Cleaning healthcare workwear

19 April 2023

The High Street cleaner is in an ideal position pick up on smaller healthcare/ veterinary contracts and/or steady repeat customer footfall. Richard Neale and Roger Cawood look at the possibilities

The retail cleaner in the High Street is often ideally placed for local GP and dental surgeries. Businesses too small to be of interest to the large contract launderers and rental outfits can sometimes struggle to find companies who can meet their specific requirements. This month we take a look at what exactly these requirements are and how they can profitably be met.

Local challenges

Doctors, dentists, chiropodists and veterinary surgeons expect the following (even though they might not spell this out at the outset):

1. A significant reduction in microorganisms; this means getting down to about one hundred thousandth of the contamination on the garment when it came in. (This is equivalent to the NHS requirement for a 5log10 reduction in viable micro-organisms.)

2. Removal of the protein soiling and staining on the garment, from blood, sweat, urine, faeces and foodstuffs.

3. De-colouring of vegetable dyestuffs from medications, food and drink.

4. Maintenance of white garments so that they glow with brightness!

5. Eradication of all odours, pleasant or otherwise!


Achieving this to the consistent satisfaction of clients is rarely achieved completely by a great many cleaners, but it can be done quite inexpensively, to the delight of customers. Delivering all five of the requirements calls for a water-based process, preferably in a fully programmable washing or wetcleaning machine, because drycleaning solvent alone is not good at stain removal, protein removal or long-term maintenance of whiteness. Garments with heavy, loose soiling may well benefit from a sluice before the pre-wash and it is not worth skipping this, because any residues will encourage greying and solid residues, with inevitable complaints.

The pre-wash stage should run for at least four minutes and many would automatically programme five to ensure maximum possible softening of protein staining and soiling. The pre-wash temperature should be kept below 40C (38C is ideal and allows for normal fluctuations). Then the softened proteins should all come away in the ‘hot wash’. With the right chemistry, the temperature of the hot wash should be in the range 40 – 50C.

Modern treatments used in healthcare frequently contain the disinfectant chlorhexidine, which is effective and very popular. However, it is bad news for the cleaner because this chemical produces an indelible yellow-brown dye when it comes into contact with sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach). To avoid this type of permanent staining, for which the cleaner would rightly be blamed, it is essential to bleach out vegetable dye stains in the hot wash, using either hydrogen peroxide or a peroxide-generator, such as sodium percarbonate. The hot wash stage should be programmed to run for long enough to remove the soiling and staining, and this time might vary with the customers in your area. Start with about twelve minutes; you might be able to reduce this down to around eight minutes, but you could need to increase this to a maximum of fifteen minutes. Any higher than this and you risk encouraging greying.

Follow the hot wash with typically three good rinses, each for at least three minutes. The optimum dip for these will vary, depending on the quality of your local water supply. If you get any yellow-brown discoloration in drying and finishing this means that you are not rinsing off all of the alkali from the detergent and you will need to increase your rinse dips to avoid this. You should aim to complete your disinfection requirement using a suitable additive in the final rinse. There are several proprietary laundry disinfectants available for this purpose.


An inexpensive ‘own-brand’ retail detergent from a local discount supermarket is unlikely to achieve the five quality standards your customers will expect. You need a premium detergent with the following features:

1. Ability to work effectively at low temperature, with your target set at around 40C. You might need to increase this up to 50C for difficult, heavy soil work, but it is worth trying for 40C initially.

2. Ability to emulsify oily, greasy soiling at the hot wash temperature, in order to get good removal of fatty proteins. This calls for an emulsifier ingredient that works quickly at low temperature (perhaps combined with a low temperature activator).

3. Ability to work with hydrogen peroxide or a peroxide-generator added separately, in order to decolour vegetable dye stains without having to resort to chlorine bleach.

4. Ability to suspend in the wash liquor all of the soiling which the process removes, so that it all goes to drain to avoid the risk of long-term and irremovable greying.

5. Contains an optical brightening agent (OBA) to give added brightness to white fabrics. (If this gives a problem with apparent fading of coloured textiles, then you will also need an OBA-free, colour detergent for these classifications.)

An effective, low-temperature detergent may well carry a premium price, but it should be worth every penny if it achieves the results required. You may want to mention the advanced chemistry you are using in your marketing information.

Finally, remember that softening your laundry water to zero degrees hardness will greatly reduce the amount of detergent you require, and will greatly improve the long-term colour of your white work. ­


We heard from an experienced drycleaner who encountered a problem which we believe is common. It reveals the difficulty a cloth producer has in dyeing linen fabrics to be colourfast, both in use and in cleaning. One common problem in use follows spillage of some drinks (especially alcoholic ones) which when cleaned reveal patches of colour loss caused by the effect of something in the drink, not by cleaner error. However, the case study following concerns much more widespread and unusual colour loss.

Fault: this linen suit is understood to have been cleaned in perc by an experienced cleaner on a normal 2-bath process. If any pre-spotting had been necessary, the cleaner would have used a 50:50 pre-spot soap:water mixture. The result was general patchy fading of the original beige/ tan colour all over (inside and out), as shown in the example photograph. The cleaner reports using this standard process for many linen suits in the past, without experiencing this problem.

Labelling: this indicates that the outer is 100% natural linen and the lining is 48% polyester, 52% viscose. The care label includes the symbol d, which signifies that the garment should be capable of withstanding a normal 2-bath process in perc or hydrocarbon solvents, with no particular restriction on drying temperature, moisture level, mechanical action or solvent temperature.

Technical cause of problem: the overall patchiness described here is typical of inadequate original dye-to-fibre bonding. The action of the perc, which is a powerful and very effective cleaning solvent, has broken the weak bonds found here, to cause the unacceptable patchiness now seen.

Careful examination of the pictures, sent to LCN by the cleaner, reveal that the overall and random nature of the patchiness is not consistent with a fault associated with the liberal application of a pre-spot soap/water mixture, and in our view the use of a 50/50 mixture is unlikely to have contributed to the fault. In fact, there is no indication on the photos that the suit has been pre-spotted, as there is no evidence of any original residual staining. However, with the exception of specialist products specifically designed for use on sensitive items, we would not recommend that general pre-spotting reagents are used on linen items as cellulosic fibres in general can be sensitive to wide range of pre-spotters.

The care label specifies the process needed to effectively clean a plain, pale garment of this construction. The International Standards Organisation provides a method, valid in most countries of the world, for checking the suitability of a care label for a new garment range. This is set out in ISO 3175 (see full reference below1), and the testing house undertaking this check will normally issue a test certificate.

Responsibility: from the details received and the observations made, this does not look like a problem caused by cleaner error. The responsibility for inadequate dye fastness would normally be taken by the garment maker.

Suggested next steps: if the maker did get this range tested and the care label checked, then the retailer should be able to obtain a copy of the test certificate. If this is not available then the next best thing would be to send this damaged garment to a reputable textile testing house for a standard colour fastness check using the rubbing method in ISO 105 (see reference2). The mark-off (if any) obtained would indicate whether there was any loose dye on the darker areas of the garment. It should confirm or refute the suspicions of inadequate dyeing raised here and should help the parties to resolve this dispute.


PATCH TEST: This picture of the inside lower back reveals the degree of patchiness in the jacket after cleaning

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