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Q. Dear Umbra,

I strive to reduce/reuse/recycle, but as someone who is sensitive to chemicals, purchasing used clothing presents problems. Sometimes soaking the clothes in borax or vinegar, and washing as much as a dozen times (in less toxic, unscented detergent) fails to remove the ferocious stink of the previous owner’s detergent and fabric softener. Any suggestions?

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Seattle, Wash.

Grumpy womanDon’t let chemical odors cramp your style.A. Dearest Rebecca,

Forgive me if I begin by gently stating the obvious: While your commitment to reducing your impact by buying used garments is admirable, especially as we learn more about the toxic effects of clothing production, you might want to avoid items with a detectable “ferocious stink.” No graphic tee or wraparound skirt is worth the effort (and water usage) you describe, however fetching it might be — and especially when your health is at stake.

That said, I know ferocious stink can sometimes sneak up on us. And it is troubling true that the “fragrance” in conventional detergents and fabric softeners is less reminiscent of the promised Misty Mountain and more akin to Musty Migraine. As always, I advise all my dearest readers to stay away from these products and seek alternatives.

Given that you’ve already purchased some stinky garments, Rebecca, what can you do to make them less offensively odorific? You mention white vinegar and borax, which are definitely go-to solutions. I hope you have also tried baking soda. Each of these common products can be used either for pre-soaking or right there in the rinse cycle of your wash, and are often all you need.

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If they’re not doing the trick, I’ve dug up a few other options. While I can’t personally guarantee their performance, people seem to swear by them. Let’s call them the Five S’s of Solving Stink:

  • Soak clothes overnight in water mixed with up to a quarter cup of milk, powdered milk, or salt.
  • Spritz your duds with vodka, or add it to the rinse cycle.
  • Sprinkle a few drops of essential oils or grapefruit seed extract in the wash (test for stain potential first).
  • Select alternative detergents such as goat’s milk or soap nuts.
  • Sun the clothes, hanging them outside for a few hours or days. Of course, depending on how severe your sensitivities are, you will need to be careful about the pollutants floating through the air (including, yes, the toxic emissions from your neighbors’ dryer vents [PDF]).

One other thing to consider, Rebecca, is that the quality of your water or your washing machine could be affecting how your clothes come out. You might experiment by washing them with baking soda or vinegar in the machine of a friend or family member to see if the results are any better.

Of course, your concern goes beyond a simple distaste for stink — this stuff can really make you sick. You are certainly not alone in facing this infuriating dilemma. I spoke with Alison Johnson of the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation, who says one study suggests that 7 million Americans have been diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, a particularly cruel byproduct of our modern lives. Here are three thorough discussions of what laundry day really means for those with chemical sensitivities, which might provide solace, solutions, or both.