A glittering element of stepping into a golden, empowered adulthood entails honoring yourself with a closet full of elevated, timeless essentials—the perfect white T-shirt, gorgeous cashmere galore, heeled boots, trousers that will turn heads at every meeting, a great blazer, silk date night dresses, a few amazing skirts, striped Breton shirts, and a few unique vintage pieces.
You know how to wear them—and can’t wait to do so. The question now is: To wash or not to wash each piece before wearing it for the first time? In theory, the pieces are new—and, therefore, clean—but chances are, each item was tried on by a stranger before it became yours. And even if you bought it online, it was handled by the company and spent time in a cardboard box before landing in your arms. So, should you wash new (and vintage) clothing items before wearing them?
According to several dermatologists, the answer is—hands down, yes—it’s wise to clean your new essentials and fabulous special garments prior to wearing them. Keep reading to learn all the reasons why.
Remove Skin Irritants
For starters, new clothing is often treated with stain repellents, color fasteners, anti-wrinkle agents, softness enhancers, and any number of other chemical treatments and finishes, which can irritate the skin. Most companies use urea-formaldehyde to enhance the texture of various fabrics and reduce wrinkles in clothing. The finishes won't bother everyone, but if you have sensitive skin, the chemicals used could irritate it and, in severe cases, cause a rash. If you don’t wash your new clothing before wearing it, the dyes could cause you to develop allergic contact dermatitis, which is an immune system-related reaction to an allergen that has irritated your delicate skin. It can cause a rash that may appear a few days after exposure to certain chemicals, and it can last for several weeks.
By law, as of now, clothing manufacturers don’t need to disclose any of the treatments and finishes that they use to customers, and many of the chemicals applied to the clothing have little or no research to back up their safety. The chemicals that they use could pose health risks to people, and they could also end up in the air and water supplies, where they could do further harm. It’s a messy—albeit tidy—situation, and it’s best to avoid contact with these finishes. Why risk it?
New Clothes Are More Used Than You Think
Think about it—regardless of where you buy your new pieces, they’ve usually been touched by numerous sets of hands before becoming yours. Would you want strangers to touch your skin? Probably not. But their hands and germs were on the clothing, and the clothing will go on you—so it only makes sense to wash the clothing prior to wearing it.
This is especially true of vintage and secondhand clothing. The amazing vintage Prada number that you can’t wait to wear once belonged to someone else—and you should have it dry cleaned before slipping into it. Most vintage stores wash clothing before selling it, but give each treasure another cleansing before allowing it to enter your closet—it’ll allow you to have a clear conscience and clean clothing.
Worried about wearing the piece out in the wash? Give it a gentle hand wash or have your dry cleaner do a delicate wash. We know that it can be difficult to wait to wear your incredible new purchase(s), but it’s worth waiting for a few hours. Trust us.
Meet the Expert
Greg Armas is a vintage collector and the owner and designer of Assembly New York, which utilizes primarily upcycled and deadstock fabrics in its collections.
How to Clean and Disinfect Your New Pieces
For another opinion, we asked a store owner who has spent much of his adult life sifting through seemingly endless troughs of vintage and new clothing to dress much of downtown New York and beyond. Should we wash clothing before wearing it, and how we should wash new (to us) pieces?
According to Assembly New York designer and vintage collector Greg Armas, to date, in relation to COVID, the virus is not very transmissible through surfaces. However, “for any sterilization, the hotter the water, the better," he notes. "Most clothes can handle hot water (be sure to read the label). It's the hot dryer that damages clothes typically, and wouldn't have any effect on sterilization as any of that would happen in the wash."
Want to be absolutely sure nothing you don't want is hanging around in your clothing? "Viruses can live longer in clothing receptacles, hampers, cardboard, etc., and this is where one is collecting dirty clothes, so, if anywhere, that is a place to disinfect," Armas says. "UV light is a great disinfectant and the sunlight is full of it. Leaving a garment in the sun for several hours is surprisingly effective and, beyond sun damage, helps maintain the garment." Easy enough—and we love the idea of simply allowing the sun to disinfect delicate vintage pieces.
And when it comes to deciding what method to use when washing your new clothes, make sure you pay attention to the label and materials. "Dry cleaning, if recommended on care labels, can help preserve a garment (or destroy it, based on the composition of the fabric, buttons, etc.)," Armas advises. "As a rule, gentle washing is usually safest for longevity. The same principles apply to new and vintage, really.”
If you went shopping during your lunch break and found the perfect piece to wear to happy hour after work, it’s fine to wear it without washing—unless you have super sensitive skin, you likely won't face any major consequences. But make this a rare occurrence, and be sure to wash your new clothing prior to wearing it most of the time.
The conclusion is clear: According to dermatologists, clothing manufacturers, vintage dealers, and common sense, it’s smart—and highly recommended—to wash your new clothing items before wearing them. Make the sartorial acquisitions feel instantly yours by applying a few spritzes of your favorite exquisite perfume. This way, they won’t feel too new or too clean—they’ll feel like they’re yours, and they’re ready to be worn and loved by you.
Toxicology NRC (US) C on. Effects on Humans. National Academies Press (US); 1980.
Chen YX, Gao BA, Cheng HY, Li LF. Survey of occupational allergic contact dermatitis and patch test among clothing employees in beijing. Biomed Res Int. 2017;2017:3102358.