How to clean thrifted clothes

How To Clean Thrifted Clothes – 4 Tips To Remove Odors And Restore Freshness

Last Updated: October 21, 2023By

The thrill of thrifting is finding hidden gems and pre-loved fashions at bargain prices. But used clothing often comes stained, smelly, or just plain dirty. Learning how to clean thrifted clothes properly and care for your secondhand shop scores is a must!

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know including expert thrift tips about effectively washing, removing stains, eliminating odors, disinfecting, and maintaining thrifted clothes. With some time, care, and a few cleaning products, you can make old garments look and feel brand new.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to tidying up pre-loved threads, keep these tips in mind:

  • Carefully check labels to avoid washing woes – hand wash delicates and dry clean items marked as such. Follow all fabric care instructions to a tee.
  • Sort smartly by color and fabric type before tossing in the wash to prevent damage from dyes bleeding or incompatible fabrics tangling. Group darks, lights, denim, delicates and towels into their own loads.
  • Inspect for stains and pre-treat any problem areas with a spot remover, dish soap, or DIY cleaning paste tailored to the type of stain. This gives you a stain fighting head start.
  • Make necessary mends like patching holes, replacing buttons, fixing zippers so existing damage doesn’t worsen or snag other items during washing. An ounce of clothing care is worth a pound of repairs.
  • Mind your temperatures – wash in cool water and dry thoroughly on a low heat setting to avoid heat damage like shrinking and excess wear. When in doubt, opt for the gentle cycle.
  • With some tender loving care, even the most tattered thrift store finds can be restored to like-new condition and wearable status once again.


The Importance of Properly Cleaning Thrifted Clothes

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but for pre-worn threads, it’s essential. Used clothes can harbor all sorts of unsavory residues from their past life.

Food, sweat, odors, mildew, dust mites, pet hair, road grime…you just never know the full history. But have no fear – with the right techniques, you can refresh garments to a like-new condition.

Proper cleaning removes stains, eliminates odors, kills germs and allergens, and leaves fabrics fresh and sanitary for wearing again. It extends the life of thrifted clothes, protects your skin from irritation, and ensures the garments are hygienic for their new owner.

While it may feel tedious, taking the time to deep clean used clothes before wearing is a smart investment. Once they’re washed, you can confidently incorporate the pieces into your wardrobe and maximize your fashionable finds.

1. Preparing Thrifted Clothes for Washing

Before just tossing used garments into the wash, take a few preparatory steps:

Sort Items by Color and Fabric Type

It’s tempting to throw everything together to save time. However different fabrics and dyes require specialized handling. Separating items into loads is crucial to prevent damage. Here’s how to effectively sort:

  • Whites – Bleachable white cotton, linens, shirts, etc.
  • Lights – Pastels, bright, prints in cotton, rayon, poly-blends
  • Darks – Richer tones like black, navy, maroon, forest green
  • Denim – Sturdy jeans and jackets (wash inside-out)
  • Towels/Heavy Fabrics – Terrycloth, blankets, coats, hoodies
  • Delicates – Lingerie, silk, lace, cashmere (wash gently by hand)

This grouping allows you to customize wash cycles, water temperatures, and drying methods suitable for each fabric. It also prevents darker dyes from bleeding onto lighter colors.

Check Clothing Tags

It’s easy to miss clothing labels when browsing the jumbled racks at thrift stores. But care instructions offer invaluable guidance on how to clean different fabrics. Watch for:

  • “Dry clean only” – Take these items to a professional cleaner. Do not wash at home.
  • “Hand wash cold” – Use gentle detergent and cool water to clean by hand. Do not machine wash.
  • “Line dry” or a dryer symbol with an X – Do not put the garment in the dryer, air dry only.
  • Iron temperature setting – Use the indicated heat level if ironing.

Following any special directions maintains the integrity of more delicate fabrics. When in doubt, default to more gentle methods.

Mend Holes, Tears, or Broken Zippers

Examine items closely for existing damage before washing. Small holes or tears can grow larger in the wash. Make necessary repairs so clothing doesn’t get further destroyed. For holes, apply a patch on the inside or darn by hand. Replace broken zippers and missing buttons.

Remove Embellishments

If a garment has decorative touches like sequins, bows, shoulder pads, or corsage pins, remove them prior to cleaning. Place accessories in a bag labeled with the clothing name so they can be reattached later. This prevents snagging or damage in the wash.

