Extending the Life of Garments, Fabrics (& Earth)

White dresses on wooden hangers in a sun-filled room.

There are times when adulthood means unlearning things you thought you knew. Today we’re talking about one lesson in particular: caring for your clothes. If you are like most people (we’re not here to presume you are — but) chances are you grew up thinking of clothing care as basically just doing laundry. Keeping things clean was about it. 

The truth is, there’s a lot more to it. In fact, there’s a point at which doing less ends up being more. It’s possible you’ve always been careful about separating your laundry loads into darks, lights, and whites, and you could be great at keeping your whites sparkling and your sheets fresh. But in case your expertise ends there, we’re here to help you make your clothes, and any other fabrics in your home, last longer than ever. All while contributing to the well-being of the earth. Read on if you’re listening. 

Ditch the Dryer; Hang to Dry

Back in the day, everybody hung their laundry out to dry — typically on a clothesline, AKA a rope strung across the yard or between buildings. A couple hundred years ago they had no choice, but in many ways, opting to hang your clothes to dry (not just your most delicate pieces) is better in more ways than one.

Like overuse of a blowdryer can damage your hair, clothes dryers are often excessively hot, and tend to be rough with your fabrics. Harsh tumbling and heat can damage certain fibers, making pieces shrink, lose their stretch, create holes, fade in color, or lose their shape altogether. While some fabrics will hold up better than others, the truth is this: everything you own will last better and for longer if you don’t dry it in the dryer. The benefits are two-fold. Clothes dryers use an immense amount of energy. And because of the damage to your garments, they keep pieces from lasting that otherwise wouldn’t need replacing. That’s unnecessary waste (not to mention money you could be saving). 

Many people don’t have space for a clothesline, but drying racks like this $33 one store easily and hold plenty. Any room in your house with good airflow and warmth shouldn’t take long to dry your clothes. 

Mens shirts hanging out to dry.

Cold Water Washing — That Works

We’re repeating ourselves, we know, but heat is never going to be a good thing for the lifecycle of your garments. That rule applies to water temperatures, too. We understand that historically your experience with washing laundry at cold temperatures might have resulted in only semi-clean loads. But chances are this had more to do with your detergent than anything. Traditional or petroleum-based detergents tend to crystallize in colder water temperatures. This type of behavior reduces their detergency, which is the ability to solubilize soil and fatty matters from the dirty laundry. Bio-based detergents, on the other hand, are more flexible and  behave more like their counterparts in plants and living organisms in nature — they tend to effectively function instead of being frozen into a crystalline state under cold temperatures. In other words, they are more adaptable and able to maintain their functionality in a variety of water temperatures.  

Wash your Clothes Less

You can do this by spot treating anything that might need it, using a small amount of detergent or dish soap and rinsing with water. Items like trousers and jeans probably need to be cleaned less frequently than you think, anyway, and most of your pieces will be better off if you can hand wash it more and machine wash it less. 

A man folds a red button up shirt.

Avoid Dry Cleaning

According to Dr. Pete, dry cleaning is actually not “dry” at all — the process just does not use water. Instead it uses organic solvents, such as tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), or “supercritical” CO2 under high temperatures and pressure to wash laundry in a different type of washing machine. These organic solvents are VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and some of them are toxic. Regular dry cleaning may speed up the color bleeding or fading and degradation of fabric materials. CO2, for example, is a well known factor that causes global warming. So unless you have to — for formal suits and dresses made of woven materials — you may want to consider delicately cleaning your laundry using your home machine or washing by hand rather than dry cleaning. 

Use Garment Bags 

Especially for more delicate items, or items with hooks (like lingerie) that could damage other garments in the load, a wash bag can protect your clothes. Brands like Guppy also now make garment bags that filter microplastics from stretchy fabrics and activewear to keep them from entering the water supply. 

Quit Chlorine Bleach

Chlorine bleach is quite harsh on fabrics and will keep them from lasting very long. There are alternatives though — try an oxygen-based bleach, or hydrogen peroxide instead. They work just as well to brighten your whites, but without damaging your fabric or irritating your skin.

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