Experts say you should always wash newly purchased clothing before wearing it for the first time, as you never know what’s hiding on the surface.
Kim Romine, a Fairfield, Ohio-based Tide scientist with Procter & Gamble, highlighted the gross reality of new clothes from a store having been tried on by others before you purchase them: “The human body naturally produces body soils throughout the day.”
“On average, this adds up to about one liter of sweat, 40 grams of sebum [oils from the body], 10 grams of skin cells and 10 grams of salt,” she said.
These body soils could’ve been transferred by people who touched new clothes.
In addition, new clothing items include fabric finishes added during manufacturing — and could have come in contact with dirt or other residues during manufacturing and distribution, Romine said.
“If the garment is not washed before wearing, these substances and chemicals can be potentially irritating to sensitive skin,” she explained.
Marilee Nelson, co-founder of non-toxic cleaning brand Branch Basics in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as a materials specialist and environmental and healthy home consultant, said that while brand-new clothes may look ready to wear, those made of synthetic materials “may have harmful VOCs [volatile organic compounds] from disperse dyes, formaldehyde and fabric treatments.”
“Fabrics also pick up cross-contamination from the manufacturing process, storage, shipping and the stores where they are showcased. Washing before wearing reduces and removes many of these contaminants,” she said.
Another reason to wash newly purchased clothes is the potential presence of bacteria and other pathogens, fragrances or harmful personal care products that may linger on garments after others have tried them on at the store, said Nelson.
“Fragrances, whether from perfume, laundry detergent, lotions and more, can pose a significant risk to our health,” Nelson said.
“These fragrances are often a complex blend of various chemicals, many of which can be endocrine-disrupting and irritating to our eyes, skin and lungs.”
What’s more, said Nelson, some brands use candles, perfumes or other scents in their stores — which can impact the fabric even if no one has tried the item on.
The good news, said Nelson, is “when you wash your new clothes thoroughly before wearing them, you effectively remove these chemicals.”
“This proactive step helps to prevent allergic reactions and potential health effects that could arise from exposure to these substances,” she continued.
Read on for the experts’ simple tips when washing your new clothes for the first time.
Buy safer fabrics for your skin
“When buying new clothes, consider the materials. Many people develop allergic contact dermatitis from contact with disperse dyes and other chemicals in clothing,” said Nelson.
“Choose untreated natural fibers rather than synthetic blends like nylon and polyester,” she also said.
Air out new clothes
“If your newly bought clothes have a strong, pungent smell, consider giving them some fresh air to avoid polluting your home’s air,” suggested Nelson.
She said clothes can be placed outside in sunlight to speed up this process.
“To avoid fading, turn garments inside out. The longer you can air out and sun your clothes, the easier it will be to clear [any] remaining toxic residues when you wash them,” she said.
If the weather doesn’t permit, hang clothes in a well-ventilated area, such as a “laundry room, basement or garage with windows open — or use an exhaust fan to help to remove the odor,” Nelson said.
Whatever method you use, the longer you air out your clothes, the easier they’ll be to wash, said Nelson.
Follow the garment’s washing instructions
“When washing new clothes, it’s very important to follow the instructions on the care label, as this is the best way to care for the garment,” said Romine.
She added that washing in cold water and using the gentle cycle is an excellent way to help maintain the integrity of the garment.
Invest in a good detergent
“Using a high-quality detergent will help remove any of the residues that are on the new fabrics,” said Romine.
Whatever brand you opt for, make sure you scan the label for the ingredients list and potential allergens.
On the Environmental Working Group’s website, EWG.org, you can search for over 2,500 products to see how they rank from a health, environmental and efficacy perspective.
Know that a non-toxic additive will make clothes cleaner
Did you know that plain vodka can be sprayed directly on new clothes to help kill bacteria and neutralize odors?
Nelson offered a spray bottle solution for supercharging your washing machine’s cleaning prowess.
Vodka also works for odor elimination, said Nelson, along with baking soda and distilled white vinegar.
“These additives can help to eliminate any persistent odors without introducing harmful chemicals,” she said.
Change how your dry clothes
First, try a whiff test before putting your clothes in the dryer, since fragrances can deeply penetrate fabrics, said Nelson.
“If the fragrance smell is gone or significantly reduced, it’s a good sign that your initial washing has been effective. The dryer will take care of any remaining traces,” she said.
Also, use a long dryer cycle to remove any lingering odors further, said Nelson, and to increase the volatilization of chemicals (this refers to when liquid chemicals are transformed to vapor).
“Ensure good ventilation by opening a window or running an exhaust fan/vent/air purifier to maintain fresh air circulation,” she also said.
“Select the longest cycle appropriate for the fabric, and use the hottest setting as recommended on the clothing tag.”
She said that “the heat will not only eliminate odors, but also help eliminate bacteria and germs — ensuring your clothes are clean and safe to wear.”