How to clean clothes and textiles damaged in the Flood

Tips to effectively clean and restore clothing and textiles that have been damaged by floodwater. Precautions to take when removing mud, contaminants, stains, and odors from your belongings after a flood.


As I write this, the rain is lashing against the window in my room. Elsewhere, for a lot of people out there, the same rain is proving to be devastating. Many are leaving their houses, and all their possessions behind, in fear of a flood.

Problems that a flood leave in its wake are enormous. Life, as you know it, is changed in a few hours. Even when people come back to their homes, after the floodwater has receded, they find that their troubles are far from over.

Everything in the house is most probably ruined unless you have been forewarned and you managed to keep your possessions away from the floodwater. It is disheartening to see the heaps of mud on the floor and dirt over everything in sight and that, together with the fear of reptiles, and other sneaky creatures that may have invaded your home along with dirty, contaminated water is depressing for the best of us.

What happens to clothes in the flood?

When there is a flood warning, you will run to keep whatever you can at the highest part of your home – it includes important records, documents, and items like passport, ID cards, highly valuables, emergency supplies, and precious family photographs. Clothing usually comes as a last priority.

Whatever clothing, upholstery, or textiles that have been exposed to flooded water will be full of mud and grime, and they need to be adequately cleaned and disinfected. Sewage mixing in flood water is a major concern. The dirty, contaminated floodwater needs to be removed entirely from the clothes.

There will be many many things that you have to clean in your house – so you have to decide on your priority; but a timeline to be aware of is, this –

Mold /mildew sets in 48 hours from the time a fabric is wet.

You have to prevent mold and mildew from your clothing at all costs – so even if you cannot wash the clothes immediately, it is imperative that you have to dry the clothes. Yes, you have to immediately wash the clothes, but if that is not possible, dry them, for the time being.


How to clean flood damaged clothes/fabric : 5 pointers

Decide on what you can keep and what you need to discard

Some of the items made of fabric in your house may be beyond cleaning. A fully soaked mattress, pillow, cushions, quilts with clumped batting, fully mud caked clothes with fungi traces and lots of stains may have to be discarded. They may not be worth the trouble. 

Most of the upholstered furniture in a flood-ravaged room will have to be discarded – at least you will have to remove the fillings from the wood and then reupholster the whole thing. And that too only if it is too valuable.

Do not forget Protection

Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands before you handle the soiled clothing. Masks are also called for because there may be gases that you do not want to inhale.

Protective gear recommended for entering and dealing with flooded places includes

  • long-sleeved clothing,
  • masks,
  • nitrile gloves (very durable, puncture resistant gloves), and
  • hard-bottomed rubber boots or steel-toed boots.

Prepare the clothes/fabric for washing

Be careful of the fragility of fabrics. Textile fibers are generally fragile when wet. When there are things stacked on them or mud collected on top, if you yank them out, they are super vulnerable to tears.

So be careful when you lift up clumped together wet fabric – if you use even the slightest force, it may tear. You can carry the material on a tarpauline sheet or stretched canvas. 

If you have insured a particular textile item (like a costly tapestry, or rug) take photos of the damage, before attempting to clean.

If very thin fabrics are stuck together, do not force them open. Wait till they are atleast partially dry to open it up.

Sort colored and white clothes separately to prevent color bleeding.

There will be mud and dirt on the clothes – you can use a brush to brush them off before washing – this will make your job easier. If you are using the washing machine to clean clothes the mud has to be removed thoroughly to prevent clogging of the machine. Use a fine hose to spray water on the fabrics (without force) to remove mud.

If there is any glass shattering, discard the clothing. Small glass particles will not go with any kind of washing.

If the fabric of your garment is delicate, it will be very fragile, especially if it has been exposed to water for some time. You may want to hand wash these or give for dry cleaning.

Dryclean-only clothes and textiles which are wet and dirty should be brushed to remove dirt and then dried and then taken to the dry cleaners. 