Turn Clothing Inside Out

Fabric designs, embroidered logos, and screen prints wear out over time. Washing the outside of the garment directly subjects the decor to friction, fading the colors and images. Flip clothing inside out before washing to keep graphics looking vibrant for longer.

Pre-Treat Stained Areas

Spot-clean any visible stains before washing. Use a pre-wash stain remover spray or make a DIY paste (see stain removal tips below). This gives concentrated treatment to soiled areas and prevents stains from setting deeper into the fibers.

2. Steps to Effectively Clean Thrifted Clothes

Ready to get washing? Follow this head-to-toe process for cleaning used clothing:

Assess the Item’s Condition

Before getting used garments wet, do a thorough inspection:

  • Check for stains/wear – Note heavily soiled areas or thin, stressed fabric so you can treat them gently.
  • Look for damage – Small holes, tears, broken stitches, missing buttons, non-working zippers, etc. Make any needed repairs before washing to prevent further harm.
  • Review fabric content – Natural fibers like wool, silk, and rayon need more delicate care than cotton and synthetics.
  • Read care label – Follow any special washing, drying, or ironing instructions.

Get a game plan for cleaning based on the garment’s current state. This prevents ruining clothes during the cleaning process.

Remove Stains

Used clothes have often already weathered wear and tear. Here are some go-to methods for lifting out common set-in stains:

Oil-Based Stains – Grease, Lipstick, Motor Oil

Dish soap is amazing at cutting through oils. Simply apply a few drops directly on the stain and gently rub it in. Let it soak for 5-10 minutes before laundering as usual with detergent and the hottest water safe for the fabric. The heat helps activate and rinse away oily residues.

Protein Stains – Blood, Food, Sweat, Urine

These organic substances require enzymatic breakdown. Make a pre-wash stain remover paste: mix 1 tbsp ammonia, 1 tsp liquid dish soap, 1 tbsp baking soda, and just enough water to make a paste. Gently rub into the stain, let sit for 15-30 minutes, then launder as normal. The enzymes in the ammonia and dish soap will lift the stain.

For old sweat stains on white fabrics, try soaking the garment for 30 minutes in an oxygen bleach solution – 1 tbsp bleach per 1 qt water. This oxidizing process removes yellowing.

Makeup – Lipstick, Mascara, Foundation

Cosmetic stains are oil-based but often contain pigments that dye fabrics. Use a cotton pad soaked in rubbing alcohol or hairspray to break down the oils. The alcohol or acetone will lift the stain without creating a ring. Then wash normally.

Repeat applications and wash cycles may be needed for heavy staining. Always check care labels and test solutions on inconspicuous areas first. With some persistence, you can wear that makeup-stained blouse again confidently!

Eliminate Odors

Musty mothball smell? Lingering body odor? Smoke stench? Used clothes often come scented in not-so-pleasant ways. Here are some handy tricks to freshen them up:

Baking Soda – An All-Purpose Odor Neutralizer

Keep a box of baking soda on hand for your laundry arsenal. Just 1⁄2 cup sprinkled in with your regular detergent acts as a natural deodorizer and absorbs odors in fabrics.

For a stronger treatment, make a thick paste of baking soda and water and rub it directly onto smelly spots like underarm areas before washing. The sodium bicarbonate disinfects and pulls odors from the fabric.

Vinegar Rinse – Removes Residue and Brightens Colors

The acidic properties of white vinegar make it a wonder for washing clothes. It kills odor-causing bacteria, removes detergent residue, and brightens fabrics.

Fill your rinse cycle dispenser with 1⁄2 cup vinegar, or during your second rinse, pause the cycle and let used clothes soak for 15-20 minutes in a sink filled with 4 parts cool water to 1 part vinegar. Your clothes will come out fresh smelling with vivid colors.

Activated Charcoal – Draws Out Lingering Smells

Those black charcoal odor-removing bags work on fabrics too. After washing used clothes, put them in a sealed plastic bin with charcoal packs to air dry. The charcoal pulls smells from fabrics, leaving them fresh. It’s ideal for delicate items you can’t wash repeatedly like jackets.

Sunlight – Nature’s Disinfectant

When possible, have thrifted clothes and take a “sunbath” after washing. Hang them outside or spread them flat on towels in direct sunlight. The UV rays naturally kill odor-causing bacteria.

