Here's what the experts say.
“Aren’t you going to wash that before you wear it?” my sister asked me. The “it” she was referring to was the incredible “Life Is Better With A Yorkie” t-shirt that my mom got me for Christmas. (The shirt stars a Yorkie that looks just like our family dog, Zoe.) “Wash it before I wear it?” I asked her, shocked. “But it’s brand new!” TBH, I never wash new clothes before I wear them. Reason one: I’m lazy, so less laundry = happier me. And reason two: I’ve never really considered new clothes dirty. Sure, a handful of random strangers might have tried on the garment before me, but that doesn’t make the actual garment dirty — right? The more I thought about it, though, the more I debated my own theory. And, being the anxious person that I am, I couldn’t stop obsessing about it. So I reached out to experts to get their take on the issue.
Lindsey Bordone, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF that she washes all new clothes whether they’re purchased in a store or online. Her reasoning is less about potential germs from other people on the fabric, and more about what’s in the fabric itself. The dyes and chemicals used with some clothing can cause irritation if you have sensitive skin.
“When clothes are shipped, they’re also kept with some preservatives so that mold won’t grow on them during the shipping process if there’s moisture,” Bordone says. For example, formaldehyde resins — which are sometimes used in clothing to prevent mildew and enhance wrinkle resistance — could lead to rashes, Bordone says. Most countries regulate how much formaldehyde is used in clothing, but a 2010 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that some fabrics being sold in the U.S. exceeded the allowable levels of the chemical, according to the Wall Street Journal. Contact with the formeldahyde resin could cause allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis — two forms of eczema — if the garment isn’t washed before being worn. Giving your new clothes a wash could get rid of any dyes that might cause irritation, too. “There are other things, like blue dyes in clothing, that can irritate skin for some people who are allergic to it,” Bordone says. “You’d want to wash your clothing a couple times to get the excess blue dye off.”
In terms of garments transferring a virus, bacteria, or infection from one person to another, Will Kirby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Hermosa Beach, California, says it’s not impossible — but the risk is very, very slim. Bacterial, viral, and fungal elements, he says, don’t really “transport” on clothes. “If something touches someone else’s skin very briefly, the chances of developing a problem are exceedingly, exceedingly, exceedingly small,” Kirby tells SELF. “You’re more likely to get an infection from touching the door handle walking into the shop then you are from actually putting on the clothes.”
Bordone cautions that scabies — a microscopic mite that can infect the skin — could potentially be passed via clothing. But again, Kirby says that risk is low. Kirby does make a caveat: If you’re trying on a more ~intimate~ garment — like a swimsuit or underwear — Kirby suggests trying it on over another piece of clothing and washing it before wearing. “That would be of a little more concern because the skin in the anal and vaginal area is more likely to transmit an infection,” he says.
“Bottom line: Washing your new clothes might save you from some skin irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin to begin with.”
Bottom line: Washing your new clothes might save you from some skin irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin to begin with. But “catching something” from your new clothes is highly unlikely. “People have been trying on clothes for many years, and there have been no horrific outbreaks from department stores that have come up in my lifetime that I know of,” Bordone says. “So do I think it’s something that people need to start worrying about? No.”
I’ll keep you guessing if I muster up the energy to wash my Yorkie shirt.
More From SELF: