How to Wash and Care for Thrifted Clothes

Thrifted and used clothes require special care and washing to look their best and last a long time. Here is a comprehensive guide on best practices for washing and caring for pre-loved garments.

Inspect Clothes Before Washing

When you first bring home thrifted clothes, it’s important to thoroughly inspect each item before throwing it in the wash. Here’s what to look for:

Check for stains – Scan the garment for any visible stains, markings, or discoloration. Pretreat any stained areas before washing.

Look for holes or tears – Gently stretch fabric and seams to check for small holes, tears, or thinning fabric. Mend these before washing to prevent further damage.

Find loose threads and buttons – Tug on buttons, snaps, and embellishments to make sure they are securely attached. Clip any loose threads.

Check inner linings and pockets – Flip clothes inside out and shake out pockets to remove any crumpled tissues, receipts, coins, etc.

Smell for odors – Thrifted clothes may carry odors from perfume, smoke, etc. Consider presoaking in vinegar or baking soda to help remove smells before washing.

Identify fabric content – Check fabric tags to understand fiber content. This will determine optimal wash methods. Silk, wool, rayon, and velvet may require special care.

Look for color transfer – Rub fabrics together to see if any dye rubs off, which may indicate the dye is not set. Wash separately to avoid cross-staining.

Assess garment construction – Inspect seams, closures, embellishments, lace, beading, etc. to determine if hand-washing is required. Delicates may need a mesh wash bag.

Thoroughly checking over pre-owned items takes time but helps prevent damage during washing. Now let’s look at best practices for cleaning thrifted clothes.

Wash in Smaller Loads

It’s best to wash thrifted garments in small loads of 2-4 similar items. This allows you to customize wash methods for each fabric type. Mixing delicates like silks and wools in with sturdy cottons and denim often leads to pilling, snags, and stretched-out items.

Wash brand new dark items separately the first 1-2 times as dye may still bleed. For heavy soils or odors, presoak garments individually before washing.

Pro tip: Use lingerie bags or pillowcases to help protect delicates, sweaters, embellished items, and hosiery in the wash.

Pretreat Stains and Soils

Inspecting for stains before washing gives you a chance to pretreat them properly. Here are common stains and how to tackle them:

  • Oil-based stains – Gently dab with dish soap, then rinse. Or apply a small amount of hydrogen peroxide before laundering.
  • Protein stains like blood or egg – Rinse backside under cold water, then soak in cold water for 30 minutes with an enzyme detergent before washing.
  • Ink stains – Pretreat with isopropyl alcohol using a cotton ball. Then rinse and wash. For permanent marker, try hand sanitizer.
  • Perspiration or deodorant marks – Rub with distilled white vinegar before washing. For yellowing, try soaking in oxygen bleach solution.
  • Mildew or mold – Wash with bleach if fabric allows, or use lemon juice and salt. Sun-dry after.
  • Dirt and mud – Let soil dry fully then brush off excess before washing. Pretreat with stain stick if needed.

Spot treat any stubborn marks with a stain removal stick or gel before washing. This helps lift staining from fabric instead of setting it.

Wash Using a Gentle Cycle

Aggressive wash cycles with high-speed spinning can damage more delicate fabrics. When possible, opt for the gentle or delicates cycle which uses a slower spin speed and lower water temperature.

If washing a mixed load, set the machine to the most delicate setting required. For example, if washing cottons with woolens, choose the wool/gentle cycle.

Then wash garments inside-out to protect embellishments, prevent pilling, and help items retain their shape. Zip up zippers, hook closures, and remove detachable belts.

Pro tip: Placing delicates in a mesh bag provides further protection during the wash cycle.

Use the Proper Water Temperature

Always check fabric care tags and wash thrifted clothes in cool, warm, or hot water as recommended:

  • Cool water for silks, woolens, spandex, rayon, acetate, trims, dyes
  • Warm water for most cottons, polyester, nylon, linen
  • Hot water for bleachable whites, disinfecting, heavily soiled

Washing in water that is too hot can cause fading, shrinkage, running dyes, and damage to delicates. For hand washing, use lukewarm water.

Exception: Heavily soiled garments may need a hot wash cycle even if the fabric calls for cool or warm water. Pretreat stains first.

