How to Wash and Care for Thrifted Clothes

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

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 20 mins - 1 hr
  • Total Time: 2 - 8 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $0 to $10

Thrifted clothing purchased at second-hand stores, thrift shops, or garage sales can offer amazing bargains. However, it is important to clean each clothing item before you wear it. Since most of the items you find in second-hand stores and rummage sales have been worn, it's a good idea to sanitize them to reduce exposure to bacteria, fungus, and harmful insects that might tag along. And with thrifted clothes that are brand-new, washing before wearing can help remove excess dyes and other chemical treatments.

Fortunately, washing and cleaning thrifted clothes require the same supplies you use to clean the clothes already in your closet.

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

How to Wash Thrifted Clothing
Detergent Gentle to heavy-duty (depends on fabric type)
Water Temperature Cold to warm
Cycle Type Gentle to normal (depends on fabric type)
Drying Cycle Air-dry or permanent press cycle
Special Treatments Read care labels
Iron Settings Low to high (depends on fabric type)
How Often to Wash Immediately after purchasing, then whenever necessary

How to Wash Thrifted Clothing

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 it.

    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, most clothes labeled as "dry cleaning recommended" can be successfully hand-washed. Any structured item like a coat or suit jacket should be dry cleaned and not washed at home.

    Care label tag open to read cleaning instructions

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  2. Dry Clean if Needed

    Those items marked "dry clean only" should be taken to the cleaners before wearing them—even if they appear clean. If the garment 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. Hand-Wash

    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 make sure to check the rinse water. If color remains in the water, 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. Sanitize the Clothing (If Desired)

    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. But if you would like to add another layer of sanitization, add a laundry sanitizer to the load before washing.

    Laundry detergent poured into washing machine dispenser

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  6. 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.

    Care label being read on black-spotted thrifted clothing

    The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

  7. Remove Strong Odors

    Vintage clothing and even new thrifted items may have strong odors from perfume, scented cleaning products, or musty storage. If the odor remains after the garment has been washed, soak the clothing overnight in a sink or bucket filled with lukewarm water and 1 cup of baking soda before washing again. Add 1 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

What Is Thrifted Clothing?

Any clothing item purchased at a garage sale, flea market, thrift store, or second-hand store falls under the label "thrifted clothing." In some cases, these will be used clothing, already worn by another owner. But often the garments are brand-new items, usually overstock items consigned to a thrift store for sale. Either way, thrifted clothing is almost always sold at a vast discount from the price of comparable new garments. Even at garage sales, it's not uncommon to find excellent bargains on rarely worn garments.

Whatever their origin, it's always a good idea to thoroughly inspect and wash thrifted items before adding them to your wardrobe collection.

Treating Stains on Thrifted Clothing

If stains are evident when you first purchase used, thrifted clothing, these are likely old stains that have fully set in. These are unlikely to come clean with simple washing and will need to be treated by hand by rubbing them with laundry detergent or using an enzyme-based stain remover.

Thrifted Clothing Care and Repairs

Any stitching or patching should be done before washing, as the agitation of a washing machine and dryer action can further unravel loose seams or tears. Inspect the clothing again immediately after drying to make sure no new damage has occurred.

Storing Thrifted Clothing

Never store away thrifted clothing before thoroughly laundering it. Though it's rare, thrifted clothing has been known to harbor moths, bedbugs, or even pathogens, which can be transferred to other clothing unless they are removed. That great wool sweater from a garage sale could be harboring moths that will begin feeding on other wool items in your wardrobe—unless you clean it before storing.

Once clothing has been cleaned, then you can fold or hang it in whatever way is appropriate for the fabric and garment type.

How Often to Wash Thrifted Clothing

Thrifted clothing should be washed immediately when you bring it home. Multiple washings may be necessary if used clothing was badly soiled, or if excess dyes in new clothing have not yet been washed out.

Once the thrifted clothing is cleaned for the first time, it can be treated like any other clothing, washed whenever it becomes dirty or before storing it away for the season.

Tips for Washing Thrifted Clothing

  • Second-hand clothing may have a musty smell, even though it is clean. This can occur if the clothing has been stored in damp conditions, or even in airtight containers. To eliminate odors, sprinkle the clothes with baking powder and let it sit overnight before washing.
  • If you have concerns about hygiene, have second-hand clothing dry cleaned when you clean it for the first time. One of the chemicals used in dry cleaning, perchloroethylene, is very effective at cleaning germs and bacteria.
FAQ
  • Will laundering kill any bedbugs that might be in thrifted clothing?

    Bedbugs are generally killed at temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Most clothes dryers run at about 125 degrees at low temperatures, 130 to 133 degrees at medium settings, and at 140 degrees or higher at high-temperature settings. Therefore, bedbugs are almost always killed if the items are dried fully at the highest dryer setting appropriate for the fabric. A washing in warm or hot water, followed by a full dryer cycle, makes it unlikely that any insects or pathogens will remain in the garments.

  • Is it a good idea to buy thrifted shoes?

    Because second-hand shoes generally can't be disinfected through washing, you may want to be careful about purchasing and wearing used shoes. Further, used shoes often shape themselves to the previous owner's feet, which can make them uncomfortable for a new owner. However, remaindered new shoes from overstock are often sold at thrift stores, and these are entirely safe to buy and wear.

  • Should thrifted clothing be washed separately from other laundry?

    Used clothing may harbor molds or odors that can transfer to other clothing, so keep it separate from other laundry until it has been thoroughly washed. After that, it can be washed with loads of general laundry.

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