Washing and disinfecting the clothes 

What do you need to clean flood damaged clothes?

Durable and puncture-resistant Nitrile gloves or Long thick rubber gloves.

Soft-bristle brush

Tarpaulin or Stretched Canvas to transport wet clothes.

Big basins, buckets and clean water

Chlorine bleach for white clothes and oxygen bleach for colored items.

Antiseptic Liquid or Phenol/ disinfectant

Stain Remover

A thorough wash in Hot water with a heavy-duty powder laundry detergent, and disinfecting by bleach followed by full-on drying – these are the main things you have to do with flood-damaged clothes. You can do 2 cycles for a very thorough wash.

You need to soak all the flood-damaged clothing in hot water inside a big container. Hot water soaking is done to remove the odor and to prevent mold and mildew growth. If you feel that the color of clothing may run pour a cup of salt into the water and soak.

If mud is there on clothes, do not use hot water – use cold water to rinse the mud off and then wash in hot water.

Put liquid Chlorine bleach (Sodium hypochlorite bleach) for white clothes (Please remember that chlorine bleach is not to be used with wool, silk, spandex or resin-coated fabrics) and oxygen bleach for colored clothes in the soaking water as a disinfecting agent – these are used to prevent mildew/mold and bacterial growth. Oxygen bleach is not as effective as chlorine bleach in disinfecting. 

This is how you do it : Fill your basin/bucket/vessel/tub with hot water. Put 2 or 3 tablespoons of bleach (as per the fabric) solution. Soak the fabric for 15-30 minutes. After this drain the water.

(Please refer this post on using bleach on clothes; bleach may prove damaging for clothes made of wool and silk).

You can also use Antiseptic Liquid – this acts as a disinfectant killing germs and eliminates bad odor. You can also use Phenolic disinfectants / Pine oil containing disinfectants. These are all very smelly so use it in the first cycle.

A solution of rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) and water in equal proportions or denatured alcohol and water solution can be used as a disinfectant. These are flammable and will have to be completely rinsed out of fabric to prevent accidents.
Rinse in cold clean water to remove remaining dirt. 

Now transfer the clothing to the washing machine for a thorough clean. 

If you find that the fabric is smelling foul even after rinsing, put 1/2 cup of baking soda in the water and soak the clothing. Rinse again. 

If you find that your clothing has stains from oils, blood, rust you will have to use a commercial stain remover. Or check out this post on the home remedies for removing stains

Related post: Ways to clean and disinfect very soiled clothes.


The clothes have to be thoroughly dried before you store them again. You can use a 100% dryer to do this – this can dry clothes and sanitize as well. If stains are there, remove them before using the dryer because heat in the dryer will set the stains. 

If possible dry in good sunlight. Sunlight can destroy mildew that may already be there in the clothes. If there is no sunlight you can put the clothing under a fan to dry – the free flow of air from the fan can dry clothes.

If there is no space in your clothesline to dry your clothes, lay tarpaulin on the ground and lay the clothes on it. 

Press with a hot iron – this also ensures complete drying and sanitization too.

For shoes (canvas, leather) clean with clear water and dry. Stuff absorbent paper inside for a long time.

Maintain a dry atmosphere

Keep the windows open to keep the air clean and dry, and to let the sunlight in. You can use a dehumidifier to remove excess moisture in the air – this will prevent a moisty atmosphere that can lead to mildew on your clothes.

If your flood insurance policy covers personal belongings, you can buy all of them back – so do not try to save clothes which seem beyond salvaging, at the cost of your health. You will have to document the damage through photographs, especially for valuable or sentimental clothing items.

insurance for floods inside houses

Disclaimer : The information given in this post is meant as a general guide and might prove to be inappropriate for specific textiles or specific circumstances, so extra care has to be taken in those cases.

These observations and solutions are based on what I have read about online and offline regarding this subject. Health hazards in your particular area may need appropriate instructions from concerned agencies.

Related posts :Basic garment care.; How to clean very soiled clothes

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