The Best (and Worst) Ways to Wash Raw Denim

You're not supposed to wash 'em often. But when you do, treat your jeans right... without going overboard.

This article is part of the Bespoke Guide to Denim.

Developing bright, well-worn fade patterns in a raw denim (head to the denim encyclopedia if you're not sure what that is) while keeping them clean is a balancing act.

Wash them too often and the fades will be halted, but wait too long and you may not feel or smell so fresh.

The general rule of thumb is to wear your jeans for as long as you can stand before washing them, since the fades will be more pronounced and personalized the longer you go without bleeding the dye in the wash. That means that a go-to pair could ideally go six months, a year, or even longer without a deep clean.

We know, we know: that sounds psychotic. But hear us out.

With raw denim, the indigo dye is unwashed and untreated. When they're washed, water and detergent will strip out the dye all over, rather than in specific wear points like when you break them in over a long time.

Not only does that make any existing fades less noticeable, but it also halts new ones from forming since there’s less dye to wear away post-wash. So in order to properly break in raw denim — or any dark denim that you want to protect — you should wash it as rarely as possible.

It’s actually not as unsanitary as it sounds: one guy proved it by testing bacteria levels on a pair that had been worn for 15 months without washing, and found that they were nearly identical to a recently washed pair. And most any stains you incur can be easily spot-treated with a sponge and some elbow grease, so assuming that you're not in the habit of spilling food in your lap, running through mud puddles, or sweating excessively, there’s no real need to worry.

But when you finally pass your personal hygiene breaking point or need to recover from a particularly disastrous stain, there are a few different methods for getting your jeans cleaned up. Here are your options, and the pros and cons of each.

Cold soak

Fill your bathtub with cold water and submerge your jeans, letting them soak without any detergent, then hang them to dry.

Since there's no scrubbing or hot water, there won't be much dye loss. But if you have any hard-to-remove stains you'll probably need something more intensive to get them out.

This is mostly just intended to shrink your jeans without losing color, since new jeans (especially those that are "unsanforized," or not pre-shrunk) can shrink and stretch a surprising amount.

Beach wash

Next time you take a trip to the beach, wear your jeans while you take a dip in the ocean. When you get out, rub sand all over the soaked denim and let them dry as you wear them.

No joke, there are people who actually do this. Supposedly, the coarse sand rubs away the dye in a unique way, and there's a certain wild man appeal to an ocean wash.

But this is kind of crazy, and we'd be willing to bet that your jeans will end up a whole lot less clean than they were before your beach adventure.

Normal wash

Nothing surprising here: just throw it in the washing machine with your other clothes and give it a hot water spin with detergent.

It's easy, yeah, but it's not going to do your jeans any favors -- or the rest of your clothes, which will get a healthy dose of indigo dye bled onto them.

The hot water will fade your denim prematurely, and even if you're not a raw denim obsessive, it'll shorten the lifespan of your jeans. After too many washes, your office-ready dark blue jeans won't look so sharp and inky.


Fold your jeans and lay them in the freezer overnight to kill bacteria.

This sounds ideal, right? In theory it's easy, gets rid of bacteria (and therefore any foul smell), and won't affect the dye at all. Problem is, it doesn't actually work.

Though it might kill most of the bacteria present, it likely won't kill them all, since it's resilient stuff and your freezer isn't nearly cold enough to do the job. And because freezing does nothing to clean off dead skin and dirt, which bacteria loves, the survivors will repopulate almost immediately.

Cold Wash

Turn them inside-out, then put them in the washing machine by themselves. Wash on cold with just a little bit of Woolite Dark detergent. Hang ‘em up to dry.

This is the method we swear by. With just a few minor adjustments, cleaning your jeans is just as easy as doing a normal load of laundry, but they won't fade too much or mess with the color of your other clothes.

Turning them inside-out protects any fades you've already developed, the cold water is less likely to bleed the indigo, and Woolite works well to keep an inky hue on dark clothes.

Don't go crazy and wash every time you do your laundry, but you can rest easy knowing that when you do need to give your favorite denim a thorough clean, it won't involve any complicated processes or do too much damage to the dye.

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