Sanitizing (or Not) Your Thrift Store Finds

In the “What would you like to see me cover in a post?” section of my recent reader survey, someone wrote:

“Care and cleaning right after a thrift store purchase, maybe for each category of things you’ve bought? Kind of like an FAQ of how to clean and sanitize purchases.”

Well, dear reader…confession time.  I have a very high tolerance for grossness and a very low level of anxiety about germs.  Maybe this comes from my stint as a pediatric chaplain where we were SO vigilant about germs/bacteria/shmutz at work but told to relax about it in our personal lives.  As in, don’t create any superbugs by using all the hand sanitizer where it’s not needed – i.e. most places outside a hospital.

Anyway.  I don’t wash my clothes when they come home from the thrift store.

I know, some of you are retching all over your mobile reading devices as you read this (or NOW you are because I used vomit imagery.  Sorry).  Let me tell you why I would do such a heinous thing.

  1. I am impatient.  If I find something at the thrift store I love, I often want to wear it the very next day (this is a good sign of thrift money well spent; if it sits around long enough to get through our weekly wash/dry hoopla, that means I’m not superenthusiastic about it).
  2. And I’m lazy.  Our laundry is broken.  By which I mean our dryer takes two cycles to dry anything thanks to a dryer vent that is way too many feet of vertical.  So even if I did want to wash and dry a find that same evening to wear the next day, it would have to go through two dryer cycles and there just ain’t time for that before bedtime.
  3. It’s already clean.  Well, relatively speaking.  In addition to finding items that still have the dry cleaning tags on them, you may have noticed that these days, very few thrifted clothes (at least at the big chain stores) smell funky. I don’t know if this is because the stores freshen them up or people are just conscientious enough to wash before donating, but I cannot think of a garment I’ve sorted through at the thrift store that has smelled like BO.
    Also in this category: the chemical residue left on retail clothes from the manufacturing process.  I’d take someone’s preworn and prewashed secondhand item over that nastiness every time.
  4. Germs are good for you.  Unless your immune system is compromised or you are dealing with an ebola outbreak, coming into contact with germs and bacteria is a boost for your gut biome and your ability to fight off invaders.  It’s why I let my kid play in the dirt and why I don’t wash my face after a dog kisses me; it’s also why I don’t freak out about wearing clothes straight from the thrift store.  To be honest, if there was anything super egregious on there, you’d have already been exposed to it just from handling/trying on.

I get that this will just not be an option for many of you, either for aesthetic or health reasons.  So what would I do to clean the clothes if I were a clothes-cleaning type of person?  Or what *do* I do when garments I’ve thrifted are obviously dirty?

  • I wash ’em.  On cold, with detergent, and then chuck ’em in the dryer (or hang/lay flat to dry, if directions warrant it), just like all my other clothes.  I use a 7th Generation oxygen-based bleach for tough stains (including that time I removed what I’m pretty sure were period stains from a pair of white shorts I found at the Goodwill.  When the cashier pointed the offending spots out to make sure I really wanted to buy something stained, I was all “I ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE” and scrubbed and soaked until they were good as new.  And now I have truly run off anyone even remotely squeamish about bodily fluids.)
  • I use a homemade lavender-and-vinegar spray to freshen up pit smell from my own body, but honestly it doesn’t work that well, so I’m asking for a travel steamer for Christmas (hi Mom!) to refresh clothes without having to put them through the wear and tear (or energy drain) of a full wash-and-dry. This would also work great for clothes straight from the thrift store.
  •  I’d be all over using a natural equivalent of the Lysol or dryer sheets that I’ve read some people use on the inside of their shoes – for example a light spritzing of that vinegar spray above would probably do the trick.  Or a light sprinkling of baking soda left to absorb odors, then shaken out (but not at the same time as the vinegar!).
  • You can also send things to the cleaners, but again, unless you’ve found a “green” dry cleaners, they are likely using chemicals that are worse to put next to your skin than someone else’s germs.  Many garments labeled “dry clean only” these days do just fine with a delicate wash cycle or hand wash + lay flat to dry, so you can give that a try (Google “at home dry cleaning” for tips).

For those of you who seriously can’t stand the thought of wearing something straight from the secondhand store, how do YOU clean your thrift finds?  Scroll down to comment!

