BY VICTORIA DAWSON HOFF AND LAUREN LEVINSON
We’re all too aware of the perils of washing a great pair of jeans. Even with the typical tricks (turning the jeans inside out; laying them flat to dry), there’s no guarantee that the laundry cycle won’t transform your flawless dark skinnies into faded, spray-on jeggings. Considering the trials and tribulations usually involved in finding said perfect pair, gambling your hard-earned money with the press of the “start cycle” button seems a bit unfair. And the alternative—letting them go unwashed until they’re so “loved” that they basically stand up on their own—might not fly in civilized society.
“There has to be a better way!” we told ourselves (in our best infomercial voice), and, thankfully, the denim experts at Levi’s promptly heeded our call. Not only did VP of Women’s Design Jill Guenza have a quirky, genius, wash-free tip for our dirty denim problem, she did us one better and told us how to hack that freaking laundry cycle once and for all. Read on and see: There really is hope for your beloved pair.
Why does denim start to smell?
It’s funny: I was just on the internet to do some cursory research before this interview, and according to the Smithsonian page, it is because there is bacteria that sloughs off of our skin as we wear the jeans. The bacteria transfers with the sloughed-off skin cells onto the denim and apparently the bacteria is what is causing the odor. A lot of the reason why people don’t wash denim is because the beauty of indigo is that it wears down—the blue pigment from the indigo chips off and creates almost like a living document of your life in your body as you move through your days. You can create these really personal wear patterns if you wear your jeans from [when they are] rigid, which is what we call the raw state of denim. So as you are wearing the jeans, the skin cells transfer from your body to the jeans and that can cause odors.
I have tried this myself: I regularly freeze my jeans, and I know that according to some scientists, when you freeze your jeans it might kill a lot of the bacteria—certainly not 100 percent of them, but a good portion of them—and then when you pull them out of the freezer they don’t smell anymore. But you have to let them warm up a bit otherwise they are really cold! As you wear them again, the bacteria can begin to grow again, but you can continue to freeze them; I would say once a month is sufficient to keep them from really smelling.
Why does the freezer get rid of the odor?
The lower temperature kills the bacteria. But it is not 100 percent. The only way to truly do that is either to wash your jeans or to sterilize them at a really high temperature, but that defeats the purpose of really sustainably cleaning your jeans—because your freezer is running anyway, so it is a good trick to save energy! But also, washing your jeans washes off a lot of the indigo too and you lose a lot of the rich look you get when you don’t wash your jeans.
What kind of bag should you use?
I just throw them in the freezer!
Levi’s come in canvas bags. Would the bag itself do anything, or should we just put them right in?
I’ve never personally tried the canvas bag, but I think that is a way to protect your jeans from whatever else is in your freezer while still allowing oxygen. It allows the bag to breathe and get to your jeans so your jeans can breathe, as opposed to putting them in a Ziploc plastic bag. I think you want to let them air out.
How long should you leave them in the freezer for?
Overnight is fine.
Another issue with washing jeans is that they stretch out. Does the freezer have any shrinking abilities?
The freezer won’t shrink your jeans; it won’t bring your jeans back into shape. A trick for that is to turn them inside out and throw them in the dryer without washing them. If you are wearing stretched jeans, that will kind of bring them back into shape.
How long should you throw them into the dryer for, and on what heat?
Again, the idea is to reduce the amount of energy you are using. I would say if you are drying another load of laundry, you can toss them in for the last 20 minutes of the cycle at regular heat.
Any other jean washing or care tips?
I am a huge proponent of the no wash, stick in the freezer, and put in the dryer to retain the shape. But one other trick that I’ve picked up along the way is if you are wearing your jeans in from rigid, you can give them this really beautiful sheen if you put baby oil on your legs first before putting on your jeans, because the baby oil, wear after wear, will transfer from your skin, and a certain amount of it will be absorbed by the denim, and it creates this beautiful sheen.