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.
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.
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.
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.