There’s a longstanding piece of sartorial advice that says in order to preserve the colour and shape of premium denim, we should refrain from washing them in soap and water and instead “freeze wash” them. Specifically, seal them in a tightly closed plastic bag devoid of air and allow them to chill with the fish sticks for at least 24 hours. And then voila. They’ll be…clean?
The idea of not subjecting our denim to the harsh vicissitudes of a GE washer was furthered at a sustainability conference in 2014, where Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh revealed that he didn’t wash his jeans for a whole year, and that 501 jeans “do not need to be washed as often as people might think, if ever.” And when the head honcho of the most iconic denim brand tells you to keep your beloved skinnies out of the washing machine, you might listen — and come up with alternatives. So let’s take a look at the method and find out why it doesn’t actually do what it claims.
How dirty are jeans, really?
When we wear jeans, our skin sloughs off and hides (not very well, actually) inside and on top of the fibres. The dead skin, combined with our skin gland secretions and plain old dirt are a breeding ground for bacteria, which cause the jeans to smell. (P.S. These bacteria just so happen to live their best life at the temperature of the human body.)
Freezing your jeans is often the proposed solution: The theory is that if you freeze the bacteria, they’ll die, thus removing the stink. But, while sub-zero temperatures do make the bacteria temporarily dormant, as University of Delaware frozen microbe expert Stephen Craig Cary told Smithsonian Magazine, “many are pre-adapted to survive low temperatures.”
And guess how many survivors it takes to repopulate your jeans with their previous funk once they defrost? One. Just a singular, lonely bacteria can get that same stench cooking and make those “boyfriend jeans” really live up to their name.
What about the other ways to clean your jeans?
Some denim diehards and green-living people who want to conserve water have added vigorous shake-outs, vinegar-spraying, sun-drying, and even vacuuming to the list of ways they prep their jeans before their journey to the depths of the Frigidaire. And while vinegar and the sun will diminish the bacterial load and potentially buy you some stank-free time between washes, it won’t remove it completely. You need good old-fashioned soap and water to do that.
Even “Wear ‘em Dirty” Bergh is with the science on this one. When asked by CNN’s Business Markets Now if he froze his jeans he replied, “That’s an old wive’s tale. It does not work.” To the Maytag, it is then.