the Sanitize Cycle Works

But how does the washer achieve this remarkable 99.9 percent success rate against germs of all types with its sanitize cycle? The answer is heat and prolonged exposure. 

When approaching the task of eliminating viruses and pathogens in the laundry, the sanitize cycle relies on increased temperatures during the wash, rinse, and dry cycles.

The guarantee is that no type of virus or bacteria can survive this lengthy exposure to high temperatures inside the drum.

Wash Cycle

During the wash cycle, which under the sanitize program is often much longer than a regular wash cycle, the washer exposes the germs in the laundry to extreme heat.

There are two washing methods that the washer can use to sanitize clothes.

  • Steam: The washer will increase the temperature of the water to turn it into steam, then push the steam through the jets on the laundry. The washer agitates the clothes effectively to ensure that the steam covers every inch of the laundry. The hot water connection at home has to handle temperatures above 165 degrees F for this method to work.
  • Hot Water: With this method, the water connection needs only to be able to handle water temperatures of 120 degrees. The washer raises the water temperature to around 100 or 120 degrees F and then douses the laundry with the hot water jets. No microbe can survive this type of heat for long.

Rinse Cycle

The rinse cycle is usually the same under the sanitize program, regardless of whether the washer uses steam or hot water during washing.

The washer again increases the water temperature to around 120 degrees F.

The rinse cycle is also a prolonged one, and the clothes get scalded with close to boiling water between two and three times.  

Dry Cycle

The dry cycle in the sanitize program is also longer than its counterpart in other washer programs. And it is divided into two sections.

The first is to heat the laundry to about 165 degrees F to eliminate all the allergens and bacteria that could have survived the washer and rinse cycles. 

The second part is a little longer than the first one, and it cools down the clothes so that by the end of the dry cycle, the laundry is a little warm and not scalding hot. 

When to Use the Sanitize Cycle

If you rely on laundry detergents and stain removers to kill all the germs in your laundry, you might need to reconsider that assumption.

Because let’s face it, the detergent gets diluted in gallons of water inside the drum, and the time the clothes are exposed to the diluted detergent is limited by any means.

So it’s no surprise that many pathogens, allergens, and odorous bacteria survive the wash, rinse, and dry cycles and live to cause more damage to the clothes and our skin. 

Does that mean that everyone should use the sanitize cycle every time all the time?

The answer is no.

You don’t need to sanitize your laundry every time. But you definitely need the sanitize cycle in the following situations.

  • Risky Exposure: If you work in hazardous conditions that expose you to germs or pathogens of different types, then the clothes you’re wearing need to be washed with the sanitize cycle. The excessive heat and thorough washing will not only eliminate the pathogens but break down and flush out any dangerous chemicals in the fabrics as well.
  • Healthcare Workers: Healthcare workers are exposed to a wide variety of germs on a regular basis. It’s safe to say that no matter how careful they are, their work clothes will be saturated with multitudes of viruses and bacteria by the end of the day. These clothes can only be sanitized with the sanitize cycle.
  • Nursing Mothers: If you’re a new mom, congratulations! You probably know that washable diapers are not easy to clean. Put them through the sanitize cycle to get rid not just of bacteria and germs but also the lingering odors. 
  • Kennel Workers: People who work in animal shelters or veterinary clinics or come into contact with animals in any way, they should wash their work clothes with the sanitize cycle. It works efficiently on pathogens as well as animal odors.

How to Sanitize the Laundry

Before the sanitize cycle was added to washers, people used to resort to the most drastic measures to get the laundry clean.

These methods included boiling the clothes and even bashing them with stones. 

Needless to say that these old-timey measures were not entirely effective in, say, warding off the Black Plague.

Not to mention the damage that the rock treatment inflicted on the fabrics. It’s safe to assume that a lot of darning and mending went on following the laundry.

Luckily you don’t have to resort to such harsh methods to sanitize your clothes. There are easier and more efficient ways to get rid of germs and lingering odors.

  • Laundry Sanitizer: A laundry sanitizer can be pretty effective against all types of germs, even without the need for hot water. Even if you have a sanitize cycle in your washer, some delicate fabrics would be damaged if they’re exposed to extreme heat and steam. Using a laundry sanitizer can be a safer option for such fabrics. I recommend OxiClean Powder SanitizerLysol Laundry Sanitizer Additive, and Liquid Laundry Sanitizer.
  • Liquid Bleach: Liquid bleach has a high success rate in eliminating different types of household germs as well as odors from animals. You can add bleach to the sanitize cycle in the washer or use it with a regular wash cycle. The only drawback is that not all clothes can tolerate bleach. It works well with whites but not with colors.  
  • Dryer Sanitization: If the washer doesn’t have a sanitize cycle, some dryers have that setting. You can then use that setting to sanitize the wet laundry at high temperatures. If the dryer doesn’t have that setting, you can choose the maximum temperature available to treat odors and germs effectively.

Needless to say, if you have a washer with a sanitize cycle, you can add either a laundry sanitizer or a liquid bleach with the right type of laundry to achieve higher rates of germs and odor elimination.


Will the Sanitize Cycle Shrink Clothes?

There’s a possibility that the extreme heat or steam treatment during the washing, rinsing, and drying cycles could cause some fabrics to shrink. How much they could shrink depends on the type of fabric and the age of the clothes.

New clothes that haven’t been washed before are more likely to shrink if you put them through the sanitize cycle. This is especially true of natural fabrics such as cotton or linen. Synthetics are less likely to be affected by the extreme heat and prolonged exposure during the sanitize cycle.

Likewise, suppose the clothes have been washed a few times before. In that case, you can wash them with the sanitizing program without worrying about them shrinking or losing shape too much. This is why experts recommend that you wash new clothes regularly a few times first before using the sanitize cycle.

Will the Sanitize Cycle Kill Bed Bugs?

Suppose the sanitize cycle can kill 99.9 percent of germs and viruses in the laundry. In that case, it’s safe to say that any bugs or parasites of any size or shape will not be able to survive the extreme heat in the drum. That includes bed bugs too.

When you go hiking or tread the water while fishing, chances are lots of small insects, mites, and parasites will end up on your clothes. These clothes should be washed under the sanitize cycle to get rid of the pests and before they get to the pets or children in the house. 

If you come in contact with wildlife or strange animals, even if they’re rats in the basement, you should assume that your clothes have plenty of pathogens and the only way to clean them is to wash them with the sanitize cycle.


The sanitize cycle in the washer kills up to 99.9 percent of the laundry’s bacteria, viruses, allergens, and parasites. The cycle exposes the clothes to the extreme heat of up to 165 degrees F for long periods of time during the wash, rinse, and dry cycles. 

I’ve created a comprehensive guide on how to use all the settings on your washing machine that may interest you to read next.


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