How do I clean cotton napkins?
January 24, 2013 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I have cotton napkins, some 100 percent, some 65 percent. And it says on the label to wash them in cold. I want to make sure that when my child puts the napkin to her mouth that the napkin is sanitary. But I'm wondering if washing them in cold takes all the microbes out. I'm not only talking about the food, but what about my wash machine which may have just washed our family underpants. Is this common practice? Or am I missing something? Am I supposed to be washing the napkins in a bucket instead? I wanted the convenience of washing in the washing machine, but if that is not sanitary I will do the bucket. Also, if I can do it in the machine, should I do it in warm to make sure microbes are gone? Or is cold best? Also, should I line dry or do it in the dryer. Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by lynnie-the-pooh to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Consider: Whatever trace gak may have been washed off your family's underpants gets rinsed out in the multiple number of rinses your washer puts that load through before it's done.

Just wash your napkins in the washer. You're fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 AM on January 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

Or, if you're really still concerned, just wash all the napkins on a different day than you wash the underpants or something. Because whatever trace microbes may be hanging around in a washer after the underpants will most likely die when exposed to air, so leaving them in the washer for a day would kill them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:33 AM on January 24, 2013

I've been washing all my laundry in the same machine in cold water for years and years. Sometimes the napkins and the underwear end up in same load depending on the colour of each. My son is now a big strong healthy 12 year old. Do not worry about this.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:33 AM on January 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

If these napkins aren't particularly valuable (sentimental or otherwise), just wash them in hot. They may fade more quickly or shrink, but you'll have peace of mind.
posted by payoto at 7:35 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Even hot water wouldn't be killing many germs unless it's over 180, and if you have a child in the home your hot water is probably not set to over 180.

This sounds like one of those "concerns" made for the local evening news to scare the bejeebers out of you with. "Could your washing machine be killing you?"

I'm no microbiologist, but I am a human being who survived a normal existence in a home where laundry was not even sorted. Not worth worrying about. Don't you think if this were a significant health hazard, it would have been made known to you through countless means?
posted by Miko at 7:36 AM on January 24, 2013 [12 favorites]

Also, we hang dry pretty much everything, always.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:36 AM on January 24, 2013

Your child's hands are way less sanitary than a napkin that has been washed in any washing machine.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:36 AM on January 24, 2013 [46 favorites]

My mother thought nothing of throwing in hankies, napkins, underwear and dish-towels together, in cold water. Line-dried. We're all healthy as horses.

You're overthinking this. Wash them the cheapest, most environmentally-friendly way possible (cold + line). It's fine.
posted by Salamander at 7:40 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The line has an added bonus: sunshine is a better antibacterial than washing soap.

I just did some reading about it, and to the extent that anyone's concerned, it's not about washing things like undies and napkins together - it's the general state of washers, which are full of bacteria (though obviously not at harmful levels). So pretty much anything you wash in there is getting an equal level of bugs in it. The prescription for this seems to be to do a wash cycle with just water + 1 cup of bleach every week or so.

Even that I think is pretty silly, since the level of risk seems to be so incredibly low. In fact I'd be more worried about using that much bleach in my life.
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on January 24, 2013

I'd worry more about your child crawling around on your floor and then putting her hands in her mouth than about perfectly clean napkins.

The world is kind of filthy. Microbes are everywhere. You can't escape them, your kid can't escape them. In the long run, her immune system will be better and stronger for getting a chance to fight germs off successfully while she's young.

The question makes you sound hugely overprotective. I'm not saying that to be offensive or mean - just, if this is the kind of thing you're worrying about on a regular basis, you may want to take a long look at the kinds of messages you're sending to your kid about life.
posted by kythuen at 7:43 AM on January 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

What about bleach? Either bleaching them as one might bleach whites (and of course in the washing machine) or just adding a little bit to kill germs as you might if you were cleaning up in a food service environment? Or is that deprecated now and I am old fashioned?

You might also reflect that even if we're all washing our hands really well, we probably all come into contact with certain of our own bodily effluvia anyway and while it may be unaesthetic it doesn't hurt. (Consider bathing in a tub! Sitting in the same water that you've just dunked your filthy self in! And yet people do that all the time!)
posted by Frowner at 7:44 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: No, I'm not worrying about this on a regular basis, it was just a question about how to wash cotton napkins.....................that is, washer? in warm or cold?, dryer or line dry? I'm really not a worry crazy person, but my question might have been worded to look that way.
posted by lynnie-the-pooh at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Consider that the majority of kids:
- use their dirty sleeves to wipe their mouths/noses/faces
- pick their noses and eat it
- play about in dirt and mud and still put their hands on their face/in their mouths
- get accidently coughed/sneezed on in the face by their friends and classmates
- etc
and yet they still manage to survive.

Having read your update, if your concern is really just how to wash your napkins, I think you can do it however is most convenient. I'm sure your napkins are totally fine however you choose to wash them. If it is convenient to wash them in cold water and line dry them, they go for it. If tossing them in with your other clothes works, then great. Your convenience and being environmentally friendly should be your concerns, if you ask me.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:52 AM on January 24, 2013

I'd wash them on cold with some of that bleach that is designed for cold water, myself. And I'd dry them in the dryer - I actually have some napkins that I inherited from my aunt, and the only ones that were really fragile were either actual linen or some kind of nicer, obviously for fancy dinner parties kind of weave.

What about picking out three and doing a test wash?
posted by Frowner at 7:52 AM on January 24, 2013

Best answer: it was just a question about how to wash cotton napkins.....................that is, washer? in warm or cold?, dryer or line dry?

