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Can I leave damp clothes in the washing machine overnight?

Updated October 26, 2018

Nearly everyone experiences the problem at some point: You throw in a load of laundry, settle in to watch your favourite prime-time shows and the next thing you know, morning comes and the wet clothes have been sitting in the washer all night. Depending on how long your clothes were actually in the washer though, you may not have any extra work in front of you.

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Check for Odors

In general, it takes between 8 and 12 hours for odours to develop in wet clothes, according to the Whirlpool Institute for Fabric Science. If the load of wet laundry has been in the washer for under 8 hours, you're probably in the clear. You can tell when you open the washer door. If the clothes smell worse than when you put them in, you'll probably have to rewash them. If they don't have a sour or mouldy smell, dry the clothes immediately to prevent any further damage.

Mildew Damage

Leaving wet clothes in the washer for too long can cause permanent mildew damage. In especially humid climates, mildew spots can appear on your clothing within a few hours. When mildew grows in fabric, it can be difficult to remove. Soaking the items in warm or hot water with a capful of detergent can remove mildew from some fabrics, but it doesn't always work. Even if the mildew is minor and the items are still usable, over time the mildew breaks down the fabric and leaves it susceptible to tearing and holes.

Odours in the Washer

Wet clothes left in the washer too long can affect the machine too, especially in front-loading machines. The warm, wet clothes and washer interior are a prime breeding ground for mould, fungus and mildew; they will grow inside the washer and around the rubber door gasket, causing the machine to smell bad. This smell can affect your clothing as well. To avoid a stinky washing machine, promptly remove wet clothes, and follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning the washer on a regular basis. Often, running an empty load with hot water and one cup of bleach will take care of any odour problems.

Avoiding the Problem

If you find that you inadvertently leave wet clothes in the washer overnight or for extended periods, take precautions to avoid damaging your clothes and washer and wasting resources by rewashing loads. Use the end of cycle signals included on the machine, or set a timer to remind yourself to put the clothes in the dryer. If you think you may fall asleep before the load is finished, or forget to transfer clothes to the dryer, set the timer on the machine. Many newer washing machine models allow you to set the machine to wash the load anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours in the future, helping to prevent wet laundry from sitting too long.

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About the Author

An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer on topics including lifestyle, education, and business. She is the author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), and her work has appeared in Lewiston Auburn Magazine, Young Money, USA Today and a variety of online outlets. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.

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