For extra freshening power, sprinkle items with baking soda first. The sun’s heat activates it. Just be sure to avoid prolonged sun exposure on delicate fabrics like silk or rayon at risk of fading.

With some creativity and the right odor-removal products, even the funkiest thrift shop finds can be restored to wearing condition. Don’t be deterred by a little smell!

Disinfect from Bacteria and Insects

Used clothes can harbor germs, viruses, dust mites, fleas, carpet beetles, and other creepy crawlers you don’t want close to your skin. Take these steps to sanitize fabrics:

Wash in Hot 130°F+ Water Bacteria and bugs cannot survive in extremely hot temperatures. Use the hottest water setting safe for the fabric. Be sure to add laundry booster/sanitizer or antibacterial detergent for amplified disinfecting power.

Bleach Soak For whites and colorfast fabrics, soak clothes for 5-10 minutes in a dilute bleach bath – 1⁄4 cup bleach per gallon of cool water. This kills germs and insects before washing normally.

High Heat Drying After washing, tumble drying on the highest heat safe for the fabric further kills remaining bacteria and bugs. This is ideal for used towels, sheets, and blankets.

As a chemical-free approach, use a handheld garment steamer to penetrate fabrics, kill dust mites, and disinfect. The heat also eliminates odors. Perfect for upholstery, curtains, and clothing too delicate to soak or wash.

With this clean laundry list of sanitizing tips, you can confidently eliminate creepy crawlies and germs from used garments.

3. Tips for Maintaining Thrifted Clothes

Caring for pre-loved pieces properly keeps them looking their best wash after wash. Follow these guidelines each time you clean vintage and used clothing:

Choose the Right Cleaning Method

Check care instructions and select the most gentle, effective technique:

Machine Wash

  • Use cold water for darks and jeans to prevent fading
  • Choose the delicate or hand wash cycle for clothes prone to shrinking
  • Wash intricately constructed clothes in a mesh bag

Hand Wash

  • Agitate clothes gently in cool water using a small amount of mild detergent
  • Do not wring, twist, or scrub fabrics
  • Roll items in a towel to absorb excess moisture, do not wring

Dry Clean

  • Take “dry clean only” garments to a professional cleaner
  • At home, use a dry cleaning solvent applied with a clean lint-free cloth to spot clean

Spot Clean

  • Dip a clean toothbrush in a small amount of natural soap and gently brush stains
  • Avoid harsh scrubbing motions that could damage fabrics
  • Rinse soap residues out thoroughly

Air Freshen

  • Hang used clothes outdoors in sunlight to naturally deodorize
  • Stuff crumpled newspaper inside damp items to absorb odors as they dry
  • Store fabric in sealed bins with cedar blocks or natural potpourri

Select a Gentle Laundry Detergent

Harsh cleansers weaken fabrics over time. Look for gentle, non-toxic formulations:

  • Plant-based, hypoallergenic liquid soaps
  • Detergents made for baby clothes
  • Cleansers without dyes, bleaches, or optical brighteners
  • Natural soap nuts or eco-friendly powder detergents

Avoid products with strong perfumes or whiteners that gradually strip color and damage delicate fibers.

Mind the Water Temperature

Not too hot, not too cold…just right! Follow these water temp guidelines:

  • Whites – Hot 105°F+ enhances the stain removal
  • Darks – Cold 68°F-77°F prevents fading and bleeding
  • Bright Colors – Warm 80°F-90°F helps colors stay vivid
  • Delicates – Cool 75°F-85°F gentle for silks and wools

When in doubt, err on the cooler side. Excessive heat causes fibers to shrink and fade.

Gently Extract Water

Don’t wring, twist, or aggressively spin delicate fabrics when removing moisture. This stretches and damages cloth. Instead:

  • Roll items in a clean towel to absorb moisture
  • Lay flat on top of dry towels to air dry, reshaping garments as needed
  • Hang delicate camisoles and slip upside down from skirt hems to dry evenly

Air Dry When Possible

Used clothes have often shrunk and stretched already. The heat and tumbling of dryers further deteriorate fabrics. Line dry, lay flat, or hang up items whenever you can:

  • Hang heavy knits upside down on skirt hangers to retain shape
  • Lay sweaters flat on top of a dry towel
  • Stuff the toes of sneakers with newspaper or cloth to hold the shape as they dry

These gentler methods prevent over-drying and additional shrinkage.

