Image of clothing hanging in a bathroom.

How to wash vintage & second-hand clothes without damaging them.

Last Updated: January 10, 2022

Love vintage? Learn the best way to wash your thrift store finds with expert tips and natural products that get the job done without damaging your clothes.

Let’s talk vintage! No, not wine. Better—vintage clothes.

There’s nothing quite like going to your local thrift store or vintage shop and unearthing a housedress from the ‘50s or an ‘80s leather jacket that would make Billy Idol green with envy.

Real talk, though—old stuff smells. Even if it's a newer item, it still carries that distinct second-hand store odor, the kind that clings to the fabric.

To find out the best way to safely wash vintage and second-hand clothes, I spoke with vintage vixen Ellen Sartore, Costume Library Manager at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, NE and owner of The Vintage Venus, a boutique specializing in men’s, women’s, and children’s fashion from the 1800s to 1990s.

Ready for some pro tips to keep your vintage in tip-top shape? Hit it!

How do you wash vintage clothes?

AUTHOR PHOTO's of a PLASTER NUDE vintage lace top

Ellen Sartore: The undisputed champ of soap for vintage clothes is one that’s gentle, free of modern chemicals, and excellent at helping to remove yellowing from clothes and textiles that have been sitting still for decades.

I always recommend washing vintage in cold water (I actually recommend that all washes are in cold water—it’s better for the environment!).

Don’t be afraid to soak and hand wash vintage. I’m only ever confident throwing vintage in the washer if it’s from the 1950s or later, is made of polyester or cotton, and is structurally sound.

Learn more about the benefits of washing with cold water from Grove’s Senior Director of Science Forumation in this cold water laundry guide.

Grove Tip

What laundry soaps are good for vintage clothes?

Molly’s Oxygen Whitener and Molly’s Laundry Powder are both great choices to give your vintage a gentle—yet thorough—cleaning.

Just add a tablespoon to a bathtub or large plastic tote filled halfway with cold to lukewarm water, then hand wash and hang to dry.

Mrs. Meyers cleaning products and Grove Co. cleaning caddy

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When shouldn’t you wash vintage clothes?

Ellen: There are many don’ts when it comes to washing … and storing for that matter.

If the fabric is older than 1940, I wouldn’t wash it. Dry cleaning is usually the way to go for older pieces. And if you are trying to dry clean on a budget, you can buy at-home dry cleaning kits.

If the fabric is wool, fragile, lace, has beading, etc., just play it safe and don’t wash it.

Soaking, hand washing, or spot cleaning are also great options for old or delicate fabrics.

Wondering how to hand wash clothes? Check out Grove’s in-depth guide to learn the best methods for hand washing.

Can you get musty smells out of vintage clothes without washing them?

Ellen: When I’m trying to get musty smells out of vintage, I will occasionally try to replace the smell with something stronger like incense (maybe not the best way to go, but a fast one) or essential oils.

Again, dry cleaning can aid in removing smells.

To avoid making things mustier or musty in the first place, storing your vintage in a dry place is key. I always recommend a cedar chest or running a dehumidifier during humid seasons.

What’s the best way to wash second-hand clothes?

Ellen: Other second-hand clothes can be washed just like the rest of your clothes, provided that it’s modern and made of a machine-washable material.

Never put wool in the washer. Instead, learn how to wash wool in a few easy steps here.

Ideally, your thrifted clothes will have a washing instructions tag on the seam that you can follow to be confident in your washing.

What’s that laundry symbol mean though? Demystify laundry symbols with a little help and give your second-hand treasures the care they deserve.

Grove Tip

What are the best laundry soaps for deodorizing thrift store clothes?

To deodorize your thrift store finds, stick to cold water and don’t overload the washer.

Use Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap—it’s great for removing strong odors (among other things).

You can also add a 1/2 cup of distilled white vinegar to the load if the second-hand smell is extra stubborn.

Do you have any tips for keeping vintage clothes in good condition?

Ellen: Keeping vintage in good condition is definitely possible. Here are a few tips for keeping your vintage clothes in good shape.

  1. Store it correctly—in a temperature-controlled space that stays the same temperature and humidity year-round.
  2. If the shoulders are made of lace or a fragile fabric, store laying flat and do not keep it on a hanger.
  3. Don’t wear something vintage if you know you’ll be sweating that day—sweat will stain vintage fabric, plus modern deodorant chemicals may rub off and discolor the fabric. (If you made this faux pas already, learn how to get rid of sweat stains from all kinds of fabrics and clothes … naturally).
  4. Treat the fabric gently. It was certainly made to be worn, but it’s decades-old! You always risk a rip when wearing vintage—it comes with the territory. But being actively aware of what you’re wearing can help curb the damage.

You found a cashmere sweater at the thrift store? Lucky! Now learn how to properly wash your precious cashmere to keep it in good condition for years to come.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Image of a salmon colored top hanging by a painting of a woman.

Ellen: Overall, use common sense! If you’re worried that something isn’t machine washable, maybe don’t risk it unless you’re okay with potentially ruining the item.

I once washed a dress with painted buttons and the paint melted, got all over the fabric, and then wouldn’t come out of the dress. Trial and error is a very real thing in vintage washing. Talk with fellow vintage lovers to see if they have any tips or tricks on how they’ve successfully washed their treasures!

Thanks, Ellen!

A few more FAQs about vintage and second-hand clothes

Curious about sustainable fashion? Need some rec’s for the best places to donate your old duds?

Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions about vintage and second-hand clothes so you can go forth and thrift with confidence.

Why is it better to buy second-hand and vintage clothes?

Buying second-hand isn’t just cool—it’s better for the environment!

Did you know that global fashion accounts for 93 billion metric tons of water each year? It’s also responsible for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and uses more energy than aviation and shipping sectors combined. Yikes.

What’s the difference between second-hand and vintage?

Vintage fashion falls under the category of second-hand, but the clothes are at least 20 years old.

Second-hand clothes are newer but still used. In order to be considered antique, clothes need to be 100 years or older.

Can you catch diseases from second-hand clothes?

Certain diseases like dermatitis and scabies can be transferred from wearing unwashed second-hand clothes.

Bed bugs may also hitch a ride into your home on second-hand clothes, so It’s always a good idea to wash your thrifted finds if you can.

Should you wash clothes before donating them?

Definitely wash your clothes before donating them.

Most thrift stores don’t wash clothes before selling them and ask that you don’t donate dirty items.

What is the most helpful place to donate clothes?

Homeless shelters, domestic violence centers, refugee organizations, and LGBTQ+ centers are all great places to donate clothes.

Call the non-profit organizations in your area or check out their websites to see when and where they take donations.

BIO: Mackenzie Sanford is a writer and musician fan-girling over Billy Idol (then and now) in the Midwest.

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