How to Wash Thrifted Clothes

Thrifted clothing hanging on rack with hangers in front of pink wall

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 30 mins
  • Total Time: 2 - 8 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Thrifting has become a way to save money on clothes, express your fashion creativity, and spend a few hours enjoying the thrill of the hunt. Thrift stores and consignment shops are filled with name-brand clothing, often with the tags still attached. The bargains and variety are endless.

But once you've found your treasures, take the time to look them over carefully before you make the purchase. Is the garment washable or must it be dry cleaned? Is it free from rips, insect damage, and stains? Can you make any needed repairs or alterations?

Once you've settled on your choices and get them home, it is important to clean each clothing item before you wear it just as you would new clothes from a retail shop to prevent allergic reactions to irritants and chemicals. And, since most of the items you find in a thrift store have been worn, it's a good idea to sanitize them to reduce exposure to bacteria, fungus, and harmful insects that might tag along.

Fortunately, washing and cleaning thrifted clothes requires just a bit of detective work and the same supplies you use to clean the clothes already in your closet.

 Detergent  Gentle to heavy-duty laundry detergent depending on the type of fabric
 Water Temperature  Cold to warm
 Cycle Type  Gentle to normal depending on the type of fabric
 Drying Cycle  Air-dry or permanent press cycle
 Special Treatments  Some garments should be hand-washed only, others may require dry cleaning only
 Iron Settings  Low to high depending on the type of fabric

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washer or large sink
  • Automatic dryer, clothesline, or drying rack
  • Iron or clothes steamer

Materials

  • Laundry detergent
  • Enzyme-based stain remover
  • Laundry sanitizer
  • Oxygen bleach
  • Home dry cleaning kit
  • Baking soda
  • Distilled white vinegar

Instructions

Materials and tools to wash thrifted clothing

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  1. Read the Care Label

    Before you even buy a piece of clothing, read the care label. The label will tell you the fiber content of the fabric and cleaning instructions. If the label is missing and you can't live without the item, a professional cleaner or seamstress should be able to tell you how to clean the item.

    Care label tag open to read cleaning instructions

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  2. Wash or Dry Clean

    The care label will also tell you whether the item can be washed or must be dry cleaned. If the item is labeled as dry clean only, it may not be worth the expense. However, some clothes labeled as "dry clean only" can be hand-washed. Any structured item like a coat or suit jacket should be dry cleaned and not washed at home.

    If the garment must be dry cleaned and has stains, point them out to the dry cleaner and let them know that you don't know what caused them. Most cleaners can quickly determine whether the stain can be removed.

    Washer door opening to put clothes to clean

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  3. Take Precautions for the First Washing

    Hand-washing is the safest way to clean washable thrifted clothing the first time. If the tag on the garment says "wash separately before wearing," you can usually expect some dye transfer and color bleeding. Hand-washing will help remove some of the excess dye but check the rinse water. If color remains in the water, you should continue to wash the item separately or with similar colors. It may take several washings to get rid of the excess dye and prevent damage to other fabrics.

    White thrifted clothing hand washed in yellow bucket

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  4. Remove Stains and Brighten Fabrics

    If the washable thrifted item has stains, treat them as quickly as possible. Use an enzyme-based stain remover and work it into the stained area with your fingers or a soft-bristled brush. Allow the stain remover to work for at least 10 minutes before you wash the rest of the garment.

    To whiten and brighten washable fabrics, mix some oxygen-based bleach in cool water following the label directions. Submerge the clothing and let it soak for at least four hours, overnight is fine, then wash as usual.

    Enzyme-based stain remover sprayed on to yellow stain on thrifted clothing

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  5. Remove Strong Odors

    Most vintage clothing and even new thrifted items can have strong odors from perfume, scented cleaning products or musty storage. Wash the clothes following the care tag. If the odor remains, soak the clothing overnight in a sink or bucket filled with lukewarm water and one cup of baking soda before washing again. Add one cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle to help strip away any detergent or fabric softener residue in the fibers that may be holding onto the scent.

    Allow the freshly washed clothes to air dry in a breezy location and give the item a final sniff test before wearing.

    White thrifted clothing soaking in yellow bucket with cleaning solution

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  6. Sanitize the Clothing

    Washing or dry cleaning the clothing will usually remove any insects or bacteria lingering in the fabric especially if you dry the item in a high-temperature automatic dryer. If you would like to add another layer of sanitization, add a laundry sanitizer to the load.

    Laundry detergent poured into washing machine dispenser

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  7. Follow Standard Laundry Practices

    As with new clothes and old favorites, follow a laundry routine of pretreating stains, sorting clothes by color and fabric type, using an enzyme-based laundry detergent, paying attention to water temperatures, and using the right washer and dryer cycles when cleaning thrifted clothing.

    Care label being read on black-spotted thrifted clothing

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Current Treatment Options in Allergy, Textile Contact Dermatitis: How Fabrics Can Induce Dermatitis.

  2. Journal of Applied Microbiology, Transfer of Bacteria from Fabrics to Hands and Other Fabrics: Development and Application of a Quantitative Method Using Staphylococcus Aureusas a Model.