Choose a Gentle Laundry Detergent

The wrong laundry products can leave behind residue or cause damage. When laundering thrifted clothes, look for:

  • Liquid detergents – More gentle than powder detergents. Opt for one labeled sensitive/delicates.
  • Non-bio/enzyme-free formula – Enzymes can weaken fabrics over time. Check label.
  • No added bleach or brighteners – Can yellow fabric over time. Avoid on vintage items.
  • Fragrance-free – Dyes and perfumes are harsh. Go unscented.
  • Mild surfactants – Gentler on fabrics than standard cleaning agents. Check ingredients.
  • No fillers – Clay, silicates, and salts can leave residue behind.

Always follow garment care instructions and detergent package directions based on load size. Overuse can cause build-up and dinginess over time.

When to Use Fabric Softener

Liquid fabric softeners and dryer sheets work well for cottons and linens, leaving clothes soft, fluffy, and static-free.

However, avoid using them on delicates like wool, silk, spandex, and rayon as they can leave behind a coating that dulls fabric and attracts lint.

If needed, use a half-dose of liquid softener diluted with water for these fabrics. Or look for gentle wool dryer balls as a softener-free option.

Dry Thoroughly on Gentle Heat

Just like the wash cycle, the dryer can damage thrifted clothes if not used properly. Follow these tips:

  • Shake items – Gently shake out garments before drying to prevent wrinkles from setting.
  • Zip up and hook closures – Secure all closures so trim does not catch and pull.
  • Use lower heat – Dry on low or medium heat to avoid shrinking woolens and over-drying delicates.
  • Remove promptly – Take items out as soon as drying cycle finishes to prevent over-drying. Hang or fold right away.
  • Lay flat to dry – For ultimate care, lay delicates and knits flat to dry instead of the dryer.
  • Use dryer balls – Wool balls help separate clothes and prevent static without chemicals.

With a little extra care taken when laundering, thrifted clothes can look great and last for many wears. Next let’s go over finishing touches after washing.

Finish with Proper Pressing and Storage

To help thrifted clothes retain their shape and look crisp after washing, take a few extra steps:

  • Hand press with an iron – Use steam setting on cottons and linens, dry iron for wools and delicates. Iron fabrics inside-out.
  • Hang heavy knits and sweaters – Helps them maintain shape as they air dry instead of lying flat.
  • Block wrinkled areas – Lightly press wrinkled seams, collars, and cuffs with a damp cloth under iron.
  • Store folded items properly – Refold garments using tissue paper to pad out creases and corners.
  • Hang items evenly – Hang delicates and dresses on padded hangers at the shoulder seams to retain shape.

Proper finishing makes even secondhand clothes look neat and finished. Storing garments correctly between wears ensures they hold up well over time.

Hand Wash Delicates When Needed

For fragile thrift store finds like lace, beads, embellished fabrics, and vintage items, take extra care and hand wash when needed.

Supplies needed:

  • Large sink or basin
  • 2-3 Towels
  • Delicate/handwash laundry detergent
  • Wide-tooth comb (for sweaters)


  1. Fill sink with lukewarm water and add a capful of detergent. Swish gently to dissolve.
  2. Submerge garment fully and allow to soak for 2-3 minutes. Do not rub, scrub, wring or twist.
  3. Drain sink and refill with clean water for rinsing. Rinse twice if needed to remove soap.
  4. Roll item in a towel to absorb excess moisture. Do not wring. Shape and lay flat to dry.
  5. For sweaters, use a wide-tooth comb to gently lift and shape while damp.
  6. Allow to fully air dry before wearing or storing.

Hand washing prevents snags, tears, and maintains the delicate construction of special thrifted items.

Learn Garment Care Symbols

Tags on clothing contain symbols that communicate how to properly launder and dry items. Here is what common care label symbols mean:

  • Wash tub – Water temperature for washing
  • Triangle – Use bleach if needed
  • Square – Do not use bleach
  • Circle – Gentle/delicate cycle
  • Hand – Hand wash only
  • X – Do not wash
  • Iron – Iron heat setting
  • Circle X – Do not iron

Learning these icons helps you decode garment care instructions for optimal cleaning. Follow them closely on secondhand finds to get the longest wear.

When to Dry Clean Instead

Some thrift store items will have a “Dry Clean Only” tag on them. This is recommended for fabrics prone to shrinking, dyes that run easily, or delicates that require a professional press after cleaning.

