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How To Properly Wash and Sanitize Thrift Store Clothing 

Shopping at thrift stores can be practical and exciting. But is it sanitary to buy clothes when you do not know where they came from or how they were stored? Keep reading to learn how to properly sanitize used clothing and for some tips and tricks for staying clean while thrift store shopping.

soaking clothes in a bucket of water and someone is ringing out the water of one of the clothing items.


Washing and Sanitizing Thrift Store Clothing

Getting thrifted clothes from thrift shops can be super fun and exciting when you find the perfect piece.  I remember as far back as being 12 and going to the Goodwill with my sisters and our friends and searching through racks and racks of stuff looking for a great find.  It is like treasure hunting or mining for gold.  

Recently my thrifting buddy, Krista, and I found a new second-hand clothing shop and I walked away with a pair of Oakley sunglasses for $5.  I went home and searched up the same pair online, and found that they were worth $200 brand new.  It was awesome.

You can find some incredible stuff at these second-hand stores. Vintage clothing, vintage items like china and other vintage pieces. What you do NOT want to find while thrift shopping is bed bugs, lice or bacteria from unclean items.  

How to sanitize thrift store clothing

Are Thrift Store Clothes Clean?

Funky smells and musty odors unfortunately go with the territory.  Have you ever notice that all Goodwills smell the same? We call it the thrift store smell. 

When people are donating clothing, you never know what could be on them.  Ever notice that the workers almost always wear gloves?  That is because they know how dirty these thrift finds can be.

I read one post from a former thrift store employee who said that often times while searching through donated items, they would find things like poopy diapers, water bottles filled with pee, actual poop, used condoms or dead animals.  The list goes on.  

Thrift stores do not have the means to wash secondhand garments before putting them on the racks.  They simply discard the dirty diaper and hang up the secondhand clothing.

I am NOT trying to discourage you from shopping at these stores, I have a deep love for them.  But we have to be realistic about how the previous owner may have stored them.

NEVER wear second-hand clothes without first washing them!  

There are a number of issues that could happen if you do this.  Lice, bed bugs and other critters could be lurking. Please make sure to take the proper steps to sanitize and wash before showing off your killer finds.

Even clean thrift store clothes might be next to something on the rack that isn’t.  So even on the rare occasion you find a shirt that has a tag from Target or somewhere and you know it has never been worn, you still need to wash it before you wear it.  

Vinegar and Baking soda in separate glass jars sitting on a wood table

How To Sanitize Thrift Store Finds

One of the worst things about thrifted items is the smell.  There are a number of ways to get the smell out of the clothes.

  • Baking Soda – If your thrifted clothing has a musty or funky smell (pretty much all of them do) you can simple sprinkle some baking soda all over the clothing.  Let it sit for several hours. I like to place a towel on the counter or ground.  Turn my clothing inside out and then sprinkle both sides with baking soda and let sit.  After a few hours when you are ready to wash, simple throw in the washer with the baking soda still on the material.  
  • Vinegar – I use white vinegar a lot when cleaning.  It can help get smells out of the clothes and even make them feel slightly softer. I like to add about a 1/2 cup of white distilled vinegar to the rinse cycle.  Or you can use it as the detergent for your load.  You can use up to one cup of vinegar depending on how big your load is. 
  • Laundry Sanitizer – You can use a laundry sanitizer such as Oxi Clean Sanitizer to the wash with the clothes.  Or you can presoak the clothes in your sink or plastic tub with super hot water, laundry sanitizer, and your thrifted clothes and let soak before you throw them in the washer.  This helps kill bacteria and viruses.  

How To Clean Thrifted Clothes

When you are shopping for clothing items be sure to always check the care label. This will help you know how to wash them properly.

Dry Clean – I almost NEVER buy things that are dry cleaning only. But if something that says dry clean only is a must have, please do just that.  Take it to the dry cleaners for proper care. 

Delicate Fabrics – If you find something that is delicate like silk, wool or lace you should be extra careful.  I like to hand wash these items.  

For best results, I use about a gallon of cold water and some natural detergent (gentle detergent) for each item. I actually like to use dawn liquid soap.  Just a dash or so.

For the cleaning process, mix a small amount of detergent in the cold water and then let the clothing sit in the mix for several hours.  I swish everything around every hour or so.

Regular Clothing – For any clothing that is suitable for the washing machine you can wash them there. Like I said earlier in the post you can use vinegar either in the actual cycle or in the rinse cycles only and do not forget your natural or gentle laundry detergent.

Hot water is your best bet for both sanitizing and getting rid of smells but it can be harsh on fabrics. Use the hottest water you feel comfortable using based on the washing instructions on the tag.

Bugs – A great tip for helping to kill any bugs or eggs that might be on thrifted clothes is to throw your thrift clothes into the dryer first. The dryer gets hot enough usually to kill all of the things that could be on our clothes. Once you run them in the hot dryer, throw them in a washing machine like normal.

Why should you use the dryer first? Well, you want the bugs to be killed and then to get washed away in the washer. A second dry will just give you an extra bit of sanitizing.

a hand holing a care label on a white shirt

Stripping Your Clothes

Another way to clean your clothes is to strip them. If you have not heard of this before I will quickly explain.

Fill your bath tub with the hottest water that will come out of the faucet. Add washing soda, borax and powered detergent.

Add your clothes and let soak for at least 24 hours. Every hour stir the clothes for the first 6 hours of soaking. After that you can stir whenever you think about it.

Once you’re done, ring the clothing out and then wash and dry like normal.

It is AMAZING how much dirt is stripped from the clothes. I stripped all of my sons clothes this summer and it was absolutely disgusting how much dirt came out.

Tips and Tricks For Clean Thrifting

Thrift store shopping can be the best. Us Shanes have been doing it for 30 plus years. Here are some tips and tricks for keeping clean while thrifting.

  • Try not to touch your face while thrifting. That will help keep germs from getting in your mouth.
  • Bring hand sanitizer. As soon as you leave the store, sanitize your hands before getting into your car.
  • If you try on clothing at the thrift store then consider showering when you get home to get rid of anything that might have rubbed off on you.
  • Throw your clothes in the dryer to kill any bugs or eggs before washing.
  • Always keep an eye on children if you bring them along. Make sure they are not touching everything and then putting their hands in their mouths. Wipe their hands with baby wipes often if they are picking up toys and other things and make sure they NEVER put something in their mouth.
a rack of thrift store clothing

Sanitizing and Washing Thrift Store Clothes Steps

Here’s a quick summary of what to do with those vintage clothes to sanitize them and get them clean so you can rock them.

  1. Check labels at the store and avoid Dry Clean Only if you do not want to deal with that.
  2. When you get home, take off the tags and place items in the dryer on a hot setting for a few minutes to kill bacteria and bugs or eggs.
  3. Lay items out and sprinkle with baking soda and let sit several hours.
  4. You can strip the clothes by letting them soaking in soapy water for 24 hours or longer.
  5. You can skip stripping the clothes and putting them directly into the washing machine (Go ahead and leave the baking soda on them. This will only aid in the wash.)
  6. Wash with warm or hot water unless the fabric is delicate. Then use cold.
  7. Add vinegar to the rinse cycle or directly into the wash.
  8. Use a laundry sanitizer if you have one as an additional step to sanitizing the clothing properly.
  9. Dry clothing based on clothing labels.
  10. Hang and enjoy your awesome thrift store finds!

Do you love thrifting? Tell us about it and be sure to let me know if there is something I missed that you like to do to keep clean while thrifting and to help sanitize your clothes.

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