In the fight against smelly clothes, the washer shouldn’t be your first line of defense.
“Dirty” is relative when it comes to clothing. As children we’re taught that any garment worn for more than five minutes needs to be washed, but as adults those rules loosen. Frequent laundering causes clothing to fade and wear out faster. This means any shortcuts we can take to minimize the number of times a garment gets washed or dry cleaned will extend the life of that garment. Here are a few to consider.
Get behind clothing shields
Disposable, adhesive clothing shields can help protect blazers, dresses and even button-front shirts from underarm odors and stains. They tend to be quite thin, though, so don’t expect them to save you if you’re sweating buckets at an outdoor wedding or stressful meeting. Disposable shields are also a bit spendy for daily use at 30 cents to $1 apiece. Reusable, washable shields are available, too, and they tend to be a bit more absorbent. An Alabama-based company called Kleinert’s has been designing and manufacturing underarm shields since 1869 and sells both disposable and washable options today. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can make your own by sandwiching cotton flannel between layers of lining fabric. And if you’re in a pinch? Try safety-pinning thin cotton socks to your blazer’s underarm area. Won’t work with thinner garments, but it’s a decent hack for jackets.
Air it out
Durable pieces like sweaters, blazers and pants are good candidates for multiple wearings without washing. When the day is done, give potentially smelly areas the sniff test and if they’re passable, turn the garment inside-out and hang it for a day or more of airing. If it’s sunny out and you aren’t worried about fading, hang in the sun. Putting slightly stinky, slightly soiled clothes into a packed, dark, warm closet will only serve to enhance the stink. Let your clothing breathe.
It’s unlikely that your “dirty” pants are dirty everywhere. (Unless you did some mud wrestling in them, of course.) So get a large mixing bowl, fill with cool water, add a dash of detergent and spot-treat the stinky or dirty bits either by hand scrubbing or using a clean toothbrush. A machine wash will be more effective and get more of the smells out, but spot-treating is a good stopgap.
Febreze, with a shot of vodka
Although spritzing perfume onto a smelly garment will only serve to mask unpleasant odors, products like Febreze and Glade Fabric Odor Eliminator are designed to trap the molecules that cause odors and neutralize them. This makes them more effective at keeping your clothes from smelling, but should never be considered a permanent replacement for laundering. Those stink molecules are still there, and the water of a washing machine will release and remove them. A reasonable guideline: Febreze twice, wash once (especially for garments that weren’t all that smelly to begin with). Not wild about artificial scents? Spraying smelly clothes with unflavored vodka (cheers!) or a mixture of water and distilled white vinegar can help, but neither is as powerful as the store-bought formulas.
Layering in hot weather holds approximately the same appeal as major dental work, but don’t discard this option outright. Any absorbent under-layer will help prevent the outer layer from getting all stanked up. Even a cotton tank worn under a lightweight sweater will suck up most of your smelliness. If your outer layer fits closely, make sure your under layer fits even closer. Also make sure that the arm holes on the under-layer are relatively high and sit in your armpits.
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based stylist and author of Already Pretty (www.alreadypretty.com).