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Should You Wash Your Jeans?

Detail of nice blue jeans with leather belt in vintage style
Martin M303/Shutterstock

Many experts claim that washing your jeans breaks down the denim and fades the material. But others say you should wash them to get rid of bacteria, the buildup of natural body oils, and to keep them from smelling gross.

So, who’s right? Well, there’s not a right answer. We’re here to take you through some options for how to care for your jeans. In the end, which one you choose is up to you—they are your jeans, after all.

The No-Wash Philosophy

The CEO and President of Levi, Chip Bergh, claims that he never washes his jeans. Even though this announcement may seem shocking, there are plenty of jean enthusiasts who stand by this philosophy.

But really, what are you supposed to do when your jeans are filthy?

Bergh says he uses a toothbrush to spot clean any stains. His ultimate belief is that denim doesn’t need to be exposed to a washing machine unless necessary. The longer you leave denim untouched and unaltered, the more raw, authentic, and unique it’ll look.

Some jean experts believe that if you put your jeans in the freezer, it’ll kill the bacteria, resulting in a fresh and clean feel. Let’s just hope your roommate doesn’t spill a bag of frozen blueberries on them in the meantime!

Before you go ahead and try this, we should warn you that Smithsonian published an article debunking this theory. Bummer—it sounded like a fun and easy way to do laundry.

When to Wash Your Jeans

Even though washing may eventually destroy your jeans, there is also the belief that your body’s natural oils, as well as the buildup of dirt and grime, can contribute to the breakdown of denim. So, you really can’t win, unless you never wear your jeans.

It is advised to wait at least six months before washing raw denim. This allows the natural dyes to fully integrate into the fibers, giving you amazing-looking creases and folds.

When it comes to regular jeans, most experts recommended washing them every five to ten wearings. Bergh states that we’re often on autopilot, tossing everything into the laundry basket after one wearing. Instead, find a place to hang your used jeans, like an over-the-door hook, and keep wearing them until you hit that five-to-ten mark, or until they’re smelly and gross. Keep an old toothbrush handy to do quick spot cleanings between washes, scrubbing the spots with a small drop of detergent.

If your jeans are stinky, have huge visible stains, or are stretched and sagging, go ahead and wash them, even if you haven’t worn them five to ten times.

The quality of your jeans also informs the debate on how often to wash them. For those cheap, 50%-off, non-brand-name jeans that you use to work in the garden, don’t stress. But if you’ve just dropped $200 on some high-quality, crisp denim, then yes, proceed with caution.

How to Wash Your Jeans

A side view image of freshly washed denim jeans hanging on a clothesline
Pam Walker/Shutterstock

So you’ve decided to wash your jeans. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably nervous about what to do, in fear of ruining your precious denim. Here are a few things to keep in mind when handling high-quality jeans.

  • Turn your jeans inside out: This will allow the detergent to break down the part that touched your skin, which is usually coated with sweat and bacteria. The outer layer and specific color will also be more protected this way.
  • Gentle cycle: Even though your jeans seem more robust than your silk shirts, they need to be treated like lingerie. Always use a gentle cycle with cold water.
  • Detergent: Adding too much detergent can create a buildup of odor, and can contribute to the material breaking down. Always be conservative with detergent, avoiding fancy fabric softeners. Coldwater Tide is an excellent choice, as well as Clorox Dark & Denim for darker jeans.
  • Hand-wash: This is a great way to preserve your jean’s high-quality material while also diminishing the buildup of bacteria. Fill a bathtub or utility sink with cold water and add a small amount of detergent (just a dash). Turn your jeans inside out, fully submerge them, set a timer for 15 to 30 minutes, and finish with several cold rinses. Don’t wring the jeans, since this can break apart the fibers. Instead, roll them, pressing firmly, to expel water. Find a place to lay them flat or hang them on a line to drip dry.
  • The dryer: Tossing around your jeans at high heat is generally a bad idea. If you have old jeans that you don’t care about and you need them dry in a hurry, set the dryer to medium heat. If you want to avoid shrinkage, use low heat. But we recommend air drying if you have the time and space. Remember to keep your jeans turned inside out if you’re hanging them outside. Otherwise, the sun will fade them.

It can be tough trying to figure out the best way to preserve your favorite jeans. Avoiding the washing machine and dryer seems like your best option, opting for spot-cleaning and hand washing whenever possible.

Also, consider wearing your expensive jeans for low-activity stuff, like going out to the movies, and using your cheap jeans for doing chores around the house.

Either way, they’re your jeans. These tips can help them last longer, but if you want to toss them in with your regular laundry, that’s okay too.

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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