Do Thrift Stores Wash Clothes Before Selling Them?
June 11, 2019
I’m a huge fan of thrifting but there’s something I’ve never thought about until today. A couple of years ago we had a thrift store with my parents, so I kind of know the answer already, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into this question.
Do thrift stores wash clothes before selling them? Most thrift stores don’t wash the clothes before selling them. It is the donors’ responsibility to clean them before donating. However, thrift stores usually sort through the merchandise before displaying it and throw out anything that’s stained, has a bad odor, or damaged.
Clothes in the thrift store usually look clean, but they may have touched things you would never imagine. But of course, some stores are cleaner than others. In any case, the best practice is to always wash your thrift finds before wearing them.
Do Thrift Stores Clean Clothes?
Donation-based charity shops like Goodwill or the Salvation Army generally don’t have the resources to clean the merchandise. They’re operating on a very tight budget which doesn’t allow them to run washing and drying machines all day long.
Even though they ask donors to clean the stuff they bring in, there’s no real way to make sure that the donations were washed. That’s why you should always donate your clothes clean and in their best possible condition. It also raises their chance to get purchased instead of going to landfill.
Before displaying, thrift store employees sort through the items and throw away anything that’s not sellable because of stains or other damages. Depending on the store this might actually mean throwing away the clothes or sending them to a textile recycling center.
Some stores may be using fabric sprays on displayed items to neutralize the smell of second-hand clothing, like body odor and stuff (yuck). So it might feel like you’re buying something clean that’s actually smelly and sweaty.
Buying second-hand online is no different. There are hundreds of thrift resellers on YouTube who say they don’t wash the clothes before reselling them. so the pieces you’re buying from them are in the exact same condition as they were in the thrift store.
Major online consignment stores like ThreadUp and The RealReal doesn’t even mention cleaning in their FAQs so I don’t think they’ll send you clean clothes.
There must be some thrift stores that wash the clothes, probably the more expensive, higher-end ones. But the only way to make sure is to ask them directly. Ask your local thrift shops in person or by email whether or not they wash their clothes and you’ll know exactly what to expect next time you shop there.
That being said, you should ALWAYS wash your second-hand clothes before wearing them! Even in rare cases when the displayed clothes were clean, you don’t know how many people have touched them, and who have tried them on before you. I know we want to be frugal or eco-friendly (or lazy sometimes), but it is more important that we’re cautious about our health and the safety of buying second-hand clothes.
Second-Hand Clothes Are Dirtier Than You Think
Clothes from donors aren’t guaranteed to be washed. So it is possible that they’ve sweat in their gym clothes and didn’t bother to clean them before donating. Besides other body fluids that I really don’t want to mention here but could get in touch with the clothes.
In fact, you can buy a little UV blacklight torch to take with you to the thrift store and see it for yourself!
However, donated clothes are in the stores for only four weeks in Goodwill (source). The items which haven’t been sold in a month are sent to a distribution center where they’re graded and then sent to another thrift store or to another country.
And this is where it gets really gross!
Clothes might sit in containers for months or even years. This is when mold and fungus can appear and flourish on the textiles. Then small insects and mammals, like spiders and rats decide to move in and start families (and of course go to the toilet too!) in the clothes.
Large textile collecting bins and containers in the city are similar. That’s why it’s better to take your donations directly to a store if possible. If you have to use the containers, make sure to put your clothes in a plastic bag and seal it very well.
Now, you will probably only see the items which look okay in a thrift store because they sort them through before putting them on the display. However, you might come around pieces rats were sleeping in.
We have no data on how bad the situation is, but the idea of thrift clothes contaminated with rat poop is terrifying.
Is Thrifting Safe?
To be fair, I think the examples above are rare cases and thrifting, in general, is safe. This my personal opinion, I am by no means certified to know the real answer.
However, I can give you some tips on how to protect your skin next time you go thrifting.
First of all, you can check out that blacklight torch I was talking about earlier! It’s small enough to take it with you and examine the clothes with it. Don’t touch anything with huge stains!
Secondly, always wear something under the clothes you’re trying on! Wear tights under bottoms, and a nude tank top or long-sleeve tee under tops. And never, ever try on footwear without socks or tights!
Never buy underwear, swimwear, or linen in thrift stores! I would also avoid yoga pants and leggings because some people wear them without underwear. But it depends on how grossed out by this. If you wear your yoga pants with underwear, you’re probably fine.
In addition, it’s not a bad idea to have a shower right after you get home from your thrifting trip.
What if you’re too grossed out thrifting?
One thing you can try is to shop at second-hand consignment stores. These are thrift stores where the people who brought in clothes get a certain percentage of the price. In these stores, the clothes are usually more clean, since the people who want to sell them will make more effort to make their items more sellable. The prices in consignment stores are usually higher than charity shops, but they usually sell the best quality and cleanest items.
The safest alternative to thrifting though is to shop your friends’ closets. You can buy that sweater you liked but your friend never wear it anymore, or maybe even she’ll give it to you for free. Even better, you can organize a clothes swap with your friends and family where everyone brings the clothes they don’t wear and swap them with each other.
Washing Your Thrift Clothes
Washing thrift clothes to kill the bacteria is very tricky.
Ideally, you would want to wash them at a high temperature (60°C) with a good laundry detergent to kill most germs.
However, most garments are not washable at such high temperature. So you have to decide whether you want to risk damaging your item with a 60°C wash. Or you can go with the method advised on the label knowing that your clothes are not completely germ-free which is probably fine (except for baby clothes).
I would avoid buying hand-wash only items because hand-washing is just not going to be enough to clean your clothes, and these items are usually too delicate to be machine-washed.
Always check the labels before you buy anything. And if you’re not going to be able to clean the item, then don’t buy it!
Should you wash clothes before donating? Always wash clothes before donating! You could also iron them and have them repaired to maximize the chance of your clothes being sold and saved from landfill. When donating shoes, make sure to clean them too, even the soles!
Should you wash new clothes before wearing? It is a good practice to wash new clothes to wash out the extra dye and other chemicals that could otherwise cause rashes or other allergic reactions on your skin. This is especially important for children!
Written by Csilla Herbszt, a sustainably stylish fashion blogger living her vegan life in Switzerland. You should follow her on Instagram!