The Ultimate Guide to How to Wash Your Jeans

And Keep Them Looking Their Best

black femme at the laundromat

CHELSEA VICTORIA / Stocksy

Washing your jeans may not be brain surgery, but still, it's got us scratching our heads. There are a lot of theories out there regarding the correct method for cleaning your jeans and even how often—if, ever—you should be tossing them in the wash. While this denim dilemma isn't one to keep us up at night (usually), it's worth resolving, or at least, investigating.

That's because knowing how to properly take care of your jeans can extend their life by years, decades even. And if you've ever spent a pretty penny on a nice pair of denim, you'll want to ensure a good return on investment—meaning, they stay snug and not saggy. So to answer all of your burning denim laundering questions, we've come up with a roundup of our top tips and advice on how to clean jeans to keep them looking their best—plus the pitfalls to avoid. 

Keep reading for our complete guide to properly washing your jeans.

01
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Wash Jeans—But Less

Go ahead and take a load off—laundry load that is. Basically, if your jeans aren't visibly dirty and they don't smell, consider them "clean" (read: no wash cycle necessary). The laundry machine might be efficient at washing, but all that rinsing, spinning, and repeating isn't the most gentle on denim. The more you can avoid it, the better.

And while it may be tempting to wear your favorite Levi's on repeat (the perfect-fitting jeans are so hard to find, after all), consider rotating them out with other pairs so that each stays relatively clean for longer. Buying high-quality denim (if you can) also helps. Premium jeans tend to be better at retaining their shape through multiple wears and resist bagging. This means that you can wash them less, thereby putting less stress on fabric.

02
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Spot-Clean Isolated Stains

If your jeans pass the smell test, but you notice a small stain (the consequences of spaghetti slurping, perhaps), all is not lost. Rather than throw them in the washing machine, try spot-treating the isolated stain. To do so, simply apply a laundry stain-removing product directly to the area in question. After a few minutes, use a clean, damp cloth to saturate and scrub away the stain. And in case you're looking for some light—albeit super practical—reading material, check out our stain removing guide. We're not fortune tellers but something tells us that your most recent red wine spill won't be your last.

03
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Read Garment Tags

Woman with curly hair and tattoos inspecting laundry

zoranm / Getty Images

If you happen to have a pair of bedazzled jeans in your denim rotation, then, first of all, how fashion polarizing of you. But more importantly, you'll want to think twice before throwing them in the wash. Some jeans, especially those with embellishments—pearls, lace, crystal studs, you name it—could require special care. So always check the garment tag for any laundry instructions and follow them—even if they're not what you were hoping for. It says "dry clean only" and "hand wash only" for a reason.

04
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Don't Fear Hand-Washing

If luck would have it and your jeans have been struck with the dreaded "hand wash only" tag then listen up: Handwashing might sound like a drag, but the truth is, it can help to prolong your denim. While it's not as convenient as, say, just loading up the washing machine and walking away, it's also not as difficult as you might think.

First, fill a bathtub with about six inches of warm water and mix in a cap full of gentle laundry detergent (FYI: one designed for baby laundry will work great). Next, submerge your jeans in the tub, stretched out flat, and leave them to soak for 20 minutes. Rinse well with warm water, squeeze out as much excess water as you can, and then hang to dry. And don't forget to throw on some music in the background and zen out. It's called laundry meditation therapy, people.

05
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Sort Your Wash

Okay, if you've gotten a few good wears out of your jeans and are noticing that they're starting to look and smell a little funky, then consider them washing machine ready. But before you go tossing them in with the rest of your laundry, try following these guidelines first.

Pre-wash, sort your jeans into separate loads based on their color intensity (e.g. never wash pastel-colored jeans in the same laundry load with black jeans) to avoid fabric dye transfer. Also, keep your jeans load separate from the rest of your laundry to prevent unnecessary abrasion on the fabric, which—unless you're going for the destroyed denim look—is worth avoiding since it can lead to thinning and tears.

06
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Turn Jeans Inside-Out

Here's a handy trick that can make a real difference in the results you get from washing jeans over the long-term: Always turn jeans inside-out before loading them in the washing machine. This helps reduce fabric bleeding and cuts down on friction to the "face" (aka the outside) of denim.

07
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Machine Wash the Right Way

black femme doing laundry

CHELSEA VICTORIA / Stocksy

Lingerie and jeans might not sound like they have a lot in common, but both are "delicates" when it comes to washing. This setting helps protect fabric since it uses a lower speed of agitation and a shorter washing cycle. As a result, jeans are less likely to stretch or tear. Opting for cold water over hot will also help to prevent shrinking.

Oh, and resist the urge to overload the machine. Just because you can fit a month's worth of jeans into your wash doesn't mean that you should. While the recommended number of jeans in a load can vary depending on the size of your washing machine, four pairs is generally considered the max.

08
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Freeze Raw Denim

Freezing is, of course, not actually washing your jeans. But if you're a fan of raw denim then it might be the "cleaning" method for you. Since it's a good bet that raw denim will shrink in the wash, freezing jeans can be an alternative cleaning process. This will kill bacteria living on the fabric without compromising the customized—and sacred—form of your raw denim jeans.

To freeze your jeans, put them in a large ziplock bag and pop them into the icebox. Leave them overnight at a minimum. You'll need to let them warm up a bit before putting them on unless you live for the thrill of the chill, that is.

09
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Add Salt and Vinegar to Your Load

Simple household ingredients go a long way in solving everyday laundry woes. Take salt and vinegar, for instance, which help set a jean's dye. This provides protection against bleeding and keeping the fabric color for longer. Bleeding typically occurs most the first time you wash new jeans—especially if they're dark—so give this trick a try on their first trip through the washer, at least. And don't worry about smelling like salt and vinegar potato chips (even though we don't consider that a bad thing) since the scent will disappear when the fabric dries.

To machine wash, add one cup of white household vinegar and a quarter cup of salt to the cold washing water. Hand-washing will require simply adding salt and vinegar to your cold water bath.

10
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Air-Dry Away

A jean's worst enemy is no other than the rough-and-tumble clothes dryer. While efficient at drying clothes, it's also notorious for fading, shrinking, and distressing jeans. So why not hang jeans out to drip-dry instead? Not only is this easiest on the fabric, but it also reduces wrinkles and helps your jeans maintain their shape.

Here's how it's done: Drape damp jeans by the legs on a sturdy pants hanger and place them on a shower rod or rack to air dry. Hanging jeans by the belt loops on two separate hooks works too. And if the weather and space allow for it, using a clothing line and pegs to hang jeans by the legs is easy-breezy (literally).

11
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When (and How) to Use the Dryer

While we don't normally condone using the clothes dryer, there are a few cases where doing so wouldn't be so terrible. Say, if your jeans have a lot of stretch and you want to restore them to their original snug fit, then yes, clothes dry away. Also, let's be real: Nothing beats the convenience of a dryer, especially when we're in a time crunch. Just make it an exception and not a habit.

To get the best out of using a clothes dryer, set the machine on its lowest heat setting for half a cycle and be sure to keep jeans turned inside-out. When you remove them, they should still be a little damp so hang them out to dry the rest of the way.