Iron Carefully on Low Heat

Test on an inconspicuous spot first. Then choose a low heat setting and avoid prolonged direct contact with the iron. Use the steam function to smooth wrinkles but don’t press down.

For added protection, iron rayon, silk, corduroy, and velvet inside out. Take extra caution with embellished clothes so decorations don’t melt or scorch. With some mindful ironing, you can revive wrinkled thrift store fashions.

Follow the fabric care golden rules, and your pre-loved garments will stay beautiful and last years longer!

4. Other Methods for Removing Odors

If smells linger after washing thrifted clothes, try these extra odor-removal tricks:

Baking Soda

This natural deodorizer and odor neutralizer can be used in a couple of ways:

  • Sprinkling – Liberally sprinkle baking soda particles all over the fabric. Let sit for several hours or overnight, then shake off the powder or vacuum it up.
  • Paste – For concentrated treatment, mix 3 parts baking soda with 1 part water to make a spreadable paste. Rub this directly onto smelly spots, let sit for 1-2 hours, then brush off and launder as usual.

The baking soda absorbs and pulls odors from the fabric over time through absorption.

Vinegar or Vodka Soaks

These acidic solutions help kill odor-causing bacteria:

  • Mix 1 part white vinegar or vodka with 2 parts cool water in a bucket or sink
  • Submerge smelly clothes and soak for 1-2 hours
  • Rinse thoroughly in cold water until the vinegar/vodka smell dissipates

Never soak silk or wool fabrics this way as the acidity can damage delicate fibers. The vinegar or vodka soak works well for most cotton, linen, and polyester blends.

Steam Clean

A handheld garment steamer uses the power of hot vapor to freshen clothes. Follow these steps:

  • Fill the steamer reservoir with distilled water and vinegar or vodka
  • Steam fabric surfaces, holding the head 2 inches away
  • Concentrate on stinky spots, steaming until damp
  • Let the item air dry, repeat steaming if needed

The heat kills odor-causing bacteria and penetrates fabrics to eliminate smells. It’s ideal for upholstery, carpets, curtains, and delicate clothing items.

With the right mix of techniques, even the stinkiest thrift shop discoveries can be restored to sweet-smelling status. Strike fear into those frightening funky odors and freshen your used fashions.

How to Clean Thrifted Clothes – Final Thoughts

I hope these comprehensive cleaning, stain removal, and laundry tips help you revive and maintain thrifted wardrobe additions. With some care and elbow grease, you can make old threads look and feel new again.

Remember to always check fabric content and wash care labels. Hand wash delicates gently in cool water. Use non-toxic cleaners without bleach or dyes. Mind water temperature and drying methods to avoid heat damage.

Most importantly, take your time when cleaning. Used clothes have already lived a first life and need gentler care. The investment of extra time pays off with longer-lasting thrifted fashions you can confidently and cleanly incorporate into your own style.

Happy treasure hunting at thrift shops! May you discover many secondhand gems just waiting for some TLC.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to wash thrifted clothes?

Check care labels and choose the gentlest, coolest method possible. Handwashing delicates in cold water is ideal. For machine washing, use the delicate cycle and cold water.

How do I get urine/smoke smells out of thrifted clothes?

Make a paste of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and water. Rub it directly on affected areas and let sit 1-2 hours before washing. For smoke smells, add 1 cup white vinegar to the rinse cycle.

What homemade solutions remove stains from clothes?

Baking soda, lemon juice, vinegar, and diluted hydrogen peroxide can be combined to make effective DIY stain removal pastes. Always spot test first.

How do I disinfect clothes without ruining them?

Add 1/4 cup bleach or a sanitizing additive to your regular detergent wash. Wash in hot 130°F+ water. Air dry in direct sunlight.

What laundry products are safe for vintage clothes?

Look for plant-based, hypoallergenic detergents without dyes or brighteners. Some popular natural brands are The Laundress, Tru Earth, Aspen Clean, and Ecos.

How should I dry delicate fabrics like silk?

Lay flat on a towel or mesh drying rack. Never hang delicates or put them in the dryer. Air drying is best to avoid damage.

What are signs clothes need to be rewashed or cleaned again?

Stains reappearing, new stains forming, odors returning, visible dirt or residue on fabric, areas feeling stiff or scratchy indicate used clothes need a repeat cleaning.

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