Do You Need to Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them? We Asked a Laundry Expert

published Jul 19, 2020
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Credit: Rikki Snyder

It’s well known that germs can survive on soft surfaces like fabric. How long a virus or bacteria lives on textiles typically depends on the specific germ and the fabric, but as a precaution, you may feel better tossing new, store-bought clothes in the wash before you wear them. 

But there’s another reason you should always launder new clothes after buying them. According to laundry expert Patric Richardson, who owns the Minneapolis-based boutique Mona Williams, there’s a good chance these garments are coated in potentially harmful chemicals. 

“Many retailers use starches, fabric softeners, and even chemicals like formaldehyde, to keep clothes fresh inside the store, so the items have a certain look and feel when they hang on the hanger,” he says. “And I just don’t want those chemicals next to my skin.”

Chemicals used on clothing items can cause an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis in some people—Richardson says once, he wore a sweatshirt without washing it and broke out into a rash—but some chemicals can pose a more serious health risk. The safest move: Just wash new clothes before you wear them.

Credit: Opat Suvi/Shutterstock

What about online purchases, where the clothes are packed in plastic?

Richardson, who also worked for years managing department stores, says it’s not likely your garment came straight from a warehouse shelf. 

Many retailers pull online orders directly from the sales floor and ship them directly from the store—which means the clothes you bought online could be coated with chemicals, too. And even clothing from online-only retailers could use a wash, since manufacturers use some of these chemicals to make their clothes.

What about second-hand clothes?

Second hand clothes pose a risk of their own. It’s possible, of course, that a second hand retailer may sell clean clothes. For example, at the high-end consignment store he owns, Richardson says wouldn’t accept clothes unless they were freshly cleaned. “In my store, I always had the rule that items had to come in a dry cleaner bag, or I’d charge a fee and wash it myself,” he says. 

But if you go to a thrift store where there’s no pre-wash protocol, definitely wash your clothes before putting them on your body—it’s impossible to know where those items have been, and for how long. 

The verdict: Always wash—better safe than sorry.

One regular wash, whether in a machine or in your kitchen sink, should be enough to remove any lingering chemicals or germs from your clothes. For delicate or dry-clean only clothes, don’t worry about dry-cleaning—Richardson says you can just run a gentle cycle and skip the dryer

Heat can also do the trick if you don’t feel like doing an entire load of laundry. “A steamer will pull all the chemical gunk out of the fibers of your clothes,” Richardson says. “So if you have the patience, you can just steam your clothes clean before wearing them.”