How Often Do You Need to Wash Kids’ Clothes? The Great Debate

A lot of new parents are surprised by how much and how fast laundry accumulates once they start having kids. That’s because children generally dirty their clothes way more often than adults do — what with all the falling, spitting up, and crawling around they do. But does that necessarily mean you have to wash your children’s clothes every time they wear them?

Not many people like doing laundry, period, whether it’s kids’ clothes or their own. A survey conducted on behalf of the American Cleaning Institute found that 29 percent of Americans are doing laundry less frequently than they used to. Whether that’s to keep their water bills low or because they don’t believe that clothes need daily washing, the trend doesn’t seem to hold true for parents. Forty-six percent of parents who responded to a BabyCenter poll said they do laundry several times per week, and 23 percent revealed they do it every single day. If they had a choice, most parents would probably say they want their child to wear clean clothes, but does that mean clothes only get one use before they’re declared dirty? Should we toss everything in the wash every time our kids wear it — even once?

PJs and jeans should be washed every three to four wears, but socks and underwear should be washed after each, according to the American Cleaning Institute. The same goes for T-shirts, tank tops, and anything that clings fairly close to the body. “Close-fitting and oil-absorbing, these basic pieces add life to your pricier blouses, sweaters, and jackets,” Corinne Phipps, founder of Urban Darling, a wardrobe-consulting firm in San Francisco, told Real Simple. Anything white also needs to be washed right away to avoid discoloration. If clothes are visibly stained or smelly from drooling, puking, or running through puddles, experts suggest washing, spot cleaning, or dry-cleaning them as soon as possible to extend the life of the garment. In general, anything dark in color and made of cotton can be worn a couple of times unless you notice stains.

As for what type of detergent to use, new parents shouldn’t assume they need specially formulated baby detergent to clean their newborