What Happens if You Soak Clothes for Too Long?

It’s happened to most of us — we throw a load of laundry in the washer with the intention of drying and folding it promptly, only to forget about it. Leaving it in the washing machine for a few hours may not cause any noticeable problems, but what happens if you leave your clothes soaking for too long?

Soaking clothes for too long causes mold, mildew, and bacterial growth. The moisture and darkness create a prime breeding ground for these germs and fungi. It only takes between 24 and 48 hours to notice that musty, mildew smell. Leave them in longer, and you might actually see mold on your fabrics.

This article describes what to do if you over soak your clothes, why mold grows on textiles, and what types of fabrics are most affected. We’ll also cover tips to help you avoid forgetting your laundry after the wash cycle.

What Should You Do If You Over Soak Your Clothes?

If you over soak your clothes, you’ll need to rewash them with hot water to remove the mildew smell and mold growth. If, after washing, the washer continues to emit a foul odor, clean the inside of the drum with bleach and water. Then, run a hot, empty load with ¼ cup of bleach.

Cleaning Mold Out of Your Washing Machine

It’s a good idea to routinely clean your washing machine to prevent a buildup of mildew. Since washing machines are regularly exposed to moisture, they’re likely to develop mold over time.

Some washing machines offer a cleaning cycle. In this case, your job just became a lot simpler! If you have a self-cleaning washer, all you would need to do is follow the owner manual’s prescribed instructions. 

If you do not have a self-cleaning washing machine, or if its cleaning cycle isn’t thoroughly sanitizing the washer, try the following steps:

  1. Create a diluted bleach mixture. Mix ⅓ cup of bleach with ¾ cup of hot water in a bucket.
  2. Put on a pair of latex or rubber gloves. This will protect your hands from the harsh bleach.
  3. Dip an old washcloth into the bleach solution. Wring it out so that it’s wet but not dripping.
  4. Scrub the washing machine. Reach into the drum and use firm, circular motions to scrub the walls, agitator, and around the door.
  5. Run an empty load. After you’ve scrubbed the inside of the machine, run an empty load with ¼ cup of bleach.

Check out this video for more tips if you have a front loading washer that you want to clean.

How Long Can You Leave Clothes in the Washer?

You can leave clothes in the washer for up to twelve hours. If you leave the clothes any longer, mold, mildew, and bacteria may begin to grow.

If you forget to dry your clothes, you don’t always need to rewash them. As long as the clothes smell fine and haven’t been sitting for over twelve hours, you should be okay switching them over to the dryer or clothesline.

For example, if you throw a load in the washing machine after dinner and forget it overnight, the clothes are probably okay as long as you remember to dry them as soon as your morning alarm goes off.

Even Martha Stewart says that a few hours of soaking won’t damage your clothes or create too much bacteria buildup. For more Martha Stewart laundry tips, check out this article describing solutions to typical laundry troubles.

Why Does Mold Grow on Clothes?

Mold grows on clothes because a washing machine is a dark, damp environment that lacks airflow. These conditions are ideal for fungi, bacteria, and mildew. Mold spores travel and settle on these damp fibers, leading to foul smells and, sometimes, visible growth.

If you think about it, mold and bacteria growing on soaking clothes aren’t surprising. Microscopic fungus and bacteria live in the very air we breathe, after all. So basically, mold is the foundation of the natural world we inhabit.

Outdoors, mold plays a vital role in the environment and helps break down dead and decomposing materials. Inside, though, mold and mildew should be avoided because they can impact our health.

According to FEMA, after about one to two days in water, the fibers in most clothing begin growing mold and bacteria. In addition, due to the materials in different clothes, some clothing is more negatively impacted by a long soak than others.

Additionally, several environmental impacts can affect how mold grows on your soaking clothes:

  • High humidity – Suppose you live in a humid area. In that case, you may notice that your clothes begin smelling bad after soaking sooner than they would in drier locations.
  • Warm temperatures – High humidity and warm temperatures typically go hand-in-hand. So if it’s hot out, soaking clothes might start to smell sooner than later.
  • Poor ventilation – If there isn’t enough airflow in your laundry room, and you forget your clothes in the washer, mold will grow faster than in a well-ventilated area.

Are Some Clothes More Affected by Water Than Others?

Clothes absorb water quickly but dry out slowly.

Some clothes are more affected by water than others. More absorbent fibers have a higher likelihood of retaining moisture and growing bacteria and mold. Moisture-wicking fabrics, such as polyester, neoprene, or bamboo are less likely to grow mold.

Here are the most absorbent clothing types:

  • Cotton
  • Linen

Synthetic fabrics, however, don’t absorb as much moisture and are therefore less likely to grow mold and bacteria if they soak too long. Some less absorbent clothing materials include:

  • Polyester
  • Nylon

However, if you’re washing a load of Spanx, that doesn’t mean you can leave them soaking for an extended amount of time. After about 48 hours, they will still begin to grow mildew and develop a bad smell, just like cotton clothing.

Laundry Tips to Avoid Over-Soaking

Laundry is one of the top ten most hated household chores, so if you detest laundry, you’re not alone.

However, laundry doesn’t have to be such a drag.

Here are some tips to keep you on track when you’re doing your laundry so that you don’t leave your clothes over-soaking:

Don’t Do More Laundry Than You Have To

Try to think about each item of clothing. Ask yourself, “Is this shirt really that dirty?” or “Did I wear these jeans long enough today to justify a wash?”

It seems easier to simply discard your clothing into the hamper at the end of the day — whether they’re dirty or not — but this only creates more laundry for you to do later. And, if you think about it, it wastes money on energy and water costs if the item doesn’t need to be washed.

Suppose you wore your favorite pair of jeans to your office job and didn’t do much other than sitting at your desk. In that case, those jeans are probably clean enough for another wear.

Also, wait to do laundry until you have a full or large load. This will help cut down the amount of time you spend doing laundry — and it’ll save on your utility bill.

Switch to All-Natural Laundry Detergents

There are natural products available that sanitize the laundry and reduce the likelihood of mildew growth, including borax, boosters, and other high-performance laundry detergents.

Set a Timer

If you often forget your wet laundry in the washer, try asking Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa to set a reminder for the length of the washer’s cycle. Or, use a regular timer in your kitchen — whatever works best for you.

Sometimes, all you need is a simple reminder to prevent mold from building up on your laundry.

Try a Laundry Service

A laundry drop-off or pickup and delivery service can be a major game-changer, even if you don’t use it regularly.

If you aren’t sure what laundry service is, it’s when a laundromat in your geographic area does your laundry for you. Seriously.

This service varies widely based on the individual business. Generally, it’s still an affordable way to ensure your laundry is washed, dried, and folded without over soaking in the wash cycle at home.

Many laundromats offer free drop-off and delivery options, and the price range is between $1.00 and $1.95 per pound of clothes.


If you leave clothes soaking too long, they’re likely to grow mold and bacteria — and it may make your washing machine smell bad.

It’s important to switch your clothes from the washer to the dryer or clothesline within twelve hours to reduce the chance of mold and bacteria growth. If you leave them soaking too long, the only remedy is to rewash the clothes — and the washer, too, if necessary. To avoid forgetting to dry your clothes in the future, set a timer, wash clothes only when absolutely necessary, or try a laundry service.

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