How To Properly Clean And Care For Secondhand Clothing

Still a little nervous about bringing home a stranger’s hand-me-downs? We’ve got your back! Here’s how to clean your secondhand and vintage treasures.

Last month, we published a piece about the pros and cons of buying fast fashion secondhand and one of our readers brought to our attention that there are continued concerns about the hygiene level of pre-loved pieces. In addition, there’s still a lot of confusion about how to properly care for these pieces! I've already unpacked how secondhand clothing is an important resource when it comes to staying on top of fashion’s cyclical nature and now I’m here to give you yet another reason why, with proper care, vintage and secondhand clothing can be the answer to all your wardrobe needs.

If you’re not completely clear on what differentiates vintage from secondhand here’s a quick guide: vintage means anything which has aged at least 20 years (so yes, that means the 1990s are now vintage) and secondhand refers to clothing items which have not been around as long but have been owned or worn before.

There is always a small risk when buying vintage or secondhand clothing that something could go wrong because they have been worn before and they have been mixed in with other garments which have stood the test of time. While researching for this piece, I stumbled upon an article which was hilariously arguing that vintage items fall apart easily because they aren’t built to last—ha!

While secondhand clothing has more room for quality drops, most vintage clothing (especially pre-1980s) is more structurally sound than many new garments today. In addition to quality drops in clothing production, the use of chemicals has only grown and made the health risk of shopping new possibly even riskier in recent decades.

It's important to realize new items, especially new articles of clothing, aren't immune to potential problems. New clothing is often coated in formaldehyde, benzothiazoles, perfluorinated chemicals, and nonylphenol ethoxylates to prevent wrinkling or molding during shipping.Paris To Go

“But Audrey, it’s totally different!” I get it, it’s hard to wrap our minds around a possible new definition of cleanliness when the past 60 odd years has been training us to think otherwise. Believe me, I understand the urge to only own pieces which are clean according to today’s standards. However, I think there’s never been a better time to employ the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

This doesn’t mean I’m encouraging you to accept disgusting items or circumstances, but letting go of the idea that everything must be sterilized with harmful chemicals before we buy is the first step in positively changing the way we consume. Lastly, I’d like to drop that I went to school for costume design one more time (okay, let’s be honest, this won’t be the last time) for the reason that vintage and pre-worn clothing makes up maybe 60% of on-set wardrobes. There wouldn’t be so many large costume houses which each hold a plethora of already worn garments for rental, if vintage clothing wasn’t of high importance. We have so much amazing clothing and textiles already at our disposal, it would be a shame to waste it due to fear.

So maybe you’re on board with the whole ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ thing but you’re still a little nervous about bringing home a stranger’s hand-me-downs. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back! Here are some ways to clean and care for your secondhand and vintage treasures.

The first step to finding a beautiful and safe vintage clothing item is vetting the retailer or business providing secondhand pieces. Most vintage boutiques or independent vendors have a thorough vetting process of their own, though it never hurts to politely inquire about it when perusing a selection of pre-loved beauties.

What I would be slightly more skeptical of is larger secondhand chains, not because they don’t have high standards but with a larger selection, there’s bound to be room for error. This doesn’t mean don’t shop there, it just requires a deeper inspection by you, the shopper.

When searching for new-to-you wares, first look for any obvious blemishes like large stains, holes, or overly-stretched fabric. While these are not sure signs of an irrevocably damaged garment, they can help lead you in the right direction. Next, employ your sense of smell. You don’t have to get too up close and personal to understand if a clothing item is emitting an unpleasant odor, and it will immediately tell you if that piece has been properly washed—or has a more permanent smell.

Ultimately, the vetting process is up to you and your best judgment. These items are likely to be imperfect, though that isn’t always a sign of poor care on the previous owner’s part, it’s just indicative of a garment which has been put to good use.

If you’ve brought home a piece which needs a little work, have no fear because the internet truly does have all the answers. From ink to sweat stains there is a myriad of ways to treat your vintage wares without having to introduce chemical cleaners into the mix. Baking soda, like vinegar, is a household product which can work wonders on stains in and outside of your wardrobe. Hydrogen peroxide is a low-impact liquid which can wipe away blemishes. Even lemons can be used to naturally rid your clothing of unsightly spots!

Just be sure to do a quick internet search for your specific stain removal needs before running your clothing under hot water or blotting—in some cases, like oil or protein-based stains, it makes things worse. If you’re looking for a one-stop-shop stain remover, brands like Buncha Farms sell natural stain removal sticks.

So, you’ve found a gorgeous item worth caring for and you’re ready to bring it home! No matter where you buy your vintage or secondhand items from, it’s always smart to clean them before your first wearing. If the piece has a visible care label follow those instructions carefully, making sure not to ruin your new find.

To ensure absolute obliteration of harmful germs, you’ll want to add some vinegar to your washing process, along with detergent. I recently came across Eco Nuts and am excited to try their sustainable product, though more accessible brands like Seventh Generation can work as well.

In some cases, the care label will be nowhere to be found (as they weren’t introduced until the early 1970s) or illegible (washing can fade the writing over time). When you encounter a vintage item which has no instructions on how to correctly clean it, a safer plan B is to hand wash with natural detergents and stain removers.

Castile soap is usually my preferred hand washing assistant, especially since only a small amount of the liquid is required to do a thorough job, and the substance can be used in various other ways. Just like with the machine washing option, you’ll want to add a little germ-killing vinegar to your water as well.

In some cases, you might purchase an intricate piece (think sequins, lace, or detailed embroidery) which feels too delicate to handle on your own. This is where dry cleaning can be plan C. It’s important to note here that traditional dry cleaning utilizes tons of harmful chemicals which can be unhealthy for you and the environment. Sidestep the hazard of going to “regular” dry cleaners and instead find a green one.

A simple search online will usually lead you to a reliable business in your city or town, although some areas around the country may require a bit more investigation. Make sure to check their website for information on what kind of products they do or don’t use, if they recycle their hangers, and what kinds of items they accept. These businesses are also fantastic resources if you just have questions about certain fabrics, cleaning processes, or safe stain removal. If you’re looking in LA, I highly recommend Paragon Dry Cleaners in Hollywood, I’ve enjoyed their services for almost two years and appreciate their honesty when it comes to the risks of “wet cleaning” certain items. Knowledge is power.

If you are someone who can afford to buy sustainably-produced new clothing, then I’m all for it. But there’s no need for the stigma around shopping vintage and secondhand clothing.

Shopping pre-owned clothing is a wonderful option which can keep garments from landfills, individualize your style, and keep you mindful of what you put on your body instead of continuing the cycle of mindless consumption. Hard work pays off in big ways, especially when it comes to conscious fashion.

Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and is currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. Audrey is deeply passionate about conscious living and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.