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!


34 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!

      1. I put them in my high efficiency washer I place distilled white vinegar in the prewash …also in the detergent. And fill the softer tub with it as well. I then place the washing machine on “Heavy duty steam” to wash the clothes. This kills everything. And if I have any doubts I’ll do it again for good measure. Steam wash is the most effective way.

  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!

      1. I realize this post is more than two years old, but I hope you see this! I saw your comment about drying your towels outside on the shrubs to combat mustiness. I had the same problem, until I started adding white vinegar to every load of towels and sheets. I don’t measure it, but it’s probably about a 1/4 – 1/2 cup for a medium sized load. Vinegar is truly a miracle substance. I also figured out that it will remove that slimy coating from my dog’s food bowl. Much easier than scrubbing it off. :-) I hope that helps!

        1. Hi Teresa – very late in replying to you, but thanks for the vinegar tip! I do use vinegar to get mustiness out of dishrags, etc. but no longer have the towel problem as it was an issue with the dryer vent in our previous home – no amount of vinegar fixed it because our dryer didn’t actually dry things completely! Just tried to buy more of the wonder-substance that is vinegar at the store today but it was sold out – people must be on to our secret :)

  7. i just bought some thrift clothes…and i don;t have time right now to take them to the i will use Lysol on them for now…

  8. I know that some people have a high tolerance for germs but this is not a healthy practice. You do not know what is in those clothing donation boxes and it is a good idea to be safe than sorry. It doesn’t take that long to wash your thrifted items. I put mines in my deep freezer for about four or five days and then I wash them. Also, I take one piece out at a time to wash by hand if I want to use something right away.

  9. I just bought the coolest camel colored wool coat with fringes on the big scarf like collar for $5.00 at the salvation army. It looks brand new but I read the label when I got home and it’s dry clean only. I normally just wash everything else I buy there but I can’t wash this. Any ideas? I heard there are essential oils that bugs hate ( in case of lice or bed bugs) that I could maybe mix with vinegar?? I stuck it in a big garbage bag when I got home, it’s 15 degrees outside. But I am worried I should do more than freeze them. I want to wear this coat in a couple days and I’m too cheap for dry cleaners. Help!

    1. Hey Patty, sounds like a great find! I googled washing wool coats and it seems like you can do with a little TLC – wool detergent, by hand, etc. I’d google some suggestions and see if you feel comfortable with any of them. Wool is naturally antimicrobial so you may not need to worry about lice/bed bugs. Here’s an interesting discussion about sanitizing wool for baby clothes, and you know those mamas aren’t gonna let any bugs near their babies:
      Good luck!

  10. Hello, I have been recently thrifting at goodwill and for me i double wash it in a very hot cycle and i use my Tide Laundry Detergent & Oxiclean color brightener. Growing up in Asia we always use second hand Clothes and we always soak it in hot water before hand washing it. I personally don’t use unwashed thrifted clothes.Also, even if it says only dry clean i still wash it in delicate cycle .

    1. Good suggestion, Mae – hot water probably kills most things! (Although I would check to make sure there weren’t any stains I wanted to treat first as hot water sets them.) I love that you just “dry clean” at home – that’s my solution, too! Thanks for commenting.

  11. Most people wash their clothing before they donate it, that is, if it can be washed, you know, because most people arent complete psychopaths lol. Its a little iffy with dry clean only or hand wash items. So true story. I just recently bought four beautiful dresses for $11 at city thrifts good friday sale. Ive been altering them or upcycling them to fit my style. Well one of the dresses was this light green floral dress that is hand wash only. I looked it over and found a few small stains on the lining and there was some yellowing on the lace in the armpit area, no big deal. So before i sew some darts in it to better fit my smaller girls, i decided to go ahead and hand wash it. After letting it soak for a few minutes, i dumped the water out, and let me tell you, this water was yellow. The dress then went into a bowl of water and vinegar to soak some more. More yellow water. My dress is currently on its last “rinse cycle”, and what i thought was a lovely light green dress, is actually a nice light blue dress. Who knew yellow and blue made green lol (my kindergarten tearcher is rolling in her grave). So moral of the story, your new to you clothing might be fine and perfectly clean. It might also be so dingy and dirty that you dont actually know what color it is. My dress smelled fine, but all of my dresses i picked up smelled exactly the same, so im guessing the store just sprayed them down with good smelly stuff, then put them on the rack. Im guessing this dress probably belonged to a heavy smoker, but im glad i got the dingy out, and it is now back to its beautiful blue self.

  12. I volunteer at a thrift store, and some of the items that are donated are disgusting…filthy, smelly, moldy, or full of cigarette odor. I can tell you that at least 90% is put right into the recycle bags, or the trash if it’s really bad. So…the stuff that makes it out to the floor is usually in great condition, up-to-date, and smells fresh and clean. We don’t wash anything, but one local thrift store does.
    As for what I buy…I always wash it before I wear it. But I don’t always wash things right away. Maybe I should, but I don’t always have a full load.

  13. I put them in my high efficiency washer I place distilled white vinegar in the prewash …also in the detergent. And fill the softer tub with it as well. I then place the washing machine on “Heavy duty steam” to wash the clothes. This kills everything. And if I have any doubts I’ll do it again for good measure. Steam wash is the most effective way.

  14. Hi buddy,
    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.

  15. The reason to wash is that clothes are stored in mothballs and mothballs are a neurotoxin and we humans are poisoned by exposure—by breathing fumes, ingesting, and also the skin is highly permeable.

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