How to wash thrifted clothes
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How To Wash Thrifted Clothes & Secondhand Clothing Purchases

In many ways, thrifting is more fun and environmentally friendly than buying new clothes. However, thrift store clothes don’t always come as clean and as well-packaged as new clothes. This article discusses how to wash thrifted clothes of different fabrics to get them ready to wear.

Clothes come from different places, and thrift stores have varying storage conditions. Secondhand clothing has, by definition, belonged to someone else before you. Read on as we go through a care checklist to help you turn those thrifty finds into (nearly) as good as new. 

Things to take note of before washing thrift store clothes

Rails of thrift shop clothes
Photo by Prudence Earl on Unsplash

Before washing clothing from a second-hand or online thrift store, it is best to examine the garment for stains and tears. Sometimes, used clothes will have some tears, but that doesn’t mean it is not wearable. It only needs a little mending. 

Almost all clothes have a care label attached. So, check the care label to find the type of fabric your clothing item is. On the care label, you can also see what water temperature you should wash your clothes in, if it is bleach compatible, how to dry them, and other cleaning guidelines.  Below are a few things you should take into consideration before washing;

Type of fabric

There are different types of fabrics used to make garments, but there are four main types. They’re cotton, linen, silk, and synthetic fabrics. The other fabrics include velvet, chiffon, satin, leather, and so on. You generally can’t wash these clothes together because what works for a cotton fabric doesn’t apply to the velvet fabric. 

Cotton and synthetic fabrics can be washed using either a machine or your hands. You should turn linen inside out and wash it separately from other materials. Silk is a delicate fabric you can wash in a machine if you put it in a laundry bag to avoid snags.

Water temperature

You should wash your garment at the right temperature to avoid damage to the clothing - wash cotton thrifted clothes with cold, warm, or hot water. For synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester, and spandex, you should wash them with warm water. Silk and other mixed materials require cool water for washing because they are susceptible to heat.

Laundry detergent

There are different types of detergent for different types of clothing. You should use a mild and ideally eco-friendly laundry detergent to wash linen, chiffon, satin, and silk garments. It protects the quality and life span of such delicate fabrics.

You can use an all-purpose laundry detergent to wash polyester and other types of synthetic clothes. For cotton and wool thrifted clothing, use a mild laundry detergent for washing.

And if you like that extra soft feel, you can use fabric softener in the normal way. We've got some great options of eco-friendly fabric softeners to choose from.

Type of wash

There are three methods you can use to clean thrift store clothes. They are machine washing, hand washing, and dry cleaning. As the names imply, machine washing requires using a washing machine, while hand washing is simply washing with your hands.

You should hand wash fragile and delicate clothing. The care tag attached to clothes states whether they should be dry cleaned, washed by hand, or with a machine.

Drying methods

Fabric type determines the drying method best suitable for your clothes. You can either hang them to air dry or dry them with a tumble dryer. Additionally, you should watch where you hang your clothes to dry. Some clothes require a rack, flat, and line drying. For instance, linens belong on a clothesline. Also, you should spread a wool or silk garment on a flat surface to dry to avoid any damage.

Iron settings

You should pay attention to the heat levels of your clothes. Some clothing materials are easily damaged by heat, while some need intense heat to straighten wrinkles. Iron cotton and linen clothes at a high temperature, but refrain from ironing silk at a high temperature.

Steps to take when washing clothes from thrift stores

Clothes laundry line
Photo by Daniel Spase on Unsplash

Once you have selected and purchased thrift items from a thrift store, don’t add them to your closet without washing them. Here are steps to take to clean  your thrift store finds;

  • Determine the type of wash needed
  • Remove stains
  • Remove odor
  • Disinfect clothes from bacteria and insects

1. Determine the type of wash needed

Before dipping the entire garment in water, examine and check the care tag on the cloth. Some thrift store clothing items need dry cleaning or a machine wash. 

When cleaning for the first time, be careful. Do not wash clothes with different colors and fabric materials together to avoid color bleeding. 

However, there is an alternative for clothes that require dry cleaning. You can hand wash them instead of sending them to the dry cleaner. And if you are sending them off for dry cleaning, make sure you inform the dry cleaner. 

