Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits

Last updated on January 28, 2024.

Tan wicker Laundry Basket with colorful Clothes on a White Background.
Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Have you ever struggled to figure out how to do the laundry without hurting the environment? Do you want your clothes to last longer? It is a challenge, one I’ve been figuring out for years. Here are ways you can practice environmentally friendly laundry habits that will allow you to wear your wardrobe for a long time.

First, Wash Your Clothes Less

Many sustainable fashion experts tell us to launder as little as possible. “If a garment has had no contact with sweat and isn’t stained, you can wear it multiple times before you need to wash it. Repeated laundering breaks down the fibers and fades colors, making garments look old and worn more quickly.”1 You can wear some clothes several times before they need washing. There are ways to “freshen” clothes without washing them. Any time you can avoid washing clothing saves time, energy, money, and water. It also protects our water from pollutants and chemicals. 

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet2 

In 2014, the CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, said that jeans should never be machine washed, admitting that he hadn’t machine washed his jeans in more than a year. When he does wash them, he handwashes and hangs them up to air dry. Bergh argued that not using the washing machine keeps jeans in mint condition and is better for the environment.3 

Washing Our Clothes Sheds Microfibers

A 2016 Plymouth University study found that more than 700,000 fibers were released during a thirteen-pound load of laundry, with fleece releasing the most.4 In 2017, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from laundering synthetic fabrics.5

Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, noted that fleece, as in a fleece jacket or those cheap $4 blankets at big box stores, is one of the biggest villains. That fabric is made from used water bottles, the clear ones with the #1 RIC symbol. While recycling is important, washing fleece releases large numbers of microfibers into water, and eventually the ocean.6

Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microfibers. These fibers do not decompose or biodegrade. When the microfibers travel through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, “the vast majority of fibers (somewhere between 75 and 99 percent) settle into the sludge…sludge from wastewater treatment plants can be used as agricultural fertilizer, and it is slathered…onto fields.” From there it can get into the soil, groundwater, or grazing animals that are later consumed by people.7

“Tiny particles of plastic have been found everywhere — from the deepest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the top of Mount Everest. And now more and more studies are finding that microplastics, defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters across, are also in our bodies…In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood.”8

Close-up of a stainless steel front loading washing machine, with off-white towels going in.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

How to Stop Microfibers from Entering Water Systems

The most obvious solution is to stop washing so many synthetic fabrics by buying fewer synthetic clothing items. For those items you do own already, there are a few solutions:

      • The Guppyfriend bag is designed to prevent microfiber pollution. It is a zippered bag that you place synthetic clothing into and then put into the washing machine with everything else. The microfibers that shed collect at the edges of the bag, which you can scoop out and throw in the garbage. This prevents the microfibers from getting into the water. Alexander Nolte, co-founder of Guppyfriend, said that “the bag is designed in a way which prevents fibers from breaking in the first place. So, it’s not about what you find in the bag, it’s what you do not find in the bag. Whatever you wash inside the bag has a longer lifetime.”9

        Guppyfriend bag, white bag with blue wording along zipper.
        I bought one several years ago. While I like it and still use it, my solution has been to buy less synthetic clothing. Unfortunately, Guppyfriend bags are not big enough for jackets or blankets.
      • The Cora Ball is a ball that you toss into the washing machine with your clothes. It helps prevent shedding and collects microfibers that you can remove and throw into the garbage. I have not personally tried this yet.
      • PlanetCare is a washing machine attachment with filters that the company claims to collect 90% of microfibers. Each filter comes with reusable cartridges that you replace once they’re full of microfibers. You can return the cartridges to the company so they can refurbish them for future use. I haven’t tried this yet either.

While these solutions are thoughtful and probably work well, they come at your own expense. Does it make sense to buy cheap clothing only to have to spend money trying not to pollute the water with them?

“In 2017, Greenpeace found microfibers in the waters of Antarctica.”10

Close-up of a white washing machine with a PlanetCare filter attached to its side.
Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash.

Do Laundry Better

I am not a laundry expert, but I certainly do a lot of laundry for my family! Many of the tips in the following section came from sustainable clothing writers, including Zoe Edwards (Mend It, Wear It, Love It!), Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald (Modern Mending), Elizabeth L. Cline (The Conscious Closet), and Sophie Benson (Sustainable Wardrobe).

Washing:

Except for undergarments or sweaty clothes, wash clothes less and not after every wear. Airing out will sometimes be enough to remove odors (like from a restaurant or campfire). If it’s only a spot that’s dirty, spot clean with a damp cloth and mild soap (like hand soap). This is better for the garment than a full wash. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that undergarments or “anything that sits next to your crotch, armpits, feet…and comes into close contact with sweat and skin is a good candidate for regular washing.” Clothing worn over undergarments and clothing that doesn’t cling to your body can be washed far less frequently.

Sometimes the cheapest clothing requires the most expensive care. “Polyester, nylon, and blended fibers with a heavy percentage of synthetics attract odors, meaning so-called easy-care synthetics have to be washed more often.” Wearing more natural materials can help you reduce washing.11 

Wash items inside out to reduce wear and pilling; fasten zippers and undo buttons before washing to prevent damage. Turn delicate clothes inside out.

Always separate lights and darks.

Empty and check pockets – especially children’s clothing!

Use cold water – it is gentler on clothes, prevents shrinkage, saves energy, and is better for the environment. According to Energy Star, heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy used when running a washer, so the less hot water used, the more energy saved.12 Also, be sure to not overload the machine, because clothes need to be able to move around.

Neutralizing odors:

You can neutralize odors by hanging something outside or in the sunlight for a few hours. Hanging items in the shower allows the steam to remove odors and can release wrinkles too.

“For garments that need a little deodorizing, lightly spritz the fabric with vodka to kill off odor-causing bacteria; just don’t use it on delicate fabrics like silk. Direct sunshine is also nature’s disinfectant, keeping clothing free from dust mites and odors. Expose each side of the garment for thirty minutes.” –Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic13

3 Girls' dresses (left to right: pink, white, yellow) on an outdoor clothesline, sunshiny blue sky and green tree background.
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

Drying:

The heat and friction from dryer heat weaken and break down fibers, eventually ruining your clothes. It also causes shrinking and fading. Air drying, especially outdoors, is the best method. You can use dryer racks if you don’t have a clothesline. The sun acts as a disinfectant, whitener, and odor remover. But even indoor air drying on a drying rack is better for your clothes. You can add half a cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle as a fabric softener, but avoid conventional products. Read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets.

When you handwash, hang lightweight items up to drip dry, but lay heavier articles on a towel so that they retain their shape and don’t stretch.

“Hanging clothes outside on a line or drying rack, whenever possible, will do wonders for the longevity of your clothing, and significantly lessen their environmental impact.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!14

The energy use of dryers is enormous! “Clothes dryers consume more energy than any other household appliance. In the United States, dryers consume 60 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.” In many other countries, clothes dryers are not a common household appliance. Only one-third of the British own one.15

“Air-drying clothes reduces the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year.” -National Geographic16

A dryer rack full of colorful clothes, with brick wall and greenery in background.
I use dryer racks at home. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Clothing Care Labels:

Read clothing labels but use your best judgment. Cline wrote, “The problem with care labels is that they describe the washing conditions a garment can withstand, rather than the ideal care methods. A care label’s instructions, from advertisements on heat settings to the use of bleach, are a garment’s maximum tolerance, not a recommendation.” For example, “a recommendation to ‘machine wash warm’ doesn’t indicate that a warm wash is required, only that your garment can withstand warm water without shrinking.”17 Below is a handy chart that explains the symbols on clothing labels:

Wash Care symbols chart, black and white.
Wash Care Symbols Vectors by Lia Aramburu on Vecteezy.

Dry Cleaning

Anything marked ‘dry clean only’ needs to be handled with care, and special items, such as mattress covers, and outdoor or technical gear usually have very specific care guidelines that you should follow.18 Avoid buying ‘dry clean only’ clothing as much as possible. The cleaning process uses a lot of chemicals, some toxic, that end up in our water and environment. Also, plastic-film dry-cleaning bags add 300 million pounds of waste to US landfills each year.19

White and aqua iron standing, on a gray ironing board with a white button down shirt on it. Aqua wall background.
Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash.

Ironing:

Ironing can damage clothing over time, so taking clothing out of the washer as soon as possible is the best way to prevent wrinkling. If you do have to iron, check the clothing label and match your iron setting to the correct setting for that fabric, so that you don’t damage it. Also, iron inside out or use a pressing cloth when possible to further protect your clothing. Sophie Benson wrote that if you iron in batches, “it’s best to order your ironing pile from coolest to hottest, that way you’re not switching between temperatures and there’s no risk of accidentally putting a hot iron on a delicate fabric.”20

Read my article on using an ironing mat if you don’t have an ironing board.

Stains:

Treat stains as soon as possible, as the longer they sit the better they set. Use a small amount of laundry detergent and cold water to remove the stain. Avoid over-rubbing because that can discolor clothing permanently. I personally use a stain stick that is quite effective, and I’ve had the same one for years!

Buncha Farmers stain stick with green packaging.
Buncha Farmers stain stick. This is the one I use but there are many brands out there.

For oily stains, blot up liquid by sprinkling baking soda or cornstarch, brush off, then apply liquid detergent to the stain and let it sit for a few hours.

Never tumble dry clothing that is potentially stained, since it will permanently set the stain. Hang dry first so you can see if the stain is visible.

If you cannot remove a stain, consider dyeing the garment. This is a great way to extend the life of an article of clothing. Natural dyes have a lower environmental impact. Even tie-dying is a good way to revive old clothing! If there is a small mark or stain, consider covering it with some simple, discreet embroidery. Use online tutorials to find simple flower or shape motifs.21

Laundry Detergents

Commercial detergents can be laden with chemicals and toxins that you should avoid. Plus companies package detergents in large plastic bottles. However, DIY laundry detergents can be tricky to make and use, and are not always recommended. Since this is a huge topic on its own, please read my article on Non-Toxic and Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents.

