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How clean do our clothes need to be?

  • Article by: DEBRA D. BASS
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • March 25, 2012 - 7:21 PM

Cleanliness is a difficult subject to broach in fashion and in life. The American standard of clean is arguably the world's highest. We espouse a level of cleanliness that is arguably so extreme that it's often ridiculed. But for all the grousing, most Americans don't even know how to properly wash their hands.

Dr. Bernard Camins, who specializes in infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis, admits that personal hygiene is a tricky question.

He said that aside from common sense, the subject hasn't been dissected. We don't know if daily showers are substantially more important than daily clothes changes or vice versa. What we do know is mostly speculation for people in day-to-day middle-class living conditions, meaning lots of air conditioning and little sweating.

So is it OK not to wash your new jeans?

Ultimately, Camins said, there are personal hygiene ideals, but in reality, the standards are debatable. Obviously, stinky is bad. Odors are nature's way of telling us that something is wrong, and they don't help you make friends. But along the spectrum to stinky there's wiggle room.

Here's a laundry list of tips for washing your clothes:

JEANS

Wash intermittently

"A good pair of jeans will actually mold to your body if people aren't afraid to wear them in," said Carmella Simpson, a designer and seamstress at Midland Alterations in University City, Mo.

The director of brand concepts at Levi Strauss also has spoken out on the hazards of overwashing jeans. He said agitating denim in a wash cycle makes the fibers swell, tense and shorten, and it also affects the color.

Red flags: "If you spill something on them or you're just a super sweaty person, then, of course, you have to wash them more," Simpson said, but avoid tossing wet jeans in the dryer. Jeggings and jeans with lots of Spandex can get baggy at the knees and waist, so you can run them through a rinse cycle -- inside-out, of course -- and toss them in the dryer for a short time to reshape between washings.

BLOUSES OR TOPS

Up to three wears

Generally, you should wash blouses and tops after every wearing. But if you don't perspire heavily or only wear one for a few hours, you can get a couple of wears in. Add time between washes with Garment Guard underarm shields.

Red flags: Stains should be treated or washed out immediately. If it's a special-occasion shirt you won't be wearing for weeks or months after, give it a steam treatment and air dry before putting it back in the closet.

PANTS & DRESS SHORTS

Up to five wears

As with all career gear, your clothes should hold up well between washes as long as you dress for the office, don't smoke, and change into play clothes the minute you get home.

Red flags: If there are excessive wrinkles, use steam and gravity to smooth rough spots. If that doesn't work, a rinse cycle for machine-washable clothes will do the trick. Stains have to be treated.

SKIRTS

Up to six wears

They have the same general rules as pants. You can rejuvenate unsoiled, nonsilk fabrics with a 10-minute spin with a dryer sheet or damp cloth, according to Steve Boorstein, known as the Clothes Doctor.

Red flags: Whites and silks are prone to discoloration and should be cleaned after every wear.

JACKETS & BLAZERS

Up to six wears

If you're wearing a jacket with a sleeveless shirt, that means more washes.

Red flags: Don't let stains get old. If you can't spot-treat the items, take it to the cleaner sooner than later. After wearing, always check the high-friction areas -- collar, cuffs and placket -- for signs of dirt. If you have a matching jacket and pants or jacket and skirt, wash or dry clean them together to prevent uneven fading.

PAJAMAS & NIGHTWEAR

Up to four wears

You sweat at night, and that means shedding a lot of dead skin cells. If you shower before bed, your bed clothes will last longer, but never go more than a week without cleaning.

Red flags: If you sleep in silk, change your sleepwear daily. Silks absorb more body oils than cotton. Don't forget, those sheets need a washing, too. A good rule is once a week.

BRAS

Up to four wears

Always give them at least a 24-hour break. Air out bras after wearing and consider sachets to absorb moisture and odor in your lingerie drawer. Hand-washing is optional, but you should use a bra bag or ball to protect underwires from bending in the washing machine.

Red flags: The exceptions are sports bras or any bra you wear under sweaty conditions. In the battle of elastic and sweat, sweat always wins. You want your bras to fit snug and comfy.

ONE WEAR, NO EXCEPTIONS

Underwear, swimwear, gym clothes

Even if you didn't sweat that much or get in the water, there's still bacteria. Hand-wash (or at least gentle machine-wash cycle in a protective bag) and air dry to avoid undue stress on stretchy materials.

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