Caring for your jeans: Not as easy as you thought

So here’s the thing: Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh caused a ruckus last week after speaking at an environmental conference about how he hasn’t washed his jeans in over a year. “I know it sounds totally disgusting,” he said to the crowd, “But it can be done.” In fact, he said we shouldn’t wash our jeans at all. Like ever.

Woman putting on jeans

Photo credit: Dean Mitchell/iStock/360/Getty Images

After hearing this news, I was all, “Whaaat?” However, this was also my reaction to the news that we’re not supposed to use shampoo, and after giving it a shot my hair feels so fantastic I could (ironically) rock my own shampoo commercial.

Bergh went on to say he simply spot cleans his jeans and air dries them, and that “real denim aficionados” will always tell you not to wash your jeans. But while channeling my inner Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder:

What about germs? What if you spill something on them? (Mind you, if I didn’t walk around with food on my clothes, I wouldn’t be my mother’s daughter.) What do you do when they start to smell? And what’s this I hear about putting your jeans in the freezer? (I barely cook, so there’d be plenty of room.)

Let’s get to the bottom of this whole jean-washing kerfuffle, shall we?

What about germs?

A 2011 study by the University of Alberta made a surprising discovery: They compared bacteria levels on a pair of jeans not washed for over a year with a pair washed after two weeks — and not only were the results practically identical, all they found was normal skin flora.

“This shows that, in this case at least, the bacteria growth is no higher than if the jeans aren’t washed regularly,” says Rachel McQueen, a professor of textile science in the Department of Human Ecology.

What if you spill something on them?

Spot clean with a cloth or a toothbrush and your fave detergent, then air dry.

What do you do when they start to smell?

According to Nudie Jeans, simply hang your jeans outside on a sunny and windy day: “Additionally, you can turn them inside out, shaking them well.”

And what about the freezer thing?

Rumor has it that doing so kills the bacteria on your jeans and freshens them up — however, this was recently debunked by Vox. Overnight freezing may kill most of the bacteria, but once the jeans are warmed back up, what remains can recolonize (did you just picture little germs on horses with swords invading your denim just now, or have I had too much coffee?).

But even if freezing does kill all bacteria and odors, so what? “It doesn’t solve the biggest concern for women, which is fit,” says Marc Flashberg, owner of Marc Allison Jeans. “Since the predominance of women’s jeans are 98 percent cotton and two percent Lycra, the jean will only recover a maximum of 92 percent. In order to have the jean fit the way it did when it was originally purchased, it needs to be washed.”

What we know for sure

In order to preserve the look of your denim, you should wash your jeans as little as possible. “Indigo dye doesn’t have the capability of penetrating cotton,” says Flashberg. “Therefore, when cotton is dyed with indigo, it wraps around the cotton.” This is why it’s suggested we turn our jeans inside out before washing them.

Once it comes time to wash them, “Add one cup of white vinegar to your washing machine while the water is filling, add detergent, then add your jeans,” says Lawrence Zarian, Fashion guru and author of Lawrence Zarian’s 10 Commandments for a Perfect Wardrobe. “The vinegar will protect the dye of your jeans.”

Here’s a quick and painless play-by-play on how to wash your jeans properly, courtesy of Anh Vu, designer for DSTLD Premium Denim.

  • Always button and zip up your jeans before washing so the zipper doesn’t catch on anything
  • Turn them inside out to prevent bleeding and reduce wear on metal trims
  • Always wash using cold water to reduce fading and prevent shrinkage
  • Hang them by the feet to dry
  • If you want to shrink them a bit, you can tumble dry them on low heat for 20 minutes

Long story short

If you start to feel like Pig-Pen, wash your jeans. No matter how often you decide to wash them, less laundry deserves the highest of fives.

More on denim

Great shoes to pair with your skinny jeans
How to find the right skinny jeans for your body type
Pairing jeans with fitted tops


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