Do essential oils fight laundry bacteria?

Essential oils do more than freshen laundry—some kill bacteria on clothes. These plant extracts provide a natural way to clean and sanitize fabrics without harsh chemicals.

Not all essential oils work well for laundry. Some fight germs better than others, and a few might even harm certain fabrics.

Let’s dive into the world of essential oils in laundry and discover which ones truly deliver on their germ-fighting promises.

Quick links:

What are essential oils?

How do essential oils fight bacteria?

Best antibacterial essential oils for laundry

How to use essential oils in laundry

How much essential oil should I add?

Do essential oils damage the washing machine?

For a safe and easy way to add essential oils to your laundry routine, try our scented spray. Spritz it onto wool dryer balls, toss them into the dryer, and enjoy fresh, healthy fragrances without compromising your fabrics or endangering your household. All of our laundry products are free of harmful chemicals and synthetic fragrances. 

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What are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from plants. These natural oils capture the plant's scent and beneficial properties.

Unlike artificial fragrances, essential oils come from real plant sources. They contain a mix of natural compounds that give each oil its unique smell and effects. People use these oils for many purposes, including aromatherapy, personal care products, and laundry.

The word "essential" in their name doesn't mean we need them to live. Instead, it refers to the essence or characteristic fragrance of the plant they come from.

These powerful plant extracts offer a natural alternative to synthetic scents in your laundry routine.

How essential oils fight bacteria

Essential oils do more than make your laundry smell nice—they fight bacteria on your clothes. These plant-based oils work in several ways to keep your laundry clean and fresh:

  • Breakdown bacterial defenses. Essential oils damage the outer layer of bacteria, which reduces their survival rate.
  • Prevent bacterial growth. Some oils inhibit bacterial multiplication, which leads to longer-lasting freshness in your clothes.
  • Deep fabric penetration. Essential oils infiltrate fabric fibers and attack bacteria that water and regular detergents often fail to reach.

The effectiveness of essential oils in your laundry depends on a few factors:

  • Quantity. More oil means stronger germ-fighting power, but be careful not to use too much as it could damage fabrics.
  • Water temperature. Warmer water helps the oils work better against bacteria.
  • Wash time. Longer wash and dry cycles give the oils more time to fight germs.
  • Type of fabric. Natural fibers (such as wool, cotton, linen, and bamboo) absorb essential oils better than others.

Essential oils effectively target common laundry bacteria, including those that cause body odor and musty smells. Many oils also fight fungi and prevent mold growth on clothes. This dual action makes essential oils a versatile addition to your laundry routine.

Best antibacterial essential oils for laundry

Laundry routines benefit from several essential oils with potent antibacterial properties. These natural extracts fight odor-causing microbes and leave clothes with a chemical-free fresh scent. Here are some of the most popular choices:

  • Tea tree oil eliminates gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria from fabrics. This oil's strong antifungal, antiseptic, and antimicrobial properties tackle stubborn odors and sanitize clothes. Tea tree oil works wonders on pet bedding and musty towels.
  • Lavender oil combines a pleasant scent with antibacterial properties. It fights common laundry microbes while imparting a natural, floral fragrance. Many people appreciate lavender's calming aroma and softening effect on laundry.
  • Eucalyptus oil contains antibacterial and antifungal properties. It refreshes musty-smelling clothes and helps prevent mildew growth. The oil's crisp scent leaves laundry smelling clean and refreshed. Eucalyptus oil can tackle filthy, germ-filled laundry.
  • Lemon oil cuts through grease and grime while battling bacteria. Its citrusy aroma leaves a clean, natural scent. Lemon oil is effective against fungal strains and viruses, making it versatile for both washer and dryer use.
  • Rosemary oil possesses impressive antimicrobial, antifungal, antiparasitic, and antiseptic benefits. It effectively deodorizes workout clothes and other pungent garments. Rosemary's antimicrobial activity maintains freshness between washes.
  • Grapefruit oil is a disinfectant and antiseptic with an uplifting scent. People often pair it with rosemary or lavender for a pleasant fragrance. Its citrusy aroma adds a bright note to clean clothes.
  • Thymol and carvacrol, found in oils such as thyme and oregano, fight bacteria. While less common in laundry applications, these oils are safe for your laundry and great for other tough cleaning jobs.

