​Your Jeans Are Filthy. You Should Clean Them! Or Don't.

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

It is a testament to how much I love you all that I've suffered having "Apple Bottom jeans/Boots with the fur/The whole club lookin' at her" on loop in my head since The Powers That Be posted my jeans-washing polls a few days ago. Because man, have I ever spent a lot of time thinking about jeans this week! But it's totally been worth it, because the response to the poll was great and so are you. Except for the person who used the write-in option featured in the second poll to call me the N-word. That person is not so great. However, the person who answered "I use the seashells" more than made up for it!

For the purpose of this exercise, we first need to acknowledge that not all jeans are created equal, and that the way in which one cares for "fashion denim" is going to be different from how you care for "functional denim" which are terms I just made up and are admittedly horrible but serve to get the point across. Are you going to quibble with the gal who suffered through being called the N-word in pursuit of helping you to clean your jeans? No, you are not. Because you're great.

Poll Results

Speaking of how great you are: Wowsers, thank you all so much for the exceedingly robust response to our poll! As of the time when I woke up this morning and sat in bed toiling away because on the internet no one knows you're working under the covers until you tell them, almost 21,000 of you had chimed in on how often you wash your jeans. And most of you—about 86 percent—are washing 'em pretty regularly, making weekly, every other week, monthly, or quarterly the most common responses. Which seems about right, though I was surprised to see how low the vote tally—four percent—was for "never," considering how well-represented the neverwash folks were in the rousing discussion that followed the poll. Finally, the "I wash after every wear" people and the "I wait until they can stand on their own" sorts exist in equal measure, each coming in with five percent of the vote.

As for the question of how you're washing those jeans, the answer is almost universally "in the machine." Which is also not a surprise and just dandy, as far as I'm concerned. Among the 95 percent of respondents who chose one of the machine washing options, most are also using the dryer: 22 percent prefer a high heat drying cycle, while 47 percent go in for a low or medium heat setting; 26 percent of you are air drying those jeans. This is marvelous news!

A tiny and equal number of you avoid the machine, two percent opting to hand wash, two percent to freeze your jeans, while one percent of you took the write-in option offered in the poll. The most common of the 129 write-in votes were, in order: dry cleaning, sending them out to the fluff 'n' fold, and "my mom/grandma/wife washes them." That's very nice of mom/grandma/wife! And I know she appreciates it when you thank her for her efforts. [MEANINGFUL LOOK]

Why You Might Want To Wash The Jeans

Over time, the buildup of dirt and body oils and skin and whatever other grime attaches itself to your jeans will break the material down. Of course, over time laundering your jeans will also cause them to break down, which leaves us with a wash, so to speak. (Please note that this does not apply to raw denim, which is its own beast entirely and which we will for sure talk about downcolumn.)

Some other circumstances under which you might want to wash your jeans:

  • They smell
  • They're stretched out and have gotten saggy at the knees and tush
  • They're visibly dirty
  • The thought of wearing unwashed jeans brings out the Howard Hughes in you

But maybe those circumstances don't inspire you to want to wash your jeans! You know what? That's fine. They're your jeans. You are an adult with free will. Wash or don't wash your jeans, and while we're on the topic of the free will of adult humans maybe consider that someone who makes a different choice from you vis-à-vis the state of his/her dungarees may have perfectly valid reasons for doing so.

To illustrate this point, I would like to share with you comments on the matter from two of my colleagues.

Barry Petchesky asks:

Who are these people washing their jeans after every wear? Surely you don't live in a city—how the hell do you lug that many jeans to the laundromat?

While Tim Burke exclaims:

I feel like anyone advocating not washing an article of clothing does not live and has never lived in Florida, where clothing items get brutally disgusting after one or, at most, two wearings.

If you go an entire summer in Florida not washing your jeans, you should probably take them to your county's hazardous waste disposal facility.

Both of these men are correct. "But Jolie! How can that be? They are saying opposite things!"

They're both correct because the circumstances of their lives, access to laundry facilities and the way in which they're employing their jeans are different. See how that wasn't so hard?! Now let's all go have a Coke and a smile.

Setting Dye To Prevent Transferring

An exceedingly common question to come my way goes something like this, "Jolie help! I have a pair of dark jeans and the dye rubbed off on my bag/upholstery/shoes/car seat/carpet during a heated make out sesh!"

