When you’re a kid, no one tells you how much stuff you have to figure out to be a fully functional adult. Laundry, for example, can remain a mystery for much longer than it should. Not that it needs to be done — most of us have figured that part out — but the how and then when. I have a partner whose genetic code includes the need to do laundry literally on a daily basis, but I’m not convinced this level of devotion is entirely necessary. Laundry has a pretty heavy impact ecologically speaking, using a lot of precious water and generating a lot of greenhouse gases. And over-washing your clothes can wear them out and even damage them.
As it turns out, the question of how often you should be washing your clothes is different depending on what type of clothes we’re talking about.
Before we get into specifics, there are a few general guidelines around the frequency of laundry:
- It’s about how often you wear stuff, not time. According to laundry expert Mary Marlowe Leverette, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you last washed something — it’s about how often you’ve worn that article of clothing.
- Sweat is a huge factor. If you get sweaty in your clothes, you’ll need to wash them more often. Not only is sweat what inspires the bacteria on your body to stink up the place, but your bodily excretions can also damage your clothes over time, so removing them pronto is key. This also means that climate and season play a role — if you live in a dry climate and don’t sweat much, you can go longer between washes. Similarly, during winter weather, you can usually go longer without doing laundry.
- There’s a health factor. While the topic of laundry usually focuses on the clothes, dirty clothing can have an adverse impact on your health, too. Dermatologist Annie Gonzalez told Brightly that not washing your clothes often enough can lead to body acne, infected hair follicles, or even a rash. No matter how often you’re told you need to wash your clothes, if you notice any skin conditions, you should consider doing laundry more often.
All that said, there is some general consensus on how often you should wash specific categories of clothing.
Underwear and socks
It should be unsurprising that the one area where you find almost perfect agreement involves your underwear and socks — clothing that touches your most intimate skin. The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) puts it bluntly — your underwear and socks should be washed after each and every wear.
Bras can be more forgiving; according to dermatologist Alok Vij, you don’t need to wash a bra after every single wear — you can stretch it to two to three wears as long as you aren’t sweating like a hog the entire time. Again, sweat is the key; Vij notes that a few hours with “minimal sweating” doesn’t even count as a full “wear.” But a few hours in sauna-like conditions would count as two or even three wears. Obviously, some of this is a judgment call on your part, but the bottom line is that you don’t have to toss your bra into the laundry automatically after each wear.
Pajamas can generally be worn three to four nights between washings, assuming you’re not a sweaty sleeper. The ACI suggests that if you’re someone who showers before going to bed each night, you might even stretch that longer. It’s not a good idea to wait too long, though — as you sleep, you’re shedding skin cells, bacteria, and the residue of your skincare products, so within a short time your pajamas get pretty grimy, even if they don’t appear dirty to the naked eye.
One caveat here is how you wear your sleeping stuff. Do you have undergarments underneath them? You can wait longer between laundry. Are you wearing them against your skin? In that case, considering you’re spending several hours in them every day, you might need to treat them like underwear and wash them more regularly.
The stuff you wear over your underwear is when things get a little more complicated.
- Sweaters aren’t usually worn against your skin, so they don’t pick up as much sweat and dirt from your body. You can usually go two to five wears between washes.
- T-shirts and the like often are worn right up against your skin, so they should be washed after every wear.
- Dress shirts and pants can typically be worn two to three times without needing to be laundered, but keep in mind it’s not just your skin in play here; it’s also the environment. If you’re just rattling around your house in them, you’re OK to wait a few wears. If you’re routinely out in dirty conditions (and city streets count as dirty conditions), you should wash them more frequently.
- Suits probably need to be dry cleaned, but you can usually get away with several wears in between unless it gets specifically dirty somehow. Depending on how often you’re suiting up, hitting the dry cleaner once every month or two is probably more than sufficient.
Denim is a more complex beast than your other clothes and can be a heated topic in terms of laundry. The CEO of Levi’s, in fact, suggests you never wash your jeans because it damages the material — which is actually true. Every time you wash your favourite pair of jeans, you’re slowly murdering them.
If you’re not comfortable going to extremes and never washing your denim, you still don’t need to wash them very often. Every 10 wears is a typical number that gets quoted.
Raw denim is an even specialer case than your other jeans. Experts advise that you should wear your raw denim clothing as long as possible before giving in and washing them. In other words, wait until those jeans stand up on their own before putting them through a wash cycle.
Coats and winter wear
For outer-outerwear like coats, you only need to wash or dry clean them once a season — generally give them a good launder right as the cold weather begins and you’re good to go unless you get splashed with slush while commuting or enjoy making snow angels on a regular basis.
Winter hats, scarves, and gloves should be cleaned about once a month during the cold season, however. They sit closer to your skin and collect a lot more grime as you huff and puff your way through the winter wonderland.
You might assume the clothes you wear to the gym need to be washed all the damn time, but there’s an enormous amount of personal choice involved. Since we sweat aggressively in our workout clothes, it can seem like a waste of time to wash them constantly — you’re just going to stink them up again tomorrow. We all know at least one notorious stinker at our gym or yoga studio who obviously never washes their workout clothes, and you don’t want to be that person, but there are really no rules here. There are a few things to consider, though:
- There’s probably no health hazard involved, but letting bacteria set up a small civilisation in your yoga outfit can potentially lead to skin conditions and yeast infections and the like. And if you have a sore or cut, all that bacteria can cause a nasty infection there, as well.
- If you’re going to skip the wash, make sure you at least hang your workout clothes to dry between gym sessions. This will at least inhibit the bacterial growth somewhat, and also reduce chafing and skin irritation stemming from wearing damp clothes.
- Finally, if you’re prone to wearing workout clothes sans undergarments, that’s a game-changer and you should probably wash those every single time.
These are, of course, just guidelines. There’s a lot of personal choice and individual circumstance involved in your laundry decisions — as long as you’re not grossing everyone out when you leave your house or dealing with negative health problems resulting from your stance on laundry, you’re probably doing fine.