Should You Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them?

CC BY 2.0. Peter Toporowski -- Laundry hanging on a line

The unanimous answer from garment makers to dermatologists to fashion-lovers is, "Yes!"

There's nothing quite like the feeling of new clothes. Crisp, bright, and perfect, it almost seems like a travesty to toss them right into the washing machine -- but experts say this is precisely what you should do.

New clothes are dirtier than they look. First, there are the dozens of people who may have handled that garment in the store before you chose to buy it. Whether they touched it or tried it on, you have no idea how clean their hands and bodies were.

A professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Donald Belsito, told the Wall Street Journal that lice and scabies can linger in clothing (although other sources say the risk of this is very slim).

"I have seen cases of lice that were possibly transmitted from trying on in the store, and there are certain infectious diseases that can be passed on through clothing." Lice can’t last long without a host, but they do tend to attach better to natural fibers than synthetics.

Then there are the chemicals added to clothing throughout the production process. Most synthetic textiles are dyed with azo-aniline dyes, which WSJ reported "can cause a severe skin reaction akin to poison ivy in the small population of people allergic to them. For others, reactions to dyes are less extreme, and may result in slightly inflamed, dry, itchy patches of skin." Even all-natural fabrics contain chemicals used to fix brightly colored dyes, such as brilliant red and royal blue.

Anti-fungal agents are sprayed onto clothes when packed for transportation to protect from moisture. These sprays contain formaldehyde, which causes eczema and respiratory irritation in many people.

Keep in mind that, although chemical laws might be stronger in the country where you're shopping, they may be far more lax in the place where the piece of clothing was produced, so you never really know what you're getting with imported products.

Are some clothes more important to wash than others?

Lana Hogue, a clothing manufacturing expert who teaches classes at Garment Industry 411, told Elle that the most important clothes to wash are those worn right next to the skin and ones you'll be sweating in, such as athletic gear.

"If you're going to wear it out and in the heat and sweat in it, you should launder it. Sweating opens your pores and allows your skin to absorb the chemicals in clothing."

Hogue's top wash list includes socks, underwear, undershirts, athletic wear, t-shirts, shorts, summer dresses, and swimsuits that you don't plan to wear in the water immediately. Less important are swimsuits that are going straight into the water (although this raises environmental concerns), fancy evening wear, and outerwear such as jackets. It's very important to wash baby clothes, as well, since newborn skin can be highly sensitive. (I tend to think that if you're going to do it for a baby, you should just do it for the whole family.)

What about second-hand clothes?

Thrift store shopping is safer when it comes to chemical exposure, since used clothes have already been washed countless times. Hygiene concerns remain the same, so it's still a good idea to wash before wearing.

How about just buying 'cleaner' clothes?

Yes! This is a good strategy. Some forward-thinking, eco-minded brands prioritize healthier production methods that benefit not only the consumer, but also the garment workers. Take Prana, for example. I recently bought one of their sports bras on clearance at a local store. The tag stated it was a Bluesign-certified product, meaning "it eliminates harmful chemical substances before the manufacturing processes start." The bra is also PFOA- and fluorine-free, as well as Fairtrade, organic, and partly recycled. While I'll still wash the bra before wearing, it makes me feel a lot better knowing I've opted for a cleaner product.

Tips for washing most new clothes:

Read the instructions carefully so you don't accidentally shrink or damage the garment. Use a safe, natural detergent that doesn't leave toxic traces on the fabric that could give further skin irritations. (Avoid the plastic liquid jugs!) Air-dry whenever possible because it's easier on clothes, helps to extend their life, and is better for the environment. Read: How we make laundry clean and green