Living Well: 7 Secrets To Caring For Unmentionables

February 27, 2013

Text and photos by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Lingerie. Bras and panties, slips, hosiery, camisoles, bustiers, nightgowns. Unmentionables. 

They are often silky, satiny, lacy, and ornate. They are feminine and beautiful. As a little girl I loved watching my mom gently wash and care for her undergarments and was always fascinated by the little bit of extra time and effort she put into it. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough for my first bra and I could trade in my Strawberry Shortcake underwear for pretty, grown-up panties. I took notes while I watched my mom and learned a few tips for taking proper care of my underthings. It not only keeps them looking beautiful, but they last longer too.




So lets talk about those silky, sexy unmentionables and the secrets to keeping them properly washed and looking lovely.  (And I’ll try not to blush!)

The first step is looking at the care label. This might seem like a given, but it’s easy to overlook something so obvious.  The labels are not there for looks and certainly not for comfort! Manufacturers know how to best care for the clothing items they make, so don’t ignore the care instructions. Sometimes the care instructions are clearly written out and sometimes you have to decode the symbols. Take notice of key information — particularly the type of materials or fabric used and then the temperature of water and drying instructions.

If you are like me and snip those little tags from your undergarments, you could make a note somewhere or keep the tags in a jar near the laundry room for quick reference. Secret #1: If the tags are long gone or too worn to read, play it safe and skip the washer. (More on this later.) If you are really a stickler for instructions, and know the name of the brand, often their website will offer care instructions.

Materials/Fabric

Lingerie and hosiery are made of delicate fabrics and materials that require a little more TLC than t-shirts and blue jeans. Polyester, nylon, silk, and cotton, or blends of these are the norm. For the most part, the care instructions will be fairly similar. Except for silk. Secret #2: Silk requires more attention and love — and usually dry cleaning.

Other materials — interfacing, elastic, wires — are used to provide structure. And then there are pretty buttons, ribbons and bows, beads and other details and decorative trim. Because many undergarments are made using several different materials and fabrics, it is all the more important to read the labels and follow them.

Hand-washing vs. Machine-washing 

Depending on what the care label says, it’s time to decide how to proceed. Will you hand-wash or machine-wash?

Even if the label says machine-washable, I sometimes hand-wash anyway. Hand-washing is much more gentle, so if you have items with more beading or special trim, choose that over machine-washing. In fact, if I have any questions on the care instructions at all, I err on the side of caution and hand-wash.

For hand washing, fill the bathroom sink, large bowl or washtub with warm or cool water. Swish the undergarment in the water, add detergent (not much — about 1 Tbsp) gently agitate or squeeze the suds through the garment.

If there are any spots that need extra attention, like perspiration stains, treat with a little of the detergent and allow the item to pre-soak for a bit. Gently rub the fabric against itself or use a soft cloth to scrub the stains away.

Finish by rinsing in cool water. Secret #3: When rinsing, you can add a little white vinegar to the rinse water to help remove any soap residue.

Be sure to remove rings from your fingers and be extra careful if you have long fingernails so you don’t snag the fabric. This is especially true when hand-washing hosiery.

That being said, machine-washing can be a great way to save time and is safe for most fabrics. (Remember- — not silk!)

To machine wash, start by purchasing an inexpensive, fine-mesh bag. There bags made for lingerie in general and there are special bags designed especially for bras. One trick with machine-washing is that some undergarments, bras especially, might become twisted, bunched, or lose their shape. This is especially true if your bra has any kind of padding.

Using a special mesh bra bag can help bras keep their shape and will also keep straps from getting caught on and tangled around washer parts. Secret #4: When you place your bras in the bag, fasten all hooks so they don’t catch on lace or straps.

I like to use larger, rectangular bags for my nylons and tights. If your washer comes with a small basket insert, this is the perfect time to use it and you may not need to bother with a mesh bag. (Though I still recommend using one.)

Again, if there are any spots that need extra attention, treat with a little of the detergent and allow the item to pre-soak for a bit. Gently rub the fabric against itself or use a soft cloth to scrub the stains away, then add to the mesh bag.

Utilize the gentle cycle on your washer. Generally, I allow the washer to fill with water, add the detergent, and then the items. Wash undergarments together in very small batches, with like colors, and not with other larger items like towels and clothes.

Detergents and Water Temperature

Be sure to use a liquid, mild detergent that is specifically made for delicates. The gentler formula of these special detergents isn’t quite as harsh and is made for delicate fabrics. In a pinch, I have also used a gentle baby shampoo.