Common dry clean only clothes include:

  • Silks and satins
  • Sequined fabrics
  • Laminated or coated materials
  • Tweed suits
  • Leather and suede
  • Rayon suits and dresses
  • Embroidered items

Ask the dry cleaner to use gentle solvents and low heat settings when cleaning thrifted clothes. Straitened seams and pressed pleats will help restore vintage items.

Repair Damaged Areas

Don’t toss out damaged thrifted finds! Many can be easily repaired for further wear:

  • Missing buttons – Replace with matching buttons in size and style.
  • Split seams – Hand sew with tiny whip stitches in matching thread.
  • Small snags or holes – Close up with needle and thread or fabric glue on natural fibers.
  • Hem coming undone – Hand sew a new hem or use hem tape on straight hemlines.
  • Broken zipper – Replace entire zipper, or fix just the slider if teeth are intact.
  • Missing trim – Replace any missing fringe, beads, lace appliques, etc. with a matching trim.
  • Lost belt loops – Hand sew new loops at the correct placement to anchor belts.

Repairing damage helps extend the wearability of thrifted clothes. Simple mending gives new life to old items.


Secondhand scores found thrifting deserve some extra care and attention when laundering and storing. Taking it slow, using gentle wash methods for each fabric, cleaning stains before washing, and proper drying and storage helps pre-loved garments stay beautiful and last.

Hand washing delicates, learning garment care symbols, making minor repairs, and not being afraid to wash thrifted clothes the right way helps maintain their integrity and your enjoyment wearing upcycled fashions. With the proper techniques, you can keep your thrifted wardrobe looking fabulous.

Frequently Asked Questions About Washing Thrifted Clothes

Washing thrifted and used clothing requires some special considerations. Here are answers to some common questions about properly cleaning and caring for pre-loved garments:

Should thrifted clothes be washed before wearing?

Yes, it’s advisable to launder any thrifted garment before wearing, for sanitation. You don’t know if clothes were washed after the previous owner wore them. Give them a thorough wash upon bringing them home.

How should I wash clothes without care tags?

If a thrifted garment has no care label, start with a cool, gentle cycle. Use a mild detergent for delicates, wash inside-out, air dry and press with an iron on low. If the item gets damaged, then laundering was too harsh for the fabric type.

Why avoid washing thrifted clothes in hot water?

Hot water can cause dyes to bleed, make fabrics shrink, damage delicate trims, and fade colors over time. Lukewarm or cool water is gentler. Only use hot water on durable fabrics needing disinfecting or removal of heavy stains that have been pretreated.

Should jeans and sweaters be washed differently?

Yes! Sturdy denim can handle hot water, while sweaters and knits require cool water and gentle cycles to prevent damage. Wash fabrics with similar care needs in loads together for best results.

How can I soften stiff, scratchy thrifted linens?

For stiff cottons and linens, add 1/2 cup baking soda along with detergent to help soften fibers in the wash. Just don’t over-dry as heat can re-stiffen fabrics. Use fabric softener or dryer sheets as well.

Why does my washed thrifted clothing still smell musty?

Odors like smoke or mildew might require extra washing with a laundry booster or sanitizer to fully remove. Avoid overly packing the washer, use hot water, and air dry in the sun – the heat and UV light help kill bacteria.

How do I fix a thrifted top that shrank in the wash?

For cottons and rayons that shrink slightly, stretch and work the fabric vigorously with your hands after washing, then air dry while still damp. This relaxes fibers. If severely shrunk however, there is no going back. Always wash cool and air dry at first.

What is the best way to dry delicates and sweaters?

Lay flat to air dry or dry flat over a towel on a non-heated drying rack. This prevents stretching sweaters out of shape. For delicates, roll in a towel to absorb moisture then shape and lay flat until completely dry. No dryers for these!

Why care for thrifted clothes instead of just buying new?

Being kind to thrifted items helps reduce waste by extending the life of perfectly good clothes and keeping them out of landfills. Vintage pieces have unique character. And quality materials like wool and silk can last for years with proper care.


With some simple tweaks to your laundry routine – like washing delicates separately, using cooler water, air drying, taking your time, and finishing properly – thrifted fashions can stay looking fabulous and last for many wears. Show your secondhand finds some love!