How Washing Your Clothes Can Make Them Dirtier

Pre-washing machine era. Women used straw to cushion their knees.

Clothes washer technology has reduced the drudgery of scrubbing clothes to get them clean — much nicer than the days of pounding or rubbing the clothing on rocks in a river or against a corrugated wash board. But even the high efficiency, highest tech agitators need your helping hand. Otherwise, washing your clothes can actually make them dirtier.

Wash Before Wearing

First, always wash new clothes before wearing them. New fabric finishes contain formaldehyde, fragranced starches, and insecticides. Soak them in one cup or more of baking soda before washing them to neutralize these potentially allergenic chemicals.  

Try this Test…

Wash a load of clothes as it’s normally done. Now run this load through another full cycle except DON’T add any detergent — just wash it again in water. If suds are present, that means there’s detergent residue remaining on your clothes. These residues can contribute to skin dryness and itchiness.

Detergents 101

Detergents work by loosening and binding to dirt, then lifting it up and out of clothes. Detergent and dirt become one unit. If the detergent isn’t completely rinsed out, neither is the dirt. Too much detergent = dirty, irritating clothes!

Don’t Crowd

Be sure not to overload your washer. To clean, your detergent needs room to circulate through your clothes. Plus, you need plenty of water to carry the loosened dirt and oils away.

How Much Detergent

For a full-sized load, use half the recommended amount of a favorite detergent. Detergent manufacturers often overestimate the amount that’s actually needed. Fragrance-free detergents are best as they don’t contain petrochemical perfumes which can aggravate allergies and irritate sensitive skin.

Hard and Soft Water

Soft water cleans clothes better than hard water. Minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, make water hard and can leave mineral deposits on your clothes causing them to also wear faster and fade. Detergent requirements may vary based on mineral content in the water — slightly more detergent may be necessary for very hard water and less for very soft water.

Soda and Vinegar

Add 1/2 cup of baking soda to the detergent (less for smaller loads). The baking soda helps detergents work better by maintaining a neutral pH in your laundry water and deodorizes your clothes without synthetic fragrances that mask the odors. To remove the detergent’s chemical alkaline residue, add 1/2 cup of white distilled vinegar to the final rinse cycle.

2 thoughts on “How Washing Your Clothes Can Make Them Dirtier

  1. Thank you for a nicely written article with good information!

    I have some additions that may be helpful to your readers.

    While being being a dermal (skin) and respiratory irritant, formaldehyde also is a suspected carcinogen. For more info:

    Besides insecticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals likely remain on non-organic cotton materials. For more info:

    For high-efficiency washing machines, use detergents labeled HE. These detergents are formulated to foam less because less water is used in HE machines.

    We use Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, an all-purpose cleaning liquid, as our laundry soap for our HE machine. I dilute 1:5 with water and dispense about an ounce of liquid into the wash. It cleans the clothes, towels and sheets just fine and rinses well. The ingredients in Sal Suds are fully disclosed, not tested on animals and the soap is fully biodegradable. (Disclosure: I do not receive any type of compensation for my personal promotion of Dr. Bronner’s products.)


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