When to Wash and Why: The Definitive Laundry Guide

It's a real question: How often should you wash your laundry?

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Sometimes doing laundry is a no-brainer. Perhaps you spilled spaghetti sauce on your favorite jeans, or maybe you sweat through a t-shirt while running a 5K—there's no question those suckers are headed for the laundry bin. But in the absence of obvious stains or smells, how do you know when your clothing and linens need a wash?

Washing garments too frequently can actually harm the fabric.

It may seem like a silly question, but washing garments too frequently can actually harm the fabric, waste water and energy, and prove unnecessarily expensive. Some abide by this rule: If it's not visibly dirty, stretched out, or smelly, there's no need to wash it. The problem with this, however, is that it doesn't account for all the invisible bacteria, dust mites, and other nasties that can accumulate on fabrics over time.

With that in mind, we've put together a handy cheat sheet to help you know when it's time to throw those pants into the hamper, and when it's okay to place them back in the drawer.

Shirts and Dresses

Wash t-shirts and tank tops after each wear.

Wash t-shirts and tank tops after each wear, as they come into direct contact with your underarms and are often made of absorbent cotton fabric.

Other types of tops can last 1-3 wears before needing a wash, but Yahoo! Shopping points out two exceptions: Silks and whites should be washed after every wear.

Follow the same rules for cotton dresses as you would for shirts—unless the dress constitutes "formal" attire. Tight polyester items you'd find on a dance floor will likely only last one wear before requiring a dry clean. All that popping and locking can do a number on your fancy garments.


Aim to wash your sweaters every 8-10 wears.

Sweaters are prone to pilling, loss of shape, and all kinds of loathsome wear and tear associated with washing a fragile knit. This means it's ideal to get a lot of mileage out of your sweaters in between washes. Demy Lee of knit company DEMYLEE told Refinery 29 to aim for 8-10 wears before subjecting your sweaters to a cleansing bath, "unless you spill, sweat, or are around smoke."

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That's a tall order, but it's worth the effort if you'd like your sweaters to stay in good shape. Try to gently spot treat any spills, and be careful to store them away for the warm months with a mind for pesky moths.


Wash your jeans every 4-5 wears.

How often you should put your jeans through the wash cycle is a controversial subject among denim enthusiasts. Some say you should skip the washer altogether, if possible, while others find that approach a bit extreme. The general consensus among all but the most die-hard raw denim fans is to wash your jeans every 4-5 wears—more often if they start to stretch out. Denim is a hardy fabric, and excellent at masking dirt, but hot water and detergent can still cause fading—so be careful to wash them inside out in cold water if you want to retain their original color.

You'll have to play things by ear a bit with other kinds of pants. Nice slacks are generally worn while sitting in an air conditioned office and therefore can last 4-5 wears before needing a clean, but anything synthetic that's worn while you're more active may need to hit the hamper sooner.

Undergarments and Socks

Wash your socks after each wear.

We feel pretty comfortable advising you to wash your undies after every wear, and the same rule goes for socks. Yes, we too sang that childhood song about how black socks never get dirty. But no, there is no truth to it.

Bras can be worn 2-3 times before washing (any longer and the oils from your skin can actually start to break down the elastic. Still, the American Cleaning Institute advises giving individual bras a day off in between wears so that they can retain their shape.

Bath Towels

Wash your bath towels after three uses.

Fair warning: We're about to make a case for washing your bath towels after three uses, and it's not pretty.

Yes, towels are generally used when you're at your cleanest, but the absorbent fabric picks up both moisture and dead skin cells when you're drying off after a shower. The damp towel is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria, which feed off of the skin cells. We don't know about you, but we're not exactly itching to rub that mess all over ourselves right after cleaning off. Luckily, frequent trips to the laundry room should keep nasty bacteria more or less at bay.


Wash your sheets every other week.

Let's talk about your bedsheets. You spend a lot of time wrapped in their soft embrace, so it's particularly important that they be clean.

It's nice to pretend that we're all fresh and immaculate at all times, but the truth is, your slumbering body does a real number on your bedding. Skin oils, dead skin cells, hair, drool—we could go on, but we won't. Add to that some pesky dust mites and possibly a cookie crumb or two, and you've got a real situation on your hands.

The solution is simple: Wash your sheets. Wash 'em a lot. Wash 'em at least every other week, you disgusting human, you!

Be Practical

Doing laundry effectively is all about balance. An oversized load makes the machine rock back and forth. Too much detergent can leave unappealing buildup on your clothes or the sides of the drum. And all of us must strive to find that sweet spot that exists somewhere between keeping our clothing as clean as possible and going about our lives away from our washers.

Doing laundry effectively is all about balance.

It's ideal to wash your clothes when needed, but for your own sanity we urge you to cut yourself a break once in a while. If you wore a t-shirt for one day and it looks and smells completely clean, we won't fault you for tucking it away for another day. If you wait two weeks before washing your sheets, well, worse things have happened. It's important to keep your wardrobe and linens spic-and-span—but sometimes it's also important to ignore your laundry needs in favor of checking out a cool new restaurant with your friends.

That said, if you're cleaning your clothes a little less often than recommended, you might want to be careful to hang them rather than toss them into a drawer, and perhaps even let them air out outside. Spot cleaning small stains can be a godsend, as well. And if all else fails, well, you know where your washer is.

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