How To Gently & Thoroughly Clean Your Second Hand Clothes

This article is part of an ongoing Second Hand Challenge series during the month of September. 

Some might argue you should wash all clothes, new or second hand, before wearing them. I never did this with new clothes because first and foremost, I'm lazy and second, there was a certain excitement to wearing new clothes all crisp from the store (although it is probably the function of some dreadful chemical). Well-loved second hand clothes will likely not be crisply pressed but may suffer from maladies best avoided. 

Due diligence with your senses will help you avoid stinky, stained, or otherwise undesirable items. However, it's always best to clean your second hand items right away, and especially before wearing. There is a small amount of risk in buying second hand, but I'm confident that care and caution is all you need to reap all the benefits of second hand without any of the risks. I've never had any problems in 20 plus years of thrifting. 

What To Do

In a recent Guardian article, Madeleine Somerville observes, "when you’re rifling through racks of secondhand clothing, you can see exactly how a garment holds up to repeated washes and wears." Before you purchase a second hand item, be sure to check it for wear, fabric composition, and washing instructions. Many items that recommend dry cleaning can actually be hand washed. Some people include silk in their hand washing lists, but I have never had good luck in that area. I now think long and hard before I purchase silk items which are both easily stained and high maintenance. Things rarely cleaned like winter coats are still good buys, but should be dry cleaned or steamed right away after purchase. Very delicate or especially vintage items may need to be cleaned by a specialist, or at least a dry cleaner you trust. Machine or hand wash all other items in hot water, if possible, or seal in a plastic bag and place in the freezer for a week to kill any possible pests. 

What To Use

Even though you want a thorough clean, that doesn't mean you have to use a harsh detergent — the hot water will do that dirty work. Keep the whole production zero waste by using soap nuts, a berry shell from the Sapindus mukorossi tree that contains saponin. Saponin is a natural cleanser that works as a surfactant by breaking the surface tension of the water, penetrating the fibers, and lifting stains from the fabric. The dirt is then rinsed away in the water. 

Eco Nuts uses soap nuts that grow wild in the Himalayan regions of Nepal where they are also wild-harvested, meaning gathered from trees grown without any kind of chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides. Saponin repels insects so no pesticides are needed and the trees naturally love poor, uncultivated soil. The soap nuts are sent to the US for packaging which allows them to eliminate individualized plastic wrapping otherwise required by customs. In addition, Eco Nuts are certified USDA Organic by Oregon Tilth.

Eco Nuts come with three little reusable wash bags, instructions, and enough soap nuts for approximately 360 loads. Unlike chemical detergents, soap nuts are gentle on both clothes and skin. Using Eco Nuts will extend the overall life of your clothes, as will washing less often

I live in an apartment without roof access, so I hang my wet clothes to dry in the shower. If you have access to a roof or backyard, by all means hang your clothes in the fresh air to dry! This old-school activity will save energy, burn calories, and infuse your clothes with that unbeatable fresh air scent. 


  1. When second hand shopping, using your senses will help you avoid stinky, stained, or otherwise undesirable items. 
  2. Wash second hand items right away.
  3. Use hot water, if possible, and a gentle, zero waste cleanser like Eco Nuts.
  4. Dry clean items like winter coats or those made from delicate fabrics like silk.
  5. If you can't do #3 or #4, put the item in a plastic bag and into the freezer for a week. 
  6. Dry your clean clothes outside the old-fashioned way to save energy. 
  7. Show off your fresh second hand score with us on Instagram under #ethicalwritersco.

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