In a sec we'll talk about treating those stains, but let's talk first about preventing them from happening in the first place by the fairly simple process of dye setting.

The cheapest and easiest way to set dye is to soak the item in question for upwards of 30 minutes in a cup of white vinegar diluted in enough cold water to entirely cover the garment. If you've got the facilities in which to do so, i.e. your own washing machine, you can also perform the same act by stopping the machine once the drum has filled up with the water and vinegar, letting it sit for 30 minutes, and then restarting the cycle.

There are, however, people out there who cannot abide white vinegar, and so for you folks I would offer a product called Retayne Color Fixative. It's used in the same way as vinegar, either in the washing machine or as a hand washing soak agent.

Cleaning Up Transferred Dye Stains

Right so all of that is fine and dandy but many of you are like, "Great, now you tell me. But what about my bag/upholstery/shoes/car seat/carpet?"

Generally speaking, isopropyl alcohol (the rubbing stuff) is the cheapest and most accessible option out there for treating dye stains. Apply a small amount to a cotton ball or clean cloth and dab at the stained area. This works on leather if you can believe it! Just use the product sparingly is all.

For launderable items, Carbona Color Run Remover or Shout Color Catcher are great products if you can get your hands on them. My old standby OxiClean is similarly fantastic, though it bears noting that OxiClean works best when you use it as a soaking agent.

Carpets and upholstery that have taken on an indigo cast left behind by your jeans can be treated with Resolve or any such similar product.

Caring for Functional Denim

This one's pretty easy, mostly because the jeans that you wear for kicking around or working in the field or tinkering under the hood of your car or making adorable votives using craft paint and mason jars shouldn't require a whole lot of effort to keep clean. So: Machine wash, using cold water. If preventing fading is a thing you care about, you can turn them inside out before laundering, which will help to preserve the color. Then toss them in the dryer, using a low or medium heat setting. If the jeans have stretched way out and you want to shrink them back up, go ahead and use either the medium or high heat setting. That's all. (Well wait, you should also put them away. I see you piling up that clean laundry on a chair in your room. Knock that off!)

If your functional jeans end up with paint, grease, or heavy dirt stains that you want gone here's some help for you:

  • Paint stains: Treat with Mötsenböcker's Lift Off, launder as usual.
  • Grease stains: Treat with Pine-Sol or Lestoil, launder as usual; pile cornstarch or talcum on the stain, allow the powder to absorb the grease for a few hours, brush it away and then launder as usual.
  • Heavy dirt stains: Apply a laundry pretreatment product like Resolve, or use a booster like Borax in the wash. A laundry brush will also help to slough off heavy dirt buildup.

Caring for Fashion Denim

We need to break down our fashion denim discussion into two subcategories: treated denim versus raw denim. The care instructions for the two vary considerably, which is important to know because if you've got a pair of raw denim jeans you've probably spent a pretty penny on them and will want to make sure they last.

Treated Denim

When it comes to treated denim, which is everything that's not raw denim, you've got options and I'm not going to tell you which to choose because of that whole free will business. But I will, because I'm a benevolent Clean Person, fill you in on the best practices within each category.

  • Machine Washing: Best to use the cold water setting; if you feel up to it, a detergent designed for use on dark clothing, like Woolite Dark, Cheer for Darks or The Laundress Darks Detergent, would be swell; to prevent the color from fading, if that's a thing you'd like to prevent, turn the jeans inside out before washing.
  • Hand Washing: Just like with the machine, you'll want to use cold water and a detergent designed for dark clothing, which will help to preserve the integrity of the color. Follow your basic hand washing instructions, and when you've rinsed the jeans and drained the rinse water go ahead and roll the jeans up like you're rolling a cigar (or, let's be honest, a joint) to squeeze out some of the water. Then press down on them to release more water before laying flat or hanging to air dry.
  • Machine Drying: If you need or want to shrink your jeans up a bit, go for a medium heat setting; if you want to avoid shrinkage, which will happen to some extent during any kind of washing experience you may foist on your denim, use the low heat setting. The low heat setting will also help to prevent fading; keeping the jeans inside out during drying is also recommended.
  • Air Drying: This is the best choice if you're looking to preserve the integrity of the dye. Hanging from a heavy duty clipped hanger will allow the jeans to dry faster and more evenly, whereas laying flat to dry will help to prevent the jeans from stretching out lengthwise, but will require you to flip them to ensure even drying. The use of a drying rack will help the jeans to dry more evenly.
  • Never Washing: If you choose not to ever wash your jeans, you can eliminate any odors that have developed by spritzing them lightly with either white vinegar or vodka and hanging them to dry/air out (if you can open a nearby window, all the better!) or by putting them in the freezer. Freezing them will kill bacteria that causes odor and leave the jeans scent-free. The caveat about freezing is this: Science doesn't really back up the efficacy of freezing jeans; in a nutshell, freezing will kill some of the bacteria that builds up on jeans, but it won't eliminate the accumulation of skin that's sloughed off your person, and when you get the jeans back on you, the skinsuit inside your jeans will be reactivated by your body heat and I'm going to stop now and just direct you to this post on Gizmodo for more on this scintillating topic.
  • Dry Cleaning: I mentioned back when we started this post a million years/words ago that a lot—like, a very surprising lot!—of you are sending your jeans out to be dry cleaned. So right! There's an option for you. The only best practice I can offer for this one is to point out any stains when you drop the jeans off so those can be spot treated by the cleaner and then also to remember to pick them up when they're ready. Which is, as we all know, the hardest part of negotiating dry cleaning.