Warm or cool water is gentler on clothes and will prevent shrinking. If you must use hot water, make sure the care label says it’s safe. Certain materials, such as interfacing, can shrink in hot water causing the item to pucker or become misshapen. Hot water is also damaging to elastic.

Secret #5: Never use bleach on delicate fabrics. It’s too harsh and damaging. Pre-soak instead.

Drying

Once your undies are washed and rinsed, it’s time to dry them. Resist the urge to twist them and wring out. Instead, pat dry or roll up in a towel to remove excess water before hanging up to finish drying. Use extra care for any items with wires to prevent bending or breaking. Always line dry unless otherwise specified on label.

I tend to hang my bras by one strap on a hanger and let them dry overnight. Another option is to reshape them (good for padding) and let them dry flat on top of a towel. Thinner fabrics will dry more quickly. Anything with padding will take longer, so place it somewhere it will be able to dry out — not in a steamy bathroom or damp basement, for example.

Secret #6: I never dry my bras in the dryer. Even if the label says it’s okay, I still line dry. As I mentioned above, elastic will deteriorate with heat, especially the strong heat that dryers produce. And then there’s shrinking. Interfacing often shrinks more than other fabrics, which causes garments to become misshapen or pucker. Not good.  Better safe than sorry! If you must dry your bra in the dryer, use the lowest heat setting you can.

How Often To Wash 

Now for the big question: How often should bras and other undergarments be washed?

Washing undergarments too often will wear them out more quickly, but you should wash them often enough that the fabrics don’t break down from natural body oils, deodorants, lotions and perfumes, etc. And as you can guess, letting soiled clothing sit for too long in the hamper isn’t a good idea.

A good rule of thumb is to wash a bra after you’ve worn it twice. If you have perspired a lot, then you might want to wash it after one wearing — this applies to sports bras particularly. If you have a drawer full of bras that you rotate wearing, then you might only be taking care of your delicate laundry every few weeks. If you only have a few bras, this might be every few days or once a week.

When it comes to other undergarments and hosiery, it’s personal preference and there’s some debate here. (I’m not talking about panties. Your mom was right: wear a clean pair every day!) I wash my nylons and tights about every third time I wear them, unless they are worn for an extended length of time. You’ll know when it’s time. : ) Slips and other items seem to last longer between washes, so they might only get a wash once a month, more if I am dressing up more often.

Secret #7: All of these secrets apply bathing suits and leotards too!

And now I’d love to know: Do you have your own favorite tips for taking care of delicates? How often do you wash your unmentionables? And the question I’m most curious about: Do you say panties, undies or underwear? (I have a friend who hates the word panties!)

P.S. — Love secrets? You can find all of the other Secrets to Living Well here.

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{ 3 trackbacks }

Living Well: 7 Secrets To Caring For Unmentionables
February 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm
Ethical Underthings | girldust
August 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm
Handwashing Delicates | Peppered Thought
March 31, 2014 at 11:14 am

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Annabel Vita February 27, 2013 at 10:21 am

Knickers or pants! (If you guessed I was British, you’re right!)

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2 Bryony February 27, 2013 at 3:00 pm

I’m not British, but I’ve lived here long enough that it’s definitely either knickers or pants. (And I preferred the former for years even before I moved here and married a Brit!)

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3 Kelley February 27, 2013 at 7:44 pm

I’m American and I prefer knickers and pants as well. Absolutely HATE panties, will sometimes call it underwear.

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4 Val February 27, 2013 at 10:44 am

lol! I currently use the word undies. Mostly because right now I have two little boys who are finally potty-trained and need to be reminded to change them every day! When my girls were little, it was definitely panties :)

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5 Lauren February 27, 2013 at 10:54 am

Haha… Underwear. Definitely, underwear.

I started hand washing all my bras about a year ago and it has made a huge difference! I also felt like I could splurge on some bras I really love, because I know they will last longer.
Great tips!

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6 Amber Marlow, theAmberShow February 27, 2013 at 10:58 am

Underpants. I *despise* the word “panties”.

I love handwashing lingerie!

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7 Rebecca Alexis February 27, 2013 at 11:24 am

you have convinced me…I need to start hand washing all the delicate to semi-sturdy things that go next to my skin. xxoo

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8 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity February 27, 2013 at 11:38 am

I call them underwear or undies. I always put them in a mesh bag in the washing machine. If you don’t happen to have a mesh bag handy you can use a pillow case and just tie the end in a knot – not quite as good as mesh, but does the trick. By the way, you can wash silk by hand as long as you don’t use hot water and you don’t wring it. I’ve washed silk blouses without any trouble that way.

