Despite some germophobic tendencies, I’ve never been one to wash denim after every wear. If my jeans stretch out over the course of the day, I might throw them in the dryer to tighten things up. But wash them? I simply don’t have enough time—or enough pairs—for that.
It turns out, I’m not alone. When I asked my friends if they were with me, everyone—men and women—seemed to agree: It’s perfectly acceptable to wear jeans more than once. “I don't wash them until I absolutely have to,” said one friend. On the extreme end? “I wash my jeans maybe four times a year,” said one particularly candid friend. (Turns out he’s washing his jeans all wrong.)
After I discovered that wearing some clothing more than once can do more harm than good, I started second-guessing my own laundry habits. I needed to know: Am I washing my clothing often enough?
Does it matter if you wear clothes more than once before washing?
In short, yes. “In one day—without even working out—your body produces one liter of sweat, 10 grams of salt, 40 grams of grease and sebum, and 10 grams of skin cells and flakes,” says Mary Johnson, a principal scientist at Tide and Downy. “So, if your wear clothes more than once, you are producing layers and layers of body soils, which make it more difficult to remove these soils from your clothes.”
Clothes made up of mostly synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and/or elastane are particularly attracted to the natural greases and oils like sebum produced by your body, she says. When these things build up on your clothes, even quality laundry detergent can’t always do the job.
“Clothes might smell clean after laundering, but when you put the clothes on, the heat and moisture from your body can cause the odors to ‘rebloom,’” says Johnson. It can also cause clothes to appear yellowed, dingy, or dull, thanks to a build-up of that sweat, sebum, and dead skin.
Some clothing does need to be washed after every wear
Underwear and socks, T-shirts, tank tops, camisoles, leggings/jeggings, tights, and workout gear should all be washed every single time you wear them. And if you’re going commando in those jeans? The rule about wearing them 2 to 3 times prior to washing goes right out the window.
Although, it’s important to note “this guidance does depend on how closely a particular clothing item contacts certain parts of your body (what I like to call your 'stinky and sweaty bits,' such as your underarms, bikini area, and feet) and how much you are sweating while wearing your clothes,” says Johnson.
Whites and silks should also be cleaned after each wear, because they are prone to discoloration from all the sweating that you do—even when you are just sitting around, Johnson adds, tanks to the sebum and natural oils in your skin. That yellow-tinged “discoloration can become permanent if you wait too long to wash your clothes.”
But some clothing doesn’t need to be washed as often as you might think
According to Johnson, there are many items of clothing that can be worn more than once. Jeans and outer clothing (like dress shirts and sweaters, that are often worn above an undershirt) can all be worn 2 to 3 times before they need to be washed. (Score—my laundry habits are justified!)
In fact, it’s preferable not to wash things like jeans with every wear: The indigo dye in blue jeans is especially prone to fading, says Johnson. And because of the dyes used in natural fabrics, cotton or a polyester/cotton mix generally fade faster than 100% polyester (think of how beat-up your old favorite cotton t-shirt looks). Knits, like sweaters, are also prone to stretching during washes. So in those cases, the less you wash, the better.
How to keep all of your clothes looking and smelling fresh
Bottom line: Sometimes it pays to wear your clothes more than once, and sometimes, it’s just downright gross to keep wearing the same garment. If you sweat a lot, do yourself (and everyone around you) a favor—toss that item in the wash and use a good quality detergent to keep clothes looking (and smelling) like new.
If your worried about your garment’s lifespan, Johnson suggests taking proper precautions when doing your laundry, like separating delicate fabrics from heavy denims, buttoning buttons and zipping up zippers, turning clothes inside out, putting delicates into a mesh bags, washing in cold water, and machine-drying on the lowest setting or air drying whenever possible.