Three Ways to Never Wash Your Jeans, Investigated
In May 2014, Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh made headlines at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference when he announced that, despite owning them for more than a year, he had never washed the jeans he was wearing. Immediately, media outlets ranging from CNN to Slate were either treating Bergh’s words as gold or questioning just how sanitary the “never wash” method was.
A few weeks later, Bergh took to LinkedIn to clarify his position, stating it was more about sustaining natural resources than it was about sustaining that perfect indigo wash. His point was that most people wash their jeans far more than they really need to, which is bad for both denim and the planet.
Yet for anyone who has ever watched their beloved dark denim fade in the wash, the question remains: what is the best way to clean your jeans? Below, we broke down three popular approaches to denim care and analyzed the pros and cons of each.
1. The Freezer Method
What it is: Stashing your lived-in jeans in the freezer overnight, proponents believe, helps kill surface bacteria and neutralizes odors.
Who recommends it: The freezer method has shown up on countless lifestyle blogs, including Apartment Therapy, but was also endorsed by Levi’s vice president of women’s design in a 2013 interview with Elle.
- Pros: Zero water waste and no chance of jeans shrinking or fading.
- Cons: It doesn’t actually work. Smithsonian magazine debunked the freezer method after interviewing a University of Delaware expert on frozen microbes, who attested that typical freezer temperatures would not be low enough to kill surface bacteria. Freezing jeans also won’t rid them of spots or stains.
2. The Vinegar Method
What it is: A hand wash in cold water and vinegar. Fans of this method also recommend hanging the jeans to dry afterward, since the heat of the dryer can cause jeans to lose their shape.
Who recommends it: About.com and Reviewed.com, among others.
- Pros: Removal of odors, bacteria, and surface stains. It can also minimize the shrinking and fading that comes with machine washing with detergent.
- Cons: About.com acknowledges that vinegar can help minimize color bleeding but doesn’t prevent it entirely. Plus, line-drying denim can make it stiff and crunchy, an obvious con for those who prefer a soft, broken-in feel.
3. The Spot-Clean Method
What it is: Instead of fully submerging jeans in the wash, simply wipe away spots and surface dirt using a sponge, some water, and a small amount of detergent.
Who recommends it: In a follow-up post to his aforementioned announcement, Bergh admitted he uses this method most often when his jeans need a quick refresh. It’s also recommended on the Levi’s website.
- Pros: Easy, low water waste, and unlikely to cause significant fading or shrinking.
- Cons: Won’t eliminate the odors or oily residue that can build up on jeans with prolonged wear.
Because it’s backed by Levi’s and actually removes dirt—no offense, freezer method—it seems like spot cleaning is the way to go. Of course, you’d probably do well to still machine wash your jeans every once in awhile.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to do it too often. As Smithsonian also discovered, another experiment “found little difference in the bacterial load between one pair of jeans worn for 15 months without washing and another pair worn for 13 days.” That means you could go more than 450 days (or wears, technically) before a single wash!
Whatever time frame you feel comfortable with, just be gentle when you wash: turn your jeans inside out, wash in cold water, and lie flat to dry to prevent shrinking. And if you just need to tighten up a stretched-out pair, toss 'em in the dryer (again, inside out) on low to regular heat.
Above: the least talked-about cleaning method: reverse time-lapse photography.
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