A Sustainable Stench: Should You Wash Your Jeans?

“How often do you do it and how dirty is too dirty?” were the questions at the conference.  No, this was not a convergence of porn stars, it was a sustainability conference,  and the questions referred, of course, to the debate on laundering denim jeans.  According to Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss who was interviewed at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green Conference on Tuesday, the answer is almost never but if you absolutely must, then about once a year.   Bergh, who wore a “Canadian tuxedo” of lighter denim shirt and darker denim jeans with a selvedge edge fold, had one leg crossed over the other as he answered questions from Fortune Magazine’s Andy Serwer.  Serwer asked if he might touch the jean fabric and reached for the cuff.  Upon being told that this particular pair had been worn for close to a year and had never been washed he looked like he wanted to cut his fingers off or at the least douse them in hand sanitizer.

Tamron Hall and Savannah Guthrie discuss
dirty jeans on the Today Show

Obviously, Bergh may be striving to make an environmentally conscious point of conserving water in both the production and by the end user or consumer.  “Levis is working with farmers to find a cotton that uses less water” he said and added that as part of the Dockers line there is now a  “waterless jean” that uses ozone and no water for its processing.  This” tempest in a wash basin” had  initially become a point of interest in 2011 when “raw” denim first left its mark on the scene as well as, unfortunately, pretty much anywhere else that it came in contact with.

Stacy London and Anderson Cooper

For those without a Ph.D in denimology, “raw” denim is the stiff, dark fabric which hasn’t been washed after the dye application.  This denim is meant to wear in with you and water is its enemy.  If you are after the “slick fade” and “perfect creasing” associated with premium denim, then you are supposed to allow the jeans to wear in and naturally fade or distress and generally “become you.”  Anderson Cooper has mentioned that he is a proponent of not washing his APC’s, and lest you think that it’s only a male phenomenon, Tamron Hall, NBC Today’s Take anchor doesn’t believe in immersing her jeans either.

Jeans in freezer

So how does one deal with the inevitable: a spot or the olfactory assault?  For a spot, former P & G executive Bergh recommends a toothbrush and some Tide.  For the stench caused by bacteria from the sloughing off of the wearer’s skin I will refer you to a 2011 Smithsonian.com article entitled “The Myth of The Frozen Jean.”  Yes, believe it or not, there are those who recommend that you freeze your jeans overnight, right next to the container of Haagen Dazs and the frozen peas. Eww!  Scientists believe that some bacteria may be killed off from the cold temperatures, however not all of them will be and as soon as they warm up and are placed next to skin, the bacteria will be reactivated.  The idea of placing your jeans in the freezer strikes me as ridiculous on so many levels.  They can’t be put in a baggie  as no air will circulate around them; food can get on them; they may get stuck to the freezer or generally not fit in it, not to mention how disgusting the idea of letting one’s dirty bacteria laden jeans commingle next to one’s food.

University of Alberta Student Josh Le

I also read about Canadian college student Josh Le who conducted an unofficial experiment in 2011 wearing his $150 Nudie Brand Hipster jeans for 15 months, occasionally freezing them when the pants threatened to stand up and run away on their own.  He took a swab of the bacteria after that time, washed them and continued to wear them for two more weeks.  After the two weeks he swabbed them again and found the same amount of bacteria as he had found after the 15 month count.  Somehow this made him feel that it wasn’t so bad to wear them for that ridiculous length of time.  I guess he had plenty of time to conduct the experiment as  he didn’t have to waste a lot of it doing laundry.

Anderson Cooper’s Jeans

If the thought of never washing your stretched out, bagged out, odoriferous jeans is an unappealing one and you feel you must “baptize” them, the preferred method is by hand in a container of cold water, turn the pants inside out and add a little Dark Woolite (I never knew there was such a thing)!  Agitate by hand and then soak for 45 minutes.  Rinse well, squeeze carefully to remove water.  Use an old towel as the inevitable dye will come off and roll  to remove excess water.  Finally, hang to dry.  It seems that the days of yore when denim dungarees won the West and were considered a work pant  have reversed and now you must work for your denim. I’m surprised no one mentioned singing the pants a lullaby as the care they need is akin to a newborn baby.

I find all of this somewhat ironic:  in the ’70s we wanted our jeans to fade and quickly.  I remember getting a pair of new jeans and washing them repeatedly to get them to just the right softness and color.  It wasn’t until the ’80s that the pre-distressed denim caught on followed by the addition of Lycra and Elastane to improve the fit and comfort.  I would love to get the reactions of the gold miners in the 1800’s if they could see their rugged attire getting the full on fashion hipster treatment that it now receives.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

1 Comment
  1. Very interesting questions!! I usually wash my jeans after every one week whether it becomes dirty or not. It is essential to my view to wash my jeans after every weeks to my view. Thanks

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