It is important to take care of your clothes because it will last you longer and will make you shop less. But it is also important to know how to take care of your clothes in a way that will have the smallest impact on the environment. Always read a care tag before cleaning your clothes (or even before purchasing), then make your best judgment and… clean it your way. Just because something can be washed in a washing machine, it doesn’t mean it should be. And sometimes manufacturers try to prevent clients from ruining their clothes and recommend dry cleaning it only, but again, it’s not always the best option.

Do You Really Need to Wash It?

People must wash their clothes. Body oils, sweat, cosmetics and etc. that stay on fabrics for too long can damage fiber cells. Old stains are much more difficult to clean as well. But washing clothes too often can cause unwanted shrinkage, discoloration and microplastic pollution. Sometimes it’s enough just to spot clean clothing and save unnecessary wash. Even LEVI’S recommends washing their jeans once every 10 wears or even longer and in the meantime to use a damp cloth to clean small stains. 

Another important factor to remember is that not all the fabrics need to be washed as often as others. Different fabrics have different properties and sometimes those properties are the reason why some of the clothes don’t get dirty as fast as others. Wool, for example, can be stain resistant. Wool fiber’s surface has a waxy upper layer which makes wool fabric water repellent. “The water-repellent surface makes wool garments naturally shower-proof and also reduces staining because spills don’t soak in easily” (sciencelearn.org.nz). 

RealSimple.com has a great laundry chart (Chart 1) that tells how often each piece of clothing should be washed. Again, always make your own judgment, but this chart can be a great guide for starters. 

Chart 1. Laundry washing guide

Hand Wash Your Clothes
When you finally decide that it is time to wash your clothes, consider hand washing it. Hand washing helps to prevent shrinkage or dye bleeding. But not only that. Everytime we do laundry and wash polyester, nylon or acrylic clothes, millions of little plastic particles are released and enter our water supply. Hand washing is more gentle on the fiber so while it might not stop microplastic release completely, it can help to reduce it.

Some fabrics are even not recommended to be washed in a washing machine. Most popular one probably would be silk. Silk is a very luxurious and delicate fabric so naturally it’s taken care of more carefully. But what makes silk so delicate? Silk is a natural protein fiber (Wikipedia) and most of the modern washing detergents are made from enzymes. Enzymes help to break down biological molecules on your clothing aka stains, but it also breaks down protein in the fabric itself! To some it might come as a surprise, but the same enzymes affect wool fabric in a similar way, because wool also has protein in it. This video explains very well what happens to your sweater in the washing machine, but some parts of it would explain silk fabric characteristics as well. 

Dry Clean Only (Or Never?)

Sometimes it’s just easier to take delicate fabrics to a dry cleaner instead of hand washing them at home. But is dry cleaning really a better solution? 

Dry cleaning is any cleaning process for clothing and textiles using a solvent other than water (Wikipedia). The most commonly used solvent is called perchloroethylene (PCE). The exposure to the PCE can be extremely dangerous to humans and some studies show that it can even cause kidney tumors or be a risk to develop Parkinson’s disease. While this is mostly a potential risk to people who work in dry cleaning facilities, the general population can be exposed to the PCE without even knowing about it. It is possible for a PCE to get into outdoor and indoor air by evaporation from industrial facilities. Even groundwater can get contaminated by it if PCE is improperly dumped or leaks into the ground (NY State Health Department). And from groundwater it gets to a soil and our drinking water. 

Pollution itself is a big enough problem to give a second thought before dry cleaning your clothes. But there is more! One might assume that if a tag on a cashmere sweater or a down jacket says “Dry Clean Only”, it means it is safer for the fabric. But it’s just another misconception. Dry cleaning can be a very harsh process on your clothes, because they immerse in a solvent and friction is a part of a cleaning. And during the drying process the clothes are tumbled in a stream of warm air. Over time a dry cleaning process can cause color loss, flatten feathers in your winter coat and other.

Laundress.com has some great tips on how to clean the clothes at home instead of taking them to a dry cleaner.

Don’t Use a Tumble Dryer

The heat is not good for the garments. It can cause color loss, shrinkage, but helps to save time. It doesn't help to save the energy though. In 2008 over 60% of UK households owned tumble dryers which means that about 14 million people dry their clothes in a dryer. An average drying-machine cycle uses just over 4kWh of energy and produces around 1.8kg CO2 or over million tonnes of CO2 in a year (The Guardian). 

Remember, tumble drying your clothes is a luxury, not a necessity. And climate warming is real.

Repair Your Clothes And Store Them Properly

After cleaning the garments don’t forget to repair/fix them. A small stitch can save your clothes from falling apart and will prevent you from going shopping again. Storing your clothes properly is also important. Always store only clean clothes! As mentioned before, old stains are more difficult to clean and can even cause fiber damage. 

Take care of clothes. Clothes are not disposable and should never be. 



American Council of Science and Health, “ACSH Explains: What's The Story On Perchloroethylene?”, 2018

Oneclickcleaners.com, “Clothing and Fabric Care Tips”

Motherearthnews.com, “The Proper Care of Natural Fibers”

National Institutes of Health, “NIH-funded twin study finds occupational chemical exposure may be linked to Parkinson’s risk”, 2011

New York State Department of Health, “Fact Sheet: Tetrachloroethene (PERC) in Indoor & Outdoor Air”, 2013

New York Times, "To Clean Or Not To Clean Down Coats", 1981

Real Simple.com, “The When-to-Wash-It Handbook: Winter Edition”, 2014

The Guardian, "Tread lightly: Switch off your tumble dryer”, 2008

The Guardian, “What's the carbon footprint of … a load of laundry?”, 2010

The Laundress, “Five Dry Clean Only Fabrics You Should Be Washing At Home”, 2020

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene)”, 2000

Wikipedia.com, “Wool”

Youtube.com, “What Happens to My Wool Sweater in the Washer?”


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