 

12 thoughts on “Sanitizing (or Not) Your Thrift Store Finds

  1. It may be a good idea to “quarantine” the thrift items or double-wash or dry clean them.Bed bug eggs, flea eggs, lice, etc if they are present on the garment, will hatch. I don’t want to sound alarmist; but ya never know what the situation was with the folks who donated those garments.

    1. Jeanne – yeesh. Truth. I tend to worry about that more with bedding, sofas, etc. I haven’t yet had any bug issues with thrifted clothing finds (and 95% of my clothes are thrifted), but I also tend to shop in Goodwill stores whose clothing prep practices are pretty sanitary. A hole-in-the-wall spot with strange odors would inspire more caution, I think.
      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I use a vodka/essential oil spray which is similar to your vinegar one. For cashmere or wool sweater, I put them in the freezer for a day to kill any moth eggs. I do wash everything once before wearing it but use a mild homemade laundry soap. The “over protective “sanitizers seem to create more problems than solve and I rarely use them. I also agree that pre owned and washed are less offensive than new with their factory chemicals and environment.

  3. I am also a very high-tolerance dirt person – I don’t usually wash my new-to-me purchases unless they are quick icky. There is always that lingering fear of bedbugs (I said it!), but most of the places I shop are very clean and don’t have that funky smell at all. I’ve heard of the “freeze it” solution, which seems the easiest (I’m lazy!), but I’ve never tried it. I appreciate your honesty and forthright attitude about this. PS – I have also bought something with period stains (and got them out!).

    1. Sheila – thank YOU for speaking up so I’m not the lone lazy/high dirt tolerance person out there on a limb. And high fives for getting those period stains out! It’s such a great small victory.
      PS Glad “lazy” is not a dirty word for you, either – for me it shorthands an unwillingness to spend time on things I don’t care about so I can spend time on things I do care about :)

  4. I honestly am not great at laundry- we have an impossible red clay around here that ruins everything eventually, so I’ve just quit buying things that are any light color. If anyone has a trick for clay I’d pay dearly for it. BUT I’ve got THE trick for body odor that really does work well. Kathy already said it but didn’t say how great it is: super cheap 80 proof alcohol of any type in a tiny spray bottle, with essential oil if you prefer. Spray it right on you, doesn’t damage clothes, and lets me wear a shirt two days in a row for the first time in my life (I’m really stinky, and allergic to something in all commercial deodorants). I’ve been using it a year and it still works almost as well as the first day.

    1. No tricks for clay, I’m sorry to say – although the local dry cleaners successfully got red Georgia dirt out of a pall we use for interment services at work. I’m imagining you don’t want to dry clean all your stuff all the time, though!
      I’m so glad your spray works well – mine does NOT :P I think next time I’ll follow your lead and go with all vodka (I had previously mixed vinegar and vodka) and see how that goes. With lavender essential oil added it makes me smell a little bit like a botanical cocktail but I can live with that over body odor! Thanks for sharing :)

  5. I wash things. Who knows whether the person who tried it on before you had a drippy nose. Germs may be good for you, but I prefer my own to those of random shoppers.

  6. Coming from a family of medical folks, our dinner conversations have to be heard to be believed (the Thanksgiving edition of boils and abscesses was a killer) and our tolerance for everyday schmutz is pretty high. I have been thrifting for years (literally; since the early 1980’s) and have honestly never had any problems with either critters or generalized ick. During the winter, I hang out clothes on my back porch so they can air out in the frigid air. If I have any doubt about an item of clothing, I will wash it. Full disclosure: I haven’t bought bedding or towels from a thrift store (yet), but a foolproof way to really sanitize these items is to wash them in hot water and line dry them in the sun. Those UV rays will do the trick every time. The only time I have ever had a bug issue came when I was trying on clothes at a major retailer, so there you are.

    1. Sophie, I’m dying laughing, just imagining the Thanksgiving table talk and some poor visiting rube with eyes about to pop out of their head… Ha!
      I have thrifted bedding once – plain cotton sheets from Goodwill (turns out they were IKEA brand) which we regularly use, and yes, I did wash them before using. Sunshine is my favorite trick for disinfecting/fading stains, too – our bath towels get musty easily (humid climate and poor ventilation in our bathrooms) so I often wash them and then lay them on the shrubs out front to dry, much to my spouse’s chagrin :)
      Thanks for sharing!

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