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9 Sarah February 27, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Knickers! You can hand wash silk, gently and cold water of course, it is one of the strongest fibres going around

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10 Lee Plaza February 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I think every woman needs to read this article. Its a shame how many bras and panties go to waste due to the ignorance of not know how to wash these garments.
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11 Lisa Wallace February 27, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I too hate the word panties. Not really sure why. I am not as hard core as you – handwashing my unmentionables. But I do have some standards – I keep 2 mesh bags in my laundry basket. This means I can sort them by color (whites, darks, colors). By the time the first load is through the dryer, the first mesh bag is ready to accomodate the 3rd load.

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12 Anna February 27, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I was interested to hear the “how often”…I wash underwear after each wear, but I only wash my bras once a month–maybe once a week in the summertime. But I usually wear a thin undershirt under my bra (weird, I know), and I wash that after every wear, so I think my bras don’t absorb much body oil/sweat/slough. It feels like a mom or aunt conversation to talk about “delicates”.

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13 Janelle Chapman February 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Enjoying these practical comments :)
I remember my first bra and knickers (yes knickers) set. It was lemon in colour and so pretty.My mum took me to be fitted and it was our special shopping together. I have 3 sisters so felt very special.
I always washed them in the bath or shower so I could wear them every day!! I wash my delicates in a wash bag.though have been known to handwash.
I love buying bras and always have them fitted. A woman’s body changes with different stages of her life.
I did the same for my daughter as I remembered how special I felt.

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14 Angela February 27, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Hmmm….bras after every second wear? If you have cute little thin things that dry quickly, maybe. I’m interested to know what the larger-chested ladies think about this? I wash every few weeks, and I have a few bras. Good bras for bigger chests are PRICEY, so owning more than a few is expensive. And mine take a day or two to dry.

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15 Kay March 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Hi Angela! I’m a little late to this post, but hopefully you’ll still see this comment and find it useful. I’m a large-chested woman (currently wearing a properly sized 40HH) and I worked briefly as a professional bra-fitter (in an upscale bra boutique).

At work I was taught to ALWAYS recommend washing bras frequently (after 1 or 2 wears). It seems counter-intuitive, but if you’re washing properly (cold/cool water, by handle, gentle detergent, hang to dry) it will actually refresh the fabric by removing the natural body oils, sweat, and skin cells that make the bra “dirty.” This extends the life of your bra!

And of course, the dryer is an ABSOLUTE no-go for bra care!!

If you have a t-shirt (ie. molded) bra you have to be a bit more careful (no twisting, just cover your hand with a towel, put it inside the cup and gently press the cup onto your fist to remove the excess water), but for my everyday bras I do squeeze them pretty aggressively (but carefully) to remove the maximum amount of water possible. I find mine take 1-1 1/2 days to dry, but that’s if I wash about two bras and a few panties (a bit faster if only 1 bra, as the air where it’s hanging will have less moisture in it). I also leave them on a rack in the tub, so if I moved them to a less humid environment they’d probably dry more quickly.

Anyways, I hope this helps! :)

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16 Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes February 28, 2013 at 12:04 am

I always machine wash my underwear. The panties go with the regular laundry, but the bra’s get a special treatment : I wash them toghether with my wool/delicate items in a cold cycle.
The only item of underwear that gets hand washed is the bustier I wore at my wedding.

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17 AmyK February 28, 2013 at 6:17 am

I love the pearls in the pictures!!

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18 Grace February 28, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I call underwear skivvies! My dad’s stepdad was in the Navy and that’s what you call your undergarments as a sailor; I loved it as a kid because it seemed like such a seafaring word. I definitely don’t wash my bras on the 2nd wear. Probably once a month!

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19 Michaela February 28, 2013 at 10:03 pm

What a fun article and fun conversation. And pretty pictures of pretty under-things. I too love the pearls (my favorite jewelry). I wish we used the word knickers, but we call them unds or boxers (I have three boys).

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20 Margo, Thrift at Home March 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm

oh, I love details like this and of all my household chores, I like laundry best. I say undies or panties. I wash my things almost exactly like you do, as often as you do. I love the see the pretty things all dripping together on the drying rack in the shower afterwards :)

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21 Tracy March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Great article! Thank you, and I would be so interested in one on taking care of pearls. Do we wipe them with a special cloth after wearing on our body? Do we store them in a particular way (hang or lay flat)? Are there dos and don’ts for pearl-wearing?

I love to read the “secrets” and “how-to’s” here because they are beautifully written and definitely take some of the mundane out of necessary tasks! Thank you!