2. Remove stains

Some thrift clothing has stains on them. The spots are from the previous owners or the storage conditions of the thrift shops. There are lots of stain removers available for you to remove stains. When using a stain remover, only apply it to the stained areas and let it sit for about 10 minutes before washing the rest of the cloth. 

There are also home remedies and zero-waste cleaning products you can use to remove stains. Products like baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and vinegar work like stain remover.

Yellow spots are common on thrifted clothes. You can make a paste with baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. Soak the cloth in vinegar water for up to 30 minutes before applying the paste to the stained area. Let it sit for 30 minutes before washing. Always spot-check a little area first, like behind a pocket, to ensure it won’t harm delicate fabrics. 

To brighten white clothes, soak them in bleach water overnight and clean them properly in the morning. However, if you don’t want to use bleach, there are other alternatives available. Add a cup of distilled white vinegar to a gallon of hot water and soak overnight to see maximum results. You can also use washing soda and lemon to brighten the clothes. 

3. Remove odor

Thrifted clothing can have a signature smell attached to it. The scent of old clothes is usually a musty and sometimes moldy smell. Some people might have allergic reactions to old clothes scents, so here are some ways to get rid of them. 

Distilled white vinegar 

There are two ways to use vinegar to get rid of musty odors. You should add a small quantity of white vinegar to cold water and soak the cloth for about 30 minutes before rinsing. Then, spread the clothes in the sunlight to dry. This method is effective for clothes you can clean by hand.  

The other method involves the use of a spray bottle. Get a spray bottle and fill it with water. Then, add a little white vinegar before spraying it on the cloth. Let it sit for some minutes before doing the laundry. Do not soak your clothes in pure vinegar. Vinegar is acidic, and it will damage some clothes.


Vodka can help remove the musty smell from thrift store clothes. Fill a spray bottle with vodka and spray lightly on the garment. Then, hang it and let it air dry. You can also soak the clothes in the water you're using to wash them. 

Baking soda

Baking soda is an effective fumigant that can help remove the odor attached to secondhand clothing. You can add a little to your desired quantity of water and soak the clothes overnight. You should let the clothes soak for at least 5 hours before cleaning them with detergent. 

4. Disinfect clothes from bacteria and insects

Storage conditions of thrift shops facilitate the growth of bacteria on clothes. Also, insects like bed bugs and moths are among thrift clothes. You should disinfect them before you wear them. You can disinfect thrift store clothes with a laundry sanitizer. Vinegar also helps get rid of bacteria. Finally, dry the clothes with enough sunlight. And they are as good as new clothes.

Is vintage clothing the same as thrifted clothing?

People often assume that vintage items are the same as thrift items because they’re both used items. However, vintage is quite different from thrift. Vintage items refer to things from a particular era. They are clothes produced 20 to 40 years ago- items made from 1918- 1980. Retro and Vintage are often used interchangeably. 

Thrifted items refer to pre-owned items that sell at discounted prices. The majority of thrift store clothes are donations made by people. The period of production doesn’t matter, unlike a vintage item. Vintage clothes are more expensive than thrift clothing because of the value placed on aging.

How to clean vintage clothes

The same cleaning process used for thrift store clothes also applies to vintage items. Vintage clothing is fragile, so handle it with care. You should read the care label for guidelines on how to clean them. Hand washing is the best way to clean vintage pieces. Also, spread them on a flat surface to air dry as it preserves their quality.

It is advisable to use cold or warm water to wash the clothes. Do not use heavy detergent to clean them. You can also use vinegar to remove the old odor associated with vintage garments. In case where you don’t know how to handle vintage pieces, you should send them to a professional dry cleaner.


Cleaning thrift store clothes isn’t as difficult as it seems. Be sure to follow the guidelines on the care label, and you won’t have to worry about damaging the clothes. Before you start cleaning, remember to sort through the colors to avoid colors bleeding into each other.

Also, perform thorough research on suitable laundry detergent before purchasing one. A gentle wash is a good wash- you don’t have to wash vigorously to get thrift store clothes clean.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

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