A few years ago, I went through a silk blouse phase. This sartorial moment in my life was accompanied by the baggage of garment care. I describe it as “baggage” because I generally dislike doing laundry (in my brain, it’s filed under “Tedious Chores That Take Up Too Much Time”) and have an irrational fear of clothes inevitably shrinking, fading or transferring colour. When it came time to wash those delicate silk tops, I opted for the easiest solution: removing the items entirely from my wardrobe rotation.
Needless to say, I haven’t mastered the art of laundry. There are too many rules to remember and garment care labels that read like hieroglyphics. Laundry is weekend drudgery, done begrudgingly, with ample procrastination. So when The Fast Company recently shared a story with the headline, “The next big thing in fashion? Not washing your clothes,” I clicked faster than you can say “tumble dry.”
According to the piece, a wave of new startups like Unbound Merino are designing clothes that require you to wash less. The story touched on something else that struck a nerve: as consumers, we’ve been conditioned to over-launder because of a long-standing culture that links wearing freshly-washed clothes to good hygiene. How often people wash their clothes has also historically been tied to perceptions of social class. But we don’t actually need to wash our clothes as often as we think we do. If you’re immediately grossed out by the thought, that’s part of the problem.
So, if we’re guilty of over-laundering, how often should we be washing our clothes anyway? Garment labels tell you how to wash clothes, but not how often. It’s also not something that ever regularly comes up in casual conversation. So, what are the rules? Are there rules?
What clothes need to be washed frequently?
We all have pieces that we want to wear until the seams fall apart and others that rarely see the light of day. “How often clothes should be washed depends on how the garment is worn,” says Mary Marlowe Leverette, a laundry and housekeeping expert and writer. “Undergarments and socks should be washed after every wear—no exceptions. Clothing that is worn directly next to the skin in a hot, humid environment like workout clothes, sports uniforms or clothes worn by anyone doing hard work, should be washed after every wear. Leverette believes that bras should also be washed after each wear (ideally by hand, but you can also place them in a mesh bag in the machine on a gentle cycle setting).
The style and fabric of a garment can also dictate how often it should get tossed in the laundry basket. “Whites and silks should also be cleaned after each wear, because they are prone to discolouration from all the sweating that you do—even when you are just sitting around,” explains Jennifer Ahoni, a senior scientist for Tide detergent. “That yellow-tinged discolouration can become permanent if you wait too long to wash your clothes.” This seems fair enough considering wearing white makes me a walking disaster, but I feel betrayed by silk yet again. (I sweat, a lot.)
“Conversely, clothing worn in a conditioned space for light work like office or formal wear can usually be worn several times before washing unless stains have occurred.” The rules are also similar for outerwear, she says. You can wear your favourite coat for the entire season without cleaning if stains haven’t penetrated the fabric—a welcome reprieve from the stress of figuring out the already-complicated logistics of laundry.
Use your judgement for the rest
While those are the general rules, certain garments require you to make the call. “I try and only wash when and what is needed. Clothing lasts longer that way,” says Toronto-based fashion stylist Talia Brown. “My favourite onesies and dresses I will wear a handful of times.” Denim can also be worn multiple times. “Some things even look better the more you wear them,” she says. (Or if you ask Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh, you can go years without ever washing them by simply spot-cleaning when necessary.)
Ahoni agrees, saying that certain garments like denim are better off being washed less often. “The indigo dye in blue jeans is prone to fading. And because of the dyes used in natural fabrics, cotton or a polyester-cotton mix generally fade faster than 100 percent polyester.” Knits like sweaters also fall under the “wash less” category since they’re prone to stretching or shrinking during washes. “In all these cases, less washing helps preserve the look of these garments.”
Certain people (guilty as charged) also enlist the services of a washing machine to help their clothes fit better, like the pants you wore to death that are now your saggy-butt pants, or the oversized T-shirt that you thought would look cute but actually looks like a potato sack. “It’s perfectly fine to wash ‘saggy’ clothes to help the fibres rebound. However, it is not a permanent solution and the fibres will stretch out again at the next wearing,” warns Leverette. After all, a washing machine isn’t a tailor.
Take the fabric into consideration
The washing frequency also depends on the fabric of your clothes. “Some fabrics do not ‘breathe’ well and will trap perspiration, body soils, and bacteria next to the body,” says Leverette, who also consults on national and international laundry products. “Natural fabrics allow more airflow so they seem to keep us fresher. However, both natural and synthetic fabrics worn close to the body should be washed after every wearing.”
This seems straightforward enough. Certain items, like the tee I wore under the blazing sun while running errands all day, go directly into the laundry basket. But other fabrics are harder to figure out.
“Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and elastane are particularly attracted to natural greases and oils like sebum,” explains Ahoni. “In fact, we refer to synthetic fibres as dirt and odour magnets. Any garments that are fully synthetic or contain synthetic fibres are more likely to get smellier faster.”
It’s why certain brands are focusing on creating fabric that holds up longer, reports Fast Company. Justin Bieber-approved brand Pangaia sells seaweed fibre T-shirts treated with peppermint oil to stay fresh between washes, while Wool& creates merino wool dresses that can go up to 100 days without washing. These alternative fabrics require a willingness to spend more (the Pangaia tees retail for $85 each) and resist the siren call of the washing machine.
And don’t forget your carbon footprint
Being more mindful about how often you wash your clothes isn’t just helpful for reducing your to-do list and your water bill, it’s also more environmentally friendly. Thankfully, there are several ways to keep from clearing out your entire closet on laundry day, it just involves spending a bit more time on sorting your clothes and reconsidering your washing habits. “Evaluate each garment after wearing to determine if it can be worn again without washing,” says Leverette. “When it is time to wash, do a full laundry load—not one or two pieces at a time.”
Leverette also suggests using cold or warm water rather than hot whenever possible. Washing in cold water conserves energy since heating water uses 90 percent of the energy required by a washing machine. And finally, Leverette advises to “hang the clothes to dry on an indoor or outdoor clothesline so that you don’t have to use an automatic dryer” because dryers are an energy suck. (Delicate fabrics also do best in cold water and laid flat to dry rather than being thrown in the dryer.)
I’m still far from being a laundry pro, but I’m learning to get over my fears and focus instead on how I can do laundry better. Better, for me, means washing more thoughtfully (less clothes in the dryer and paying more attention to why something needs to be washed) and learning to be less overwhelmed by garment care labels. It’s a work in progress, but I’m doing it one full load at a time.