Are You Washing Your Clothes Too Often? Here's Why Less Laundry Is Best

By Rosa Silverman
Daily Telegraph UK
Ross and Rachel hit the laundromat on Friends. Photo / Supplied

"Could you wear the same T-shirt for a week without washing it?” inquired my editor, recently. “No, thank you,” I told him and assumed I’d put the matter to rest.

Yet there I was, almost a week later, still wearing the same white tee. I managed five days on the trot and, apart from a small patch of something-or-other near the collar, it still looked respectable. My husband assured me that it passed the sniff test  though, admittedly, I finished the experiment just before the UK's current heatwave took hold.

Even so, the weather had been muggy, and the garment was exposed to an array of threats: a curry; my children’s inexplicable decision to cover the garden with paint; the tendency of their food to end up spattered across the kitchen; and my own zealous stirring of pasta sauce. It even attended a barbecue. There was one near miss when a friend’s toddler came within inches of me, brandishing an ice cream. But I dodged out of the way. I don’t know why we all don’t wear our clothes indefinitely, unwashed.

There is, of course, a point to all this heroic (if I may say so) defiance of laundry norms.

Last month brought news of the growth of a new kind of fashion: the sort you don’t wash. Brands such as Unbound Merino and Pangaia are making T-shirts from wool and seaweed fibre, which can, apparently, be worn for weeks without needing to be cleaned. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales’s Campaign for Wool has been extolling the material’s virtues, including the implications for our energy bills.

University of Sydney research suggested last year that if we returned to wool socks and undergarments, laundry costs could be reduced by $32 million a year, since it requires fewer washes and at lower temperatures. So while the Royal Society for Public Health last month told millennials their homes and hands cannot be “too clean”, it seems that might not apply to clothing.

That said, after five days, my Zara cotton T-shirt felt limp and uninviting, and squeamishness precluded another outing. But since doing less washing is better for the planet, there are good reasons to think seriously about how frequently we throw clothes in the machine.

Every time we put a wash on, synthetic clothes shed about 700,000 microfibres (particles of plastic below 5mm in size). Many of these pass through sewage treatment and into the environment, according to 2016 research by the University of Plymouth. Ultimately, they find their way into the seas.

According to Friends of the Earth, microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt. These tiny pieces can absorb high concentrations of poisonous substances so, once swallowed by fish, fragments of your favourite sweater can enter the food chain.

We may not like the thought of wearing garments until they smell, but who likes the thought of eating the contents of their wardrobe?

As part of my experiment, I asked my friends how often they washed their clothes. They turned out to be less hung up on cleanliness than I would have imagined.

“Bras, I wear to within an inch of their life,” admitted one. “I could go two weeks without changing or washing it, based on the sniff test.”

A second agreed, emboldened by this willingness to air one’s dirty laundry in public: “Everything apart from knickers gets the sniff test.”

The consensus is that jeans should be washed only when they look dirty, and nightwear every four days. Dresses? “Depends on the material,” replied another friend. “Some stuff seems less prone to pongs.”

It was heartening to hear that those I considered fragrant were accustomed to deploying a sniff-it-and-see approach. But what else can we do to minimise our laundry’s impact?

Wash at low temperatures, advises Friends of the Earth, since a cooler wash is less likely to shake out fibres. You can put it in a special bag  the charity recommends a Guppy bag or a Cora Ball, which claim to help collect microfibres. Filling the washing machine reduces friction, and reducing spin speeds means that the clothes are not shaken so violently.

But it isn’t all on us.

“Clothing firms must take responsibility for this problem and develop solutions,” says Emma Priestland, a Friends of the Earth campaigner. “The Government should aim to phase out all non-essential plastics across all industries.”

She does endorse the sniff test, though: “No one wants dirty clothes, but there are some items, such as jeans and jumpers, which don’t need to be washed so regularly and will last better as a result.”

I’d add white T-shirts to that list  just watch out for the ice cream.

The Daily Telegraph

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