Hand Washing Laundry Releases Substantially Fewer Microplastics Than Machine Washing, Study Finds

Common clothing fabric like polyester and nylon are plastic-based. When washed, these materials release tiny plastics called microfibers, the most prevalent type of microplastic in the environment. There are some things you can do with your washing machine routine to minimize how many microfibers you’re releasing, but a new study finds that hand washing may also help substantially.

New research published in the journal ACS Environmental Science & Technology Water compared microfiber release from different washing methods. The research team says most studies on the topic of laundry and microplastics have focused on washing machines, which have been shown to contribute to microplastic pollution. This study looked at different types of hand washing, and compared them with microplastic output from washing machines.


To conduct the study, the researchers used two types fabric swatches: one made from 100% polyester and one a mix of 95% polyester and 5% spandex. They cleaned these swatches in several ways, including machine wash, traditional hand washing, and adding on detergent, a pre-soak, or a washboard.

The team found that during a machine wash, the 100% polyester fabric shed an average of 23,723 microplastic pieces, compared with 1,853 during a hand wash. While the microfiber release did increase during hand washing when the fabric was pre-soaked, detergent was applied, and a washboard was added, it still didn’t compare to the washing machine output. Meanwhile, temperature, type of detergent, wash time, and the amount of water used while hand washing had little impact.

Overall, machine washing produced more than five times the weight of microplastics than traditional hand washing. The team also found that the microfibers released from hand washing were usually longer.


The researchers say their findings may help better understand the sources of microplastic pollution in the environment and could contribute to guidelines on greener laundry methods.

Microplastics have been found from the sea floor to Arctic snow. They’ve also been detected in human organs and in a large variety of marine life.

If you do wash your clothes with a machine, there are a few things you can do to cut back on this microfiber pollution, including washing less frequently and running full loads with shorter cycles.

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