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22 Katie April 13, 2013 at 10:14 am

I usually leave my underwear to soak in about 30 – max 35 deg. Celsius water – the enzymes in the detergents are so good that they will dissolve most dirties in that time. I dry everything on a towel. I wash my expensive bras the same way, but the less expensive ones are washed in the washing machine and tumble dried – I just don’t have time to do everything by hand as I’m a busy student and have neither time nor space enough to have wet underwear lying around (that’s what I call it, yes ;) ). I have a lot of delicate wool and silk clothing. If I ha the money, I would definitely prefer dry cleaning them, but washing is cold water (30 deg Celsius max) and with a detergent without enzymes also works well. It is VERY important though that the detergent doesn’t have enzymes as they ruin such fabrics – the clothes will be stiff and the enzymes also eat away some of the fabric.
I wash my bras about once a week unless I have been sweating… enough. I don’t think I would ever wash my bras every 1-2 days. At max, every 3 – else I would have a daily chore: to check if the bra is dry.

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23 rachel April 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm

I was fitted for some bras the other day by a professional fitter and she said to never hang them by one strap! She said that will distort their shape as the water drips from the top down. The bottom will be heavier that way. If you hang it by the middle piece (as in, fold the bra in half and hang it with one side over the hanger and the other side over the hanger so it’s dangling evenly) then it won’t distort while drying!

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24 Anna April 16, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Good post about handwashing your underwear.
But the headline REALLY annoys me! -Unmentionables??
-Why are they Unmentionable? Despite the fact that it is a contradiction in itself since the whole post is about what you are supposed to not mention, I’m wondering about this word. Are they Unmentionable because women are not supposed to wear underwear? Are they unmentionable because it is a Secret that women wear underwear? Are they unmentionable because it is dirty to talk about women’s underwear? Why?
Women need to start feeling strong, enriched and empowered about their bodies, and the word Unmentionable is such a strong negativity towards women’s private clothes, that’s right, they’re Private but never unmentionable.

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25 James July 31, 2013 at 7:03 am

I completely agree. Even if it’s written to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, the idea of hiding/being ashamed of human bodies and human hygeine is terribly damaging… my grandmother’s and mother’s generations didn’t fight so hard for equality in order to have words like ‘unmentionables’ and ‘feminine product’ and ‘The Change Of Life’ batted around with eyes closed as if there is some facet of biology inherent in females that needs to be shamefully hidden behind closed doors and innuendo.

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26 Lauren April 18, 2013 at 5:51 am

Take your bras and knickers in the shower with you! Use a tiny bit of gentle shampoo and rinse them through. I work in as a bra fitter and this is how we recommend washing them. Is super easy and you’re going in the shower anyway (hopefully!) so is convenient for those who claim to be “too busy” to hand wash.

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27 Lala June 2, 2013 at 7:04 pm

this makes me smile with a sadness. My mom used to call them unmentionables in a silly way. Shes been sick recently and remembering the old her is good. :)

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28 susan July 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

Gabrielle, Anyway you can move the gray panties post down to the bottom (no pun intended) of your homepage? Every day when I check your site the first sight I see are the gray panties. Perhaps everyone knows how to take care of their undies and such by now:)

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29 Nicole M August 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I worked for MANY years at Victoria’s Secret. the one thing we learned to never wash your clothes in is Woolite. People think it’s for the unmentionable. But actually it’s a petroleum based product. You are better off using something like a lingerie wash from VS. I don’t know if they even sell that any longer. Or I use Tide free/dye free. Cold water always. Lay flat to dry. Never hang! Nothing goes thru the dryer. I end up throwing my unmentionables away not because they look old or haven’t held up, but because they make life so boring after ten years sometimes. I use to pride myself on the fact that I owned 45 sets of matching bras and panties. NOW I have kids. Need I tell you if this rings true now?

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30 Dorien Miller October 23, 2013 at 8:54 am

I have been using silk underwear (both longjohn and panties) for thirty years and have always washed them in the machine. I put them in a net bag, and hang to air dry. They have always lasted well! I only wash all my clothes on the cold setting…clothes get just as clean, and you save on heating bills! I also have to agree with the previous comments regarding why are they called “unmentionables”. Certainly that archaic language should go the way of the dinosaur !

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31 Clare November 1, 2013 at 8:03 pm

What brand are the unmentionables in the pictures? I’m in the market for new knickers and love the look of the gray ones! Thanks!

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32 Breanna June 14, 2014 at 3:43 pm

I have always machine washed my underoos (my word for anything that goes under clothes to include bras, underwer, slips and nylons) but was introduced by a sorority sister to hand washing. As a poor college student, throwing away those expensive ruined bras was torture! My mother never ever hand washed anything (poor thing had 5 kids and 2 jobs) but I do all my hoisery and underoos by hand and everything lasts so much longer!

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