Worry over being 'disgusting' drives us to do too much laundry, study says

Most people, even those who claim they are super-environmentalists, wash their laundry too much because of their fear of being disgusting, a recent study has found.

"The feeling of disgust simply wins out over environmental awareness," study author Erik Klint of Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology said in a statement. "We humans don't want to do things that risk challenging our position in the group – such as being associated with a person who doesn't take care of their hygiene," 

Test the hypothesis yourself in the next week or two. Record heat is headed for the eastern half of the nation. How many times can you wear your t-shirt before throwing it in the washer? Does it really fail the sniff test, or can you air it out and wear it again?

"We humans are constantly faced with different goal conflicts. In this case, there is a conflict between the desire to reduce one's washing to save the environment and the fear of being perceived as a disgusting person with unclean clothes," Klint said. "Disgust is a strong psychological and social driving force. The study shows that the higher our sensitivity to disgust, the more we wash, regardless of whether we value our environmental identity highly." 

Evolutionary traits generally win over reason

Blame your ancestors for being an over-launderer, Klint said. Disgust is an emotion developed and reinforced through evolution. It stems from a human's need to protect against infection and harmful toxins. 

Add on shame, closely related to disgust, and it impacts social interactions, Klint said. The fear just gets out of hand and the irrational washer-frenzy-freak takes over, he said.

"Here, an evolutionarily rooted driving force is set against a moral standpoint, and in most cases you're likely to react to that evolutionarily linked emotion," Klint said.

Is the washing machine damaging to the environment?

Washing clothes has gotten easier and cheaper than ever before. About 30% of the world had access to washing machines in 2010. Now 80% of households worldwide have access, according to the study.

The average American family washes about 300 loads of laundry per year. Each load uses about 41 gallons of water. A dryer accounts for about 6% of your home's energy use, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most consumers state they max out the capacity with every load, according to the study.

While washers and dryers have become more efficient, the carbon footprint, cost and environmental damage done by detergents and softeners add up.

Washing and drying a load of laundry every two days creates greenhouse gas each year equivalent to flying from London to Glasgow (about 300 miles) and back along with 15-mile taxi rides to and from both airports, according to a Guardian investigation. That is a little shorter than Minneapolis to Chicago.

On microplastics, 16-35% of them come from washing synthetic fibers, that is more than half a million tons every year, according to research by the European Parliament. A single wash of a polyester outfit can release 700,000 microplastic fibers.

If you use scented detergent and dryer sheets, those emit cancer-causing compounds in the dryer, according to research from the University of Washington. Synthetic soap residue can poison animals living in lakes and rivers, according to the Florida Museum at the University of Florida. Plus, phosphates in the detergent contribute to algal blooms like red tide.

Are you still itching to throw that T-shirt in the washer? Klint bets, yes.

"It doesn't matter how sensible and research-based an argument you have, if they run counter to people's different driving forces, such as the desire to feel a sense of belonging to a group, then they won’t work," Klint said. "Most of us seem to be uninterested in changing our laundering behaviors to reduce climate impact." 

How do we get people to wash less?

To turn the trend around, the author said not to focus on how to wash less and do it in an environmental way. Instead, focus on generating less laundry that needs to be cleaned in the machine. He suggested going back to social pressure.

"It can be about targeting excessive washing, with messages such as 'most people use their T-shirt more than once,'" he said. "But also replacing washing machine use with other actions, such as airing the garments, brushing off dirt, or removing individual stains by hand. One way could be to highlight the economic arguments here, as clothes get worn out when they go through the machine," 

This study is part of a larger body of research understanding how we wash and what drives washing behavior, according to the authors.