How to wash clothes safely

Written by the author Hena SharmaAllyssia Alleyne, CNN

This article was produced by CNN Style’s editorial team in partnership with Fashion Revolution, a non-profit campaigning for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and responsible international fashion industry. It was first published in September 2020.

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The way we care for our clothes makes a big difference to both their longevity and their impact on the environment. Factors such as over-washing, drying clothes and choosing the wrong temperature setting can lead to shrinkage and color shifting, as well as excessive water and energy consumption. Meanwhile, washing synthetic fabrics by machine or by hand releases plastic microfibers that end up in your home and into our waterways.
It’s unrealistic to suggest you stop washing your clothes altogether, but there are ways to minimize the damage, including switching to environmentally friendly detergents such as Seventh Generation, Method and Bio-D laundry liquid.

Here’s a rundown of the most eco-friendly ways to treat the clothes in your wardrobe and extend their life.

cotton

Cotton is best washed on a 30°C (Cold) cycle, which prevents fiber shrinkage and saves electricity. Switching from a higher temperature can lead to a 40% reduction in energy use, according to the UK’s Energy Saving Trust. Air dry clothes flat or hang to avoid ironing.

wool

Because they are naturally resistant to stains, odors and wrinkles, your woolen garments probably don’t need to be washed as often. You can take a detergent specially formulated for wool fabrics (Australian industry body Woolmark has a handy list of recommended brands) and wash on a gentle cycle at 40°C (warm), or hand wash in warm water. Lay the garment flat to dry, pressing it to its normal shape to prevent stretching.

denim

Fashion Revolution recommends “leave the jeans alone.” “Denim is strong; its nice flexible fibers don’t like to be tight and boxy, they like to relax and breathe the more they’re worn,” they advise on their website.

As an alternative to the washing machine, you can refresh your jeans, surprisingly, by putting them in the freezer. Put them in a bag and soak them overnight.

However, if you don’t have the space for such an experiment, turn the jeans inside out — and fasten the zippers and buttons — before washing at 30°C. Lay it flat to dry in the correct shape so you don’t have to iron it.

5 ways you can change your fashion habits to help the planet

Acrylic, nylon and polyester

These and similar synthetics are among the cheapest fabrics to produce and the least environmentally friendly, releasing hundreds of thousands of microfibers every time they are washed. According to a 2017 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), bleaching synthetic fabrics accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the world’s oceans each year.

To catch those microfibers, try throwing in a Cora Ball or using a Guppy Friend laundry bag, which are designed to filter them out. Also, be sure not to dry these fabrics, as this weakens and damages the fibers. Instead, hang to dry. Follow the same instructions for fleece, which is designed to take on similar qualities to wool, but is actually made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET plastic).