Recently, a friend of mine raised the kind of question that stops you in your tracks, opens your eyes, and makes you take a good, hard look at life as you know it — a question that poses a fundamental challenge to values that date all the way back to childhood. Namely: How often do you really need to wash your clothes?

She was specifically concerned about her 2-year-old’s seemingly sparkly clean T-shirts. “There are days when his entire outfit is spotless,” she mused. “I feel weird putting it in the washer, but then I wonder if I’m being a negligent mom.”

Huh. Before this illuminating question, I confess I hadn’t really thought about it. Of course you wash most of your stuff after wearing it, right? Otherwise it’s gross … right? Dirty? I mean, “the great unwashed” is not a compliment.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

But then again, who says I do need to launder my ’90s-era No Doubt Tragic Kingdom tour T-shirt after just one afternoon sitting at a desk? Could some kind of detergent mafia be operating in the shadows of my laundry room right this minute?

If I’ve learned anything as the Greenie Pig, it’s that assumptions — that you need shampoo, say, or that there’s something wrong with enjoying a donut straight from the trash — should always be challenged. So I set out to find out just how many wearings my apparel could stand, and, by proxy, how much water and energy I could save by delaying the spin cycle.

First, a quick look at my baseline. Like most people I know, I typically wash my jeans every four to five wears, a practice endorsed by many textile experts (a Levi Strauss guru actually recommends hardly ever washing jeans). Skirts and sweaters usually go two or three wears between washings, too, with my standards for cleanliness inversely proportional with how fussy the item is to clean. (Hand-wash only? Smells fine to me!) PJs sometimes carry me all the way from one episode of Downton Abbey to another. If I’ve only worn a shirt for a few hours, I’ll occasionally refold it for another go — but sometimes, out of habit more than anything else, I’ll even toss those in the hamper. Socks, undies, workout clothes, and anything stained or crusted with mud gets priority boarding to the washing machine.

My criteria for this less-laundry challenge were nonscientific and simple: Does the item smell? Does it look bad? No? OK, back in the closet. I instructed my boyfriend, Ted, to alert me immediately if I missed anything, and went on my way. Over the ensuing weeks, I received exactly zero wrinkled noses, and even a couple of bashful confessions from friends. “I wear my wool socks at least three times between washings,” said one. “Just let ’em air out a bit.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Here are my limits after a couple of weeks:

  • Jeans: Still ready for a dip after about five wearings.
  • Sweaters: Five or six wearings if I’ve worn an underlayer with them; two or three if not.
  • PJs: Made it 1.5 weeks between washes with no noticeable side effects.
  • Next-to-skin shirts: Two full-day wearings if I haven’t been actively sweating in them (and they don’t have a visible deodorant slick); one if I have.
  • Socks: Three wearings for naturally antimicrobial merino wool socks, one for cotton.
  • Outdoor clothing: Three or four uses for merino wool stuff or outer layers, like ski pants.
  • Unmentionables: I can’t bring myself to double-dip on these. One use only.

And the environmental payoff for all this re-wearing? Modest, but nothing to sneeze at. The practice has increased my time between laundry loads to about a week and a half, compared to one week beforehand (all those unmentionables and sweaty workout gear add up). That translates to about three loads per month, rather than four. And that translates to 36 loads a year, down from 48 loads, which in turn translates to a savings of 180 gallons of water and 63.6 pounds of carbon every year.* Not too bad for a habit that actually lightens your chore load.

Will somebody please get this baby a clean shirt?

Will somebody please get this baby a clean shirt?

Still, my friend’s original question kept coming back to me: Would she be a “bad mom” if she diverted her tot’s clean-looking duds from the hamper? After all, exposing your kid to excess bacteria, viruses, and general body funk is grounds for admission to the Bad Moms Club (See BMC Charter, Section 11). And that goes for the rest of us, too: Does skipping a wash or two turn us into walking plague factories?

I did a little research on this, and oh man, was I disturbed. Apparently, our wardrobes are crawling with gross stuff: body oils! Dead skin cells! Mold! Bacteria! Viruses! In even worse news, one microbiologist was even quoted on Fox News saying the average load of laundry contains one-tenth of an ounce of feces . [Update: Due to an editing error, the article originally said one ounce. Whew.] (No word on who these people are and whether they have a religious opposition to toilet paper.)

For some, washing your clothes every time isn’t nearly enough. The U.K.’s slightly hysterical Hygiene Council [PDF] urges us to also wash all our clothes in hot water (140 degrees F and up), never mind that cold-water washes have been a staple of the energy-conscious crowd for years. And the Daily Mail would have us using bleach on every load and running a segregated cycle just for underwear. Otherwise … (insert skull and crossbones here).

The situation appears less dire on this side of the pond. The CDC’s website assures us that hot water isn’t necessary for every load, nor is bleach. And Real Simple magazine’s “When-to-Wash-It Handbook” touts guidelines fairly similar to my limits (with the exception of my PJs. Apparently I am disgusting in this regard, and need to be refreshing them every four wearings).

Look, I get it — if someone in the house is sick, or has allergies, or a compromised immune system — wash-every-wear could be the ticket. In hot water, even. But I’ve washed clothes in cold water for years, and my household has a better-than-average health record. And over the past few weeks of less-frequent laundering, I’ve experienced no extra skin irritations, general infections, or projectile diarrhea. I’m sticking with my multi-wear, cold-water-wash habits for now.

How about you? What are your limits? C’mon, air your dirty laundry.