We’re back with another heated household debate.

By Hana Hong
November 05, 2020
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While some articles of clothing (say, underwear and workout clothes) obviously need a good wash after one use, other items are a little less clear. That being said, when it comes to cleaning, denim is probably the attire with the most conflicting information. Most of us love a good pair of jeans, but we can never seem to agree as to how often you should—or shouldn’t—wash them. 

If you talk to serious denim aficionados, they tell you never to wash your blue jeans, which seems like, er, questionable advice. But it’s understandable why we want to prolong our denim washes: It’s better for the environment, keeps jeans looking newer for longer, and perhaps most significantly, it reduces the amount of laundry (which is a luxury for those without a washer-and-dryer setup in-house).

Credit: Getty Images

So how often do you really need to wash your jeans? Is it true that jeans are like a fine wine that gets better with age? We spoke with cleaning connoisseurs, laundry experts, and fashion stylists to get the lowdown on denim care. Read on to hear each expert's advice.

“Because denim is a thicker material than your average T-shirt, you can get away with more wears between washes. We’d estimate about 10 or so wears—or whenever your jeans start to give off an unwanted odor. In between wears, you can freshen your jeans with a fabric freshener, like The Laundress Fabric Fresh ($10; amazon.com), to remove odors and add a fresh, clean laundry scent.” 

“People make the mistake of washing their jeans far too frequently. The less you wash them the better, especially denim with any elastane (stretch). When you wash your denim, you're putting it through a beating, and each cycle breaks down the fabric. Whatever you do, don't wash jeans in hot water, and never, ever put them in the dryer—especially your stretchy favorites. While you may think you're tightening them back to their skinny glory, what you're actually doing is destroying the fabrication and giving them an early grave. This is also why jeans lose their stretch and you get that sagging butt or need to pull them up constantly.” 

“Water has a direct effect on the appearance of your jeans the more you wash them. If you're trying to preserve the appearance of your denim, you should only wash them when they start to smell. I know it sounds gross but the microbes found on jeans after you wear them (skin cells, natural oils, etc.) are harmless, making frequent washing unnecessary.” 

“The amount of times one should wash denim depends on the type of denim you are cleaning. Raw denim and sanforized denim should be dry clean only, with three to four months of wear before the first dry clean. As for your classic denim jeans, including stonewashed or acid-washed, I recommend washing with cold water and air-drying after approximately five wears. As for blended denim jeans—generally mixed with spandex, Lycra, or poly-cotton fibers—I recommend washing them as soon as they expand and lose shape.” 

“You should wash jeans every six weeks. Washing them more than that will wear them out faster, and you’ll have to buy a new pair within a year. If your body chemistry makes your jeans stink after two days, fold them up and put them in the freezer overnight. One of my friends is very into high fashion, and she actually has a separate freezer in her garage for her pants. She told me there are times she’ll go eight months without throwing them in the washing machine!” 

“There is one rule to washing your jeans: Do it as seldom as possible to keep your jeans in optimal shape, quality, and color. This is especially true when it comes to dry denim, which gets its good looks and personality by wearing—not washing. When you do wash your jeans, I advise you to do so every 12 wears (turned inside out). This way, you will remove huddled bacteria, but bring the least harm to your jeans as possible. In between washes, remove stains by spot cleaning with a warm, wet cloth. Unwanted odors can be removed by hanging your jeans outside to air.” 

The Bottom Line

If you want your jeans to stay chic and form-fitting, don’t wash them unless they smell or have a significant stain (say, spill red wine on them). Only you know how often you get that dirty, so there’s no magic number here—which is evident from the many different answers provided above.

Yuck factor aside, microbiologists say not washing your denim doesn’t pose any health risks. In fact, a study done by the University of Alberta proved that even after wearing jeans for 15 months straight without washing (yes, 15!), the bacteria count was surprisingly low (mostly normal skin flora with no E. coli or other bacteria from fecal matter).

However, there are a few things that you can do to care for your jeans and extend the time between washes. First and foremost, “Let them breathe!” says Emily Underhill, a clothing guide and personal stylist in New York City. “Jeans often smell dirty when they really aren't because of odor-causing bacteria. Instead of storing them rolled up or folded in an overpacked drawer, hang them by their belt loops in your closet. This opens up the jeans so they can air out.” If your jeans aren't quite ready for a wash but do need to be refreshed, hit them up with a quick spritz of Febreze. 

As for freezing jeans to clean them, Whiting says this is an old wives’ tale. However, while storing your jeans in the freezer won't actually get them cold enough to kill bacteria, it will freshen them up a bit (and feel great on a hotter day). 

When you do eventually wash your jeans, pay attention to that care tag! The fabric content of the denim determines how the jeans have to be washed. According to Boyd, it's always a good practice to turn your jeans inside out and wash in cold water with a high-quality detergent. Consider The Laundress Denim Wash ($19; amazon.com), which is formulated with fabric conditioner and color-guard technology to prevent fading and stiffness. For new jeans, dye transfer and bleeding can occur, so Boyd recommends pre-soaking your denim in a bath of cool water and scented vinegar before washing—in addition to washing separately to prevent dye transfer.