Your Clothes Will Last Longer

Our clothing and other textiles will last a lot longer if we take better care of them, especially when it comes to laundry care. And we can be better stewards of the environment. I hope this article helps you! What tips do you have? Feel free to leave me a comment. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Guppyfriend bags website.*

Cora Ball website.*

PlanetCare website.*

Video, “Your Laundry Habits Affect the World,” Elizabeth L. Cline, Penguin Random House, November 13, 2019.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention these.

Footnotes:

Ironing Mat review

Last updated November 9, 2023.

Magnetic ironing mat with iron on washing machine.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

Quite a few years ago, when we lived in a small house, I let go of my ironing board in favor of an ironing mat. I thought this was the most clever invention for people living small or with limited space. Now that I’m still using it 7 years later and living in a slightly bigger house, I figured it was time I featured it here.

About the portable ironing mat

I purchased my ironing mat on Amazon, and while that specific one is no longer available, there are many similar mats online. It measures approximately 33″ x 19″, is foldable, and has two strong magnets on both ends to hold it securely to the washer or dryer. Several brands say these are safe to use on surfaces other than metal by using a towel underneath. I store it with the iron under the sink in the laundry room. It is several layers thick and has a quilted surface on both sides, made to withstand high heat. Like any ironing board, though, never leave the iron unattended.

Close-up of the mat secured with magnets.
The magnets are strong. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Quilting and Crafting

I am an amateur quilter and crafter striving for a minimalist lifestyle, and I am able to use this mat for all but the largest of projects. For large projects, such as a queen-sized quilt, I borrow an ironing board – there’s no need to own one for the once every 5 years or more that I need a regular-sized board. I’ve used the mat for basic ironing and mending, small sewing projects, making lap and twin-sized quilts, and doing other crafts with my son. Honestly, I loved my mat, so much so that as I mentioned, I decided it was something I should feature on my website.

But as I sat down to write this post, I made a grim and eye-opening discovery. Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com wrote a post about replacing her “possibly toxic” tabletop ironing board and she mentioned that many ironing board covers and mats are coated with tetrafluoroethylene, a family of chemicals better known as Teflon. Once I researched it further, I confirmed that the ironing mat I’ve been using and loving for years was likely toxic.

Do not buy one of these ironing mats. See below for the best alternative.

Iron and ironing mat on a washing machine with quilt sections.
Ironing sections of a quilt I made last year. Photo by Marie.

Dangerous fumes

All versions of this chemical non-stick coating have the potential to be very toxic to human health. Teflon in its various forms (PTFE, PFOAs, PFAS, PFOS, PFBS, etc.) is known to cause a variety of illnesses in humans and is a known carcinogen. Products coated with it can off-gas at high temperatures, so ironing on it is unsafe.

It turns out that many ironing board covers and ironing mats are coated with a version of these chemicals. I was so disappointed to learn this about my mat because I do love it. When I searched my purchase history on Amazon, I realized that I ordered and began using this during my pregnancy. I did not know many of the things I know now about unsafe toxins and chemicals in our everyday products, so needless to say this terrifies me! Did I expose my baby to these chemicals?

“Nowadays, most irons and ironing board covers are coated with tetrafluoroethylene plastic, better known as Teflon. Given that heating plastic makes it outgas its toxic fumes, irons and ironing board covers seem odd places to put it, particularly since a non-stick finish is not even necessary for the task.” -Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Toxic-Free

Iron with purple accents with a white background.
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay.

Wool Pressing Mat

Once I was aware of the potential dangers of a Teflon-coated ironing mat, I began seeking a safe, non-toxic, chemical-free alternative. I also wanted the alternative to be small and easy to store. After reading research other bloggers have done, it turns out wool pressing or ironing mats are the best options. Many quilters swear by the wool mats and indicate that they are better because they reduce ironing time and grip the fabric well. There are many of these for sale online but look for certain aspects: make sure it is 100% wool, sustainably sourced, and cruelty-free, and ask the seller to not ship it in plastic! I recommend searching “wool ironing mat” or “wool pressing mat” online and reading multiple reviews from sewists and quilters. Make sure to read the comments too as there are usually additional tidbits of information there.

Gray wool pressing mat with company information at top right, green and white sticker.

I plan to buy one of these in the near future, and I will update this post when I do! If you’ve had any experience with wool pressing mats or other ironing mats, please let me know in the comments below! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe. Happy ironing!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “DIY Plastic-Free Ironing Board Cover and Natural Wool Pad,” Myplasticfreelife.com, December 26, 2016.

Article, “An Honest Review of Wool Pressing Mats,” SuzyQuilts.com, accessed November 4, 2020.

Video, “Wool Pressing Mats: What is all the HYPE about?” Sparrow Quilt Company, January 12, 2019.