Use the washer. The label says to wash them in cold, so wash them in cold. You can put them in the dryer or you can line dry them; it doesn't really make a difference. I'd use the dryer myself, but that's me. No other precautions are necessary.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:55 AM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

No, I'm not worrying about this on a regular basis, it was just a question about how to wash cotton napkins.....................that is, washer? in warm or cold?, dryer or line dry?

In that case, the answer is simply "whatever the manufacturer suggests on the label."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:55 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

it was just a question about how to wash cotton napkins

You said that the napkins have labels bearing instructions. Follow those instructions.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:03 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I use cotton napkins and once a week a do a load of all the kitchen towels, handtowels and napkins. Everything else I am a lazy ass non-sorting laundry schlub. But for kitchen stuff I throw a bit of color safe bleach with the regular detergent. Kids are grown almost and reasonably healthy. My water that goes to the washing machine never gets hot, so on lukewarm at best.
posted by readery at 8:09 AM on January 24, 2013

Look, it says cold because that's the manufacturer's safest option short of dry clean only. But as you say, nobody wants to hand wash or dry clean napkins. You can generally wash 100% cotton on hot if you want. But depending on the quality of your napkins they may suffer somewhat. The colour may fade, you may set stains, you may warp the shape because whilst the napkin can take it the thread it was sewed with cannot. It's entirely up to you how you wash your napkins. Absolutely put in the machine, at whatever tempereature you think is most appropriate given the above considerations. and your sanitary concerns. But yes, even in a cold wash nobody is going to get ill.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:10 AM on January 24, 2013

I share your fears of ick, so I wash mine in warm (because I think it gets more of the physical crud out) and then dry them on the line in the sun as often as is possible. Rightly or wrongly, I'm convinced that sunlight kills everything.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:22 AM on January 24, 2013

Warm and and OxyClean should be fine.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:22 AM on January 24, 2013

If you're really worried, wash the napkins like normal. Get your hands on sterile water and some EMB plates*, **. Put the napkin through the sterile water, swab the water on an EMB plate, and incubate at body temperature for 24-48 hours. Anything that grows that's shiny iridescent like a dragonfly is E. coli and that means you've got fecal bacteria coming through the wash.

I'm going to suspect you won't get anything without putting the water through a series of filters but that adds new layers of complexity and anyway, if you have to filter it to get a viable count, then it's not going to hurt your child.

I say this as someone who is somewhat relieved when her child eats the floor cheerios, as it means I won't have to sweep the floor right this moment. And as someone who regularly mixes the yuck levels of laundry.

*This method may require making friends with a local microbiologist. Do you have friends at the local school? Someone might be curious enough to do it for fun. I would, but I'm not in the lab this semester.

** You'll want to use EMB instead of a more easily-available kind of Petri plate since EMB will select against the common skin bacteria and only show the presence of the common fecal bacteria.
posted by arabelladragon at 8:48 AM on January 24, 2013

Best answer: Why don't you try washing one or two in hot and see what happens? A lot of manufacturers put "wash cold, tumble dry low" as a default...but really are you going to care if your napkins shrink slightly?
posted by radioamy at 8:53 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

My mom is a pediatric nurse, constantly hacked/coughed/sneezed on by kids, and also a bit of a germaphobe.

She'll sometimes do a "sanitize" load on her scrubs. Which is a nifty setting that her new washing machine came with. It basically takes the entire hotwater tank and an hour of washing. It's basically overkill. It makes her feel better about it.

Also, keep in mind that most germs that are going to be harmful to you need someplace warm and moist to survive (like inside a human!). A dry, cotton napkin, or dry undies don't really fit the bill.
posted by fontophilic at 9:34 AM on January 24, 2013

I grew up in a cloth napkin house and we always just washed them with everything else. My parents (who are clean, orderly people but not fastidious) tend to sort laundry by color and, to an extent, care instructions on the label. I don't remember doing a special "cold" load for napkins or for things that said "wash in cold water" on the label.

That said, our napkins were never, like, Precious Family Heirloom napkins, just whatever looked pretty at Pier One when it was time to buy new napkins. If your cloth napkins are very precious to you, you may want to do a special load making sure to follow all the instructions to the letter.
posted by Sara C. at 11:21 AM on January 24, 2013

I wash my cotton and cotton-blend cloth napkins in hot water and dry them on hot. I actually throw them in with sheets and/or towels. The fabric did not suffer. They are probably labeled to wash in cold because you typically remove stains easiest in cold water. Do not plan on getting stains out in a hot wash.
posted by FergieBelle at 12:54 PM on January 24, 2013

Here's a somewhat related hint. When I wash my napkins, I don't toss them in the dryer, but instead spread them out really really flat in a big pile on the kitchen counter. After a few hours, I flip the pile over. This has the effect of ironing them, to about 90% of the quality of actually ironing, with about 10% of the effort. Sorry this is sort of off topic, but it's one of my favorite time-saving tricks.
posted by Capri at 3:36 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

After dinner we toss the cloth napkins, dish cloth, sponge and dish towels into the washer and they go for a ride with whatever's in the next load. Hot, warm, cold, rubbing next to underpants - it's all been fine. My mom did the same with no ill effects. Decades of anecdotal experience says that you can toss them in with whatever's in the next load.
posted by 26.2 at 6:26 PM on January 24, 2013

I use cotton napkins. I wash them in warm/cold, just like everything else, and toss them in the dryer, just like everything else. I've been doing this for years and they haven't shrunk. They have worn out, but we're tough on our napkins.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:17 AM on January 26, 2013

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