Why you should or shouldn’t wash denim

The Ultimate Denim Controversy: To Wash or Not

One of the beautiful qualities of denim is how it can start to conform to your body and become truly customized over time. Like anything precious, with proper care, denim jeans will also last forever. So it’s no surprise that one of the great denim debates is the frequency in which to wash your jeans. Go ahead, ask a purist and they’ll probably scream NEVER! But unless you’re lucky enough to have a true rock-and-roll lifestyle (smells and stains be damned!), you’re going to need to give those jeans an occasional clean. The info that’s out there can be overwhelming, so we’re giving you the lowdown on how to launder your favorite denim without sacrificing them to the gods of the spin cycle.

To wash or not to wash

Devotees of the raw denim look (denim that hasn’t been pre-washed before manufacturing) truly fear the washer. Take heed: it’s not the denim itself that will erode; this durable fabric is designed to last. It’s the indigo or black color that will inevitably fade with washing, which is in addition to the fading caused by natural abrasion from wear: behind the knees, anyplace there’s added stress (pockets, waistband). However, sweat and oils from your body can actually break down the very fibers that make jeans so strong, so washing is necessary. The frequency though? That’s determined by how often you wear them. Another consideration is preserving precious natural resources like clean water. One recent campaign to conserve water asked consumers to reconsider how frequently they washed their jeans. They found that wearing jeans just 10 times before washing (as opposed to the typical 2-3 wears) can reduce water usage by 77%! With all that in mind, a good rule of thumb is to wash your jeans every 2-3 months based on moderate wear. Of course if you break out those jeans only on special occasions, you can stretch it out much longer, up to a year.

Extending your wear

If you spent last night in a smoky speakeasy, chances are your jeans don’t need to be cleaned, just deodorized. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to eke out another wear before heading to the fluff and fold:

  1. Head to the great outdoors. The best way to defuse the funk is to infuse your denim with fresh air. Hang them outside for a few hours to sway in the breeze, just be mindful of exposure to direct sun or they can fade.
  2. Stick them in the freezer. Fold your jeans inside a beautiful drawstring bag and freeze them for a day to kill the bacteria that causes most odors. You can even sprinkle in a few coffee beans if you want an extra boost.
  3. Hit the bottle. Mix vodka and water in a spray bottle (6 parts vodka to one part water) and spritz over your jeans. Vodka not only dries odorless but also kills bacteria to boot. Just don’t waste your top-shelf; any inexpensive, high-proof brand will do.

Tub or drum

Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, there are a couple different methods for an effective wash. If you want to minimize the effect of the spin cycle (and the wrinkles it can cause), opt for washing your jeans in the bathtub. One caveat: raw denim will bleed and can stain porous surfaces. In a clean tub, add one teaspoon of soap (more on that later) and fill with cool water, agitating lightly to dissolve the soap. Use enough water to cover the pair of jeans and lay them flat to avoid wrinkles. You will likely need to add some weights onto the jeans to keep them submerged (think shampoo bottles). Let soak for 30-45 mins. Drain the tub then fill with cool water and soak for another 10 minutes to rinse. For those who prefer modern convenience, the washing machine works just fine. First, turn jeans inside out and select the gentle cycle with cool water. Make sure you wash separately or with like colors as the indigo will run. For both washing methods, the best way to avoid fading and shrinkage is to hang dry. If you must use the dryer, opt for the lowest setting and set it for just enough time to soften them up and get the heavy water out.

Suds lightly

You wouldn’t want to put a bunch of harsh chemicals on your skin, so why do you want them in the fabric that touches your most intimate parts? Unless you’ve just finished a Tough Mudder in your raw denim, you should be able to get away with using a gentle soap. The best option is to use soap with a low or neutral pH, or one made for delicate fabrics. It rinses easier and won’t strip the fibers like a harsh detergent. Fortunately, a lot of the big brands (Tide, All, Seventh Generation) have lower-pH versions, so you don’t have to turn to a specialty store. We all love to smell clean, but do yourself and your jeans a favor and avoid scents. These are generally made artificially and can contribute to the premature erosion of your denim.

Ultimately, how you care for your denim depends on what works for your lifestyle and whether you’re willing to put in the extra time and effort to preserve your signature fademarks. But rest assured, premium denim is designed to endure and with the proper care, they may even outlive you.