I brought up the topic to one friend while sheet shopping for her new apartment. “I never wash new sheets because I like that crispy, fresh feel they have,” she said. I immediately felt better. I did a little research to get the official verdict on some everyday items, and from ick factors to chemical sensitivity, there are reasons aplenty for making good use of your washer and drier.
Sheets and Towels
My mom always washes sheets right after buying them. Me? Can’t say I always (and by always, I mean ever) do. I wondered what sort of harm I’d been subjecting myself to.
Turns out, that new smell and crisp texture that my friend is such a fan of is intentionally created by manufacturers—with a mixture of scary-sounding chemicals like formaldehyde and urea resin. Manufacturers refer to the application process of these chemicals as “finishing” the fabric because they protect it from stains, wrinkles, and germs living in factories and supply rooms. The chemicals are applied to sheets and towels with heat, but can be mostly washed out with a few cycles and some fresh-smelling fabric softener.
When it comes to towels, there’s an additional reason to give them a spin through the wash-and-dry cycle. Doing so not only removes excess dyes, but also the natural oils that can hinder their absorption powers. It also opens up cotton fibers, allowing them to soak up more liquid, according to Calphalon.
The more I researched, the more I started thinking maybe I’m a little dirtier than most. Since I never wash clothing before wearing (even when the tag tells me to), I asked around to see how abnormal my habits actually are. One FabSugar poll (with over one thousand respondents) found that 16 percent of us always throw new clothes in the washer and that 42 percent of us usually do—depending on the type of clothing and where it came from. That’s a healthy majority. Are they onto something?
“I used to work at a popular clothing store and watched so many strange people try stuff on, it got me in the habit of washing everything,” says Leslie Mares, a fashion blogger. “I especially make it a point if the item’s vintage or from a particularly busy and not-so-clean store.”
Other people point to excess dye as a reason they toss new items right into the washer. Come to think of it, I have had colorful, new T-shirts rub off on bras a few times. Perhaps there are a few reasons that make it smart to wash new clothing? That “wash separately before wearing” tag is a way for clothing companies to save themselves from a ton of angry customers when bright dye rubs off on fancy purses, shoes, or our skin. Washing rids them of any excess dye before it has a chance to rub off. Also, some clothing (similar to bedding) has a chemical finish on it—this is why jeans never quite feel the same once you wash them.
So am I hurting myself by not doing the wash?
“Only if you have sensitive skin and it’s bothered you in the past,” says Holly Kaiser, a Los Angeles–based esthetician. If you’ve gotten rashes before, or if the clothing is intended for a baby, it’s better to err on the safe side.
Lingerie and Bathing Suits
“Wash your new bras, underwear, lingerie, and swimsuits before wearing them,” says Tessa Richards, a former retail associate at a popular lingerie store. “People are supposed to keep undergarments on when trying them out in the dressing room, but I definitely know that this is not always what happens.”
Enough said on this one. Ick.
A Word on Chemicals and Dyes
Why wouldn’t clothing makers just stop putting extra chemicals on new fabrics if there’s a chance it’ll harm babies, rub off, or irritate someone’s skin?
Turns out, they’ve got a few valid reasons. Chemicals prevent mildew from forming on and around clothes as they’re shipped from factory to store, ensuring that they retain their fresh, new smell and appearance as we examine them before buying. Formaldehyde is the main chemical used to prevent mold, and this is what will sometimes give clothes or towels that sharp odor until they’re washed.
As far as dye goes, we’ve been altering the hue of our garments since ancient times. In cultures like ancient Egypt and Greece, people with exotically dyed clothing held the highest status—they had the money to pay someone to search far-flung locations for exotic plants with which to color their robes.
Fast-forward to the mid-nineteenth century and scientists figured out how to create and use synthetic dyes, which were cheaper, brighter, longer lasting, and easier to work with. Today the chemicals that most big manufacturers use to produce dyes are often highly toxic, flammable, and carcinogenic, but (before you flip out) by the time they make it to our finished clothing, they’re chemically stable—that’s what makes them stick.
So apart from the ick factor and skin sensitivity issues, washing clothes before wearing them is truly just a matter of preference. I figure I’ve bought hundreds and hundreds of pieces of clothing, sheets, and towels, and not washed a single one of them—and I’m still living strong and disease free. Though I will be tossing any and all underwear and bathing suit purchases in the washer pronto.