How to use essential oils in laundry

You're probably ready to make essential oils an essential part of your laundry routine. Here are several methods to incorporate these powerful plant extracts into your laundry process:

  1. Add essential oils to laundry detergent
  2. Use Smart Sheep scenting spray
  3. Create DIY antibacterial laundry sprays
  4. Use essential oils in the rinse cycle

Add essential oils to laundry detergent

You can enhance your regular detergent with essential oils. Add 5–10 drops of your chosen oil to the detergent before each wash. This method works for both liquid and powder detergents. The oil will mix with the detergent and distribute evenly throughout the wash.

Use Smart Sheep scenting spray

Smart Sheep offers a convenient way to incorporate essential oils into your laundry routine. Our wool dryer ball spray lets you add your favorite scents directly to dryer balls. Simply apply a few drops of the spray to your wool dryer balls before tossing them in with your laundry. 

The heat from the dryer activates the essential oils, dispersing their fragrance and antibacterial properties throughout your clothes. This method provides a chemical-free alternative to dryer sheets while giving your laundry a natural, fresh scent.

Create DIY antibacterial laundry sprays

Mix 10–15 drops of essential oil with 1 cup of water in a spray bottle. Shake well before each use. Spray this solution on clothes before washing or on damp laundry before drying. This method proves especially useful for odor-prone items.

Use essential oils in the rinse cycle

For a natural alternative to commercial fabric softeners, add essential oils to your rinse cycle. Mix 1 cup of white vinegar with 10–15 drops of your preferred essential oil. Add this mixture to the fabric softener compartment of your washing machine. The vinegar softens clothes while the essential oil provides fragrance and antibacterial benefits.

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Antibacterial effects for all wash cycles

Wash temperature and duration alter the effectiveness of essential oils. For maximum antibacterial action follow these tips:

  • Hot water cycles: use 3–5 drops of oil, as heat enhances potency.
  • Cold water cycles: increase to 7–10 drops to compensate for reduced effectiveness.
  • Longer cycles: allow more time for the oils to work their magic.
  • Quick washes: use slightly more oil or pre-treat clothes for better results.

Do essential oils damage the washing machine?

The good news is that adding a few drops of essential oil to your liquid laundry detergent or using essential oil-infused laundry products (e.g. homemade fabric softeners) is considered safe for washing machines.

Use oils sparingly, and opt for high-quality, pure essential oils rather than synthetic fragrance oils. If you add too much essential oil, it can deposit a residue that may clog pipes or damage the washing machine over time.

Essential oils FAQ

Can I use essential oils instead of dryer sheets?

Essential oils provide a natural alternative to traditional dryer sheets. Before starting a dry cycle, add 3–5 drops of your favorite essential oil to wool dryer balls. The gentle tumbling will release a fresh scent throughout your laundry.

Can essential oils cause skin irritation?

Essential oils can cause skin irritation in some individuals, especially when undiluted. To minimize this risk in laundry, use only a couple of drops of essential oil with an unscented laundry detergent (or use our scenting spray). 

People with sensitive skin or allergies should perform a patch test before using essential oils in their laundry load. Natural fragrances can be potent, so use them sparingly.

Can bacteria become resistant to essential oils?

While bacteria can develop resistance to many antibiotics, they are less likely to become resistant to essential oils. Overuse of any antibacterial agent, including natural disinfectants such as essential oils, may lead to some resistance over time. It's best to use essential oils in laundry as part of a balanced approach to cleaning.

Which essential oil is the strongest antifungal?

Tea tree essential oil is widely recognized as one of the strongest essential oils with antifungal activity. It's effective against fungal infections and can be added to laundry for its antimicrobial properties. 

Other oils with potent antifungal effects include oregano, thyme, and lavender oil. When using these natural products in laundry, remember that you only need a little to get the antimicrobial benefits and a refreshing scent.

What carrier oils are antibacterial?

Several carrier oils possess antibacterial properties that can be beneficial in laundry applications. Here are some notable examples:

  • Coconut oil: known for its strong antibacterial and antifungal effects
  • Neem oil: exhibits potent antimicrobial properties
  • Olive oil: has mild antibacterial action
  • Grapeseed oil: contains antimicrobial compounds
  • Castor oil: demonstrates antibacterial properties

How can I avoid synthetic fragrances in laundry and cleaning products?

Avoid synthetic fragrances in laundry and cleaning products by opting for natural ingredients and eco-friendly options. For example, our line of eco-friendly laundry products is good for the planet and your laundry.

Further reading

Wool dryer balls vs dryer sheets

What are the best laundry detergents for sensitive skin?

Why should I put a safety pin on wool dryer balls?

Can you use wool dryer balls and dryer sheets together?

What are the best wool dryer balls?