Raw or Selvedge Denim

Raw denim refers to denim that has been not been washed by the manufacturer; selvedge denim refers to a stitching style, but is also commonly sold raw. Raw denim will be rich in dye, which means that wearing it will lead to dye transfer. That's just part of the deal. You can, of course, set the dye either by using one of the methods we've already discussed or by simply soaking the jeans in cold water. That will, however, render the jeans no longer raw, so be aware of that.

If you are a raw denim aficionado, you likely already know the basic tenets of caring for it and have OPINIONS in re same. You will certainly express those OPINIONS. Probably by using ALL CAPS to indicate that you are SHOUTING, so important is it to you that your OPINION is heard. Go with God. Shout yourself hoarse. YOLO.

Anyway, for the rest of you, here are the broad strokes on caring for raw denim:

  • Don't wash raw denim for at least six months, preferably not for a year.
  • Spot treat stains as needed.
  • Put the jeans in a sealed bag in the freezer or hang in a fresh-air situation to eliminate lingering odors.
  • When it's time to wash, lay jeans flat in the tub, use a detergent designed for use on dark clothes along with lukewarm water, agitate them a bit to impregnate them with the soap, then allow to soak for 45 minutes or so. Drain the tub and refill with clean water, agitating the jeans to rinse them free of the detergent. Drain the tub again, bear down on the jeans to press out as much water as you can (don't wring the jeans!), and then hang to dry.

In closing, maybe it's a good time to remind everyone that they're just jeans.

The Squalor Archive: Armpit Stain Eradication | Blood Stain Removal | Booze Stench Elimination | Brightening White Towels & Sheets | Cleaning Car Consoles | Caring for Athletic Clothing | Cat Pee | Dirty Ball Caps | Dog Mess on Carpet | Filthy Couches | Football Glove Care | Gasoline on Clothing | Grain Moth Infestations | Grease/Rubber Stain Treatments | Grimy-Lookin' Bathtubs | Gross Computers | Guests & Bedbugs | Halloween Cleanup | Karategi Cleaning | Ketchup Stains | Ladies Underpants | Laundering Bathmats | Lube Stains | Makeup Debris in Bathrooms | Makeup Stains On Upholstery | Marijuana Stench | Mayo Stains | Melted Microfiber on Enameled Cast Iron | Menstrual Cup Care | Mildewed Towels | Molded, Mildewy Caulk | Moldy Trousers | Mustard Stains | Nail Polish Stains | Odor Removal for Non-Launderable Items | Oven Cleaning| Pee-Smelling Bathrooms | Rank Roller Derby Pads | Rust Stains on Clothing | Scorched Pots | Scummy Glass Shower Doors |Semen Stains | Sheet Changing Cycles | Sheet Changing Etiquette & Tricks | Skidmarks |Stained Tennis Whites | Stinking Sinks | Stinky Feet | Stinky Slippers | Sunscreen Stains |Thanksgiving Stain Primer | That Orange Stuff In The Shower | The Great Bra Washing Extravaganza | Toilet Mold | Towel Laundering Cycles | Treating Testicular Odor | Washing & De-Pilling Sweaters | Wax Removal Techniques | When Butter Attacks | Yellowed Fingernails |Yellowed Sheets | Yellowed Swimsuits

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr. Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.