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!