How long can wet laundry stay in the washer? We ask an expert

Odorous laundry
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Have you ever left a load of wet laundry in the washer again and returned home to a stinky, moldy pile of clothes, towels or sheets? We’ve all done it from time to time, and it's no surprise; the best washing machines are so quiet that it’s easy to forget they’re running at all.

However, leaving clothes to fester in damp conditions can lead to musty odors, mildew growth and even dye transfer between coloured and light items of clothing. As a result, you could end up having to throw out some much-loved clothes. But how long can damp fabrics safely sit in your washer before becoming a breeding ground for bacteria and pungent smells? 

We examine the evidence and ask our laundry pro for advice on when to remove wet laundry from your washer. 

How long can wet clothes sit in the washer? 

This is one of the steps to know when researching how to wash clothes in a washing machine. You'll need to wait until the machine has finished, then decide how you want to dry it; hung outside or in your best dryer. The trick is, though, to remove it from the washer in good time.

“While placing garments in the dryer or on the clothesline right after the cycle finishes is best practice, wet laundry should generally not stay in the washer for more than 8-12 hours,” says Ocean Van, owner of Coco Laundry, a laundry service provider in Long Beach, CA.

“Mildew and mold thrive in warm, damp environments, and the washer provides an ideal setting if laundry is left too long. As bacteria grow, they produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) responsible for the musty smell.”

Ocean Van
Ocean Van

Ocean Van is owner of Coco Laundry, a laundry service provider in Long Beach, CA. He has years of experience in making clothes, garments and linen smell good, as requested by both residential and commercial (especially hospitality) customers. 

Bacteria and mold can lead to unpleasant odors, potential skin irritations, and even health risks for people in your household with allergies or respiratory conditions.

If damp clothes are left in the washer for too long, this can also raise the risk of set-in wrinkles. Once the item is dry, it can be harder to remove wrinkles, and you may need to spend more time ironing or steaming it. 

As a result, you’ll likely use more energy, too, which will cost you more money on your household bills. If the laundry sits in the washer long enough to smell musty, it will also need rewashing, leading to extra water and energy consumption.

Beyond mold issues, the longer laundry stays wet, the higher the chances are that dye can bleed from colored items onto lighter items. You may pull out what was once a crisp white shirt and find it's taken on an unsightly tint from mingling with your dark sweaters for too long.

However, some washing machines have a feature that automatically runs a spin cycle after a certain period to prevent problems such as odor, color-running and mold. 

Can towels stay wet in the washer longer than other laundry? 

Smelly towels

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You may have heard claims that highly absorbent fabrics like towels, robes, and washcloths can safely stay wet in the washer for longer than 24 hours. However, Ocean advises still following the standard 8-12 hour guideline for all types of laundry. 

“The increased water retention of towels actually makes them particularly prone to mildew and bacterial growth,” says Ocean. “Unlike lighter fabrics, towels take longer to dry and stay damp for extended periods, providing a perfect environment for mold and bacteria to flourish. Removing and drying towels promptly after the wash cycle, preferably sooner than other laundry, helps prevent the development of unpleasant odors and bacterial contamination.” 

Leaving towels wet for more than a day increases the likelihood of musty smells becoming deeply embedded and practically impossible to remove. Bacteria and mildew don't discriminate based on fabric absorbency—any wet load is fair game if left to sit too long.

How to avoid leaving clothes in the washer 

Timely removal of wet loads is key to preventing stinky, discolored laundry disasters. Here are some helpful habits you can adopt to make remembering to unload the washer a little easier:

  • Use a Smart washer with mobile app connectivity that can send alerts when the cycle is done. 
  • If you don’t have a Smart washer, set a timer or phone alert to go off when the wash cycle is done.
  • Think about investing in a washer-dryer so there’s no need to move your laundry from one appliance to another. 
  • Only start laundry on days or at times when you know you'll be home to swap out loads. 
  • For washers with delay start features, time the cycle to complete shortly before you return home. 
  • Get into the routine of checking your washer and removing wet loads before leaving the house. 
  • Do laundry on a set weekly schedule so it becomes an ingrained to-do. 
  • Ensure other people in your household know there’s a wash on so they can empty it if you forget. 

 What to do if your washer has a mildew odor? 

Even with the best intentions, sometimes a wet load gets neglected longer than it should. If you come home to a funky, mildewy odor wafting from your washing machine, try these tricks to stop your washing machine from smelling:

  • Run a hot cycle with an empty drum, using a washing machine cleaner product or a DIY mix of baking soda and vinegar.
  • Leave the washer door open between uses to prevent moisture buildup.
  • Check under the drum for any standing water and wipe it out with an old towel.
  • For visible mildew buildup around the gasket, scrub with an old toothbrush and chlorine bleach solution.

Clean fragrant laundry

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Stick to the 8-12 hour rule to keep your laundry's fresh scent and pristine appearance. A little vigilance goes a long way towards keeping your clothes clean and odor-free, cycle after cycle.

Joanne Lewsley
TTR Customer Advisor, Vacuums

Joanne Lewsley is a reputable freelance writer specializing in evidence-based health and lifestyle content. With a background in journalism and extensive experience working for known brands, Joanne rigorously tests and evaluates home gadgets. Her passion for writing is complemented by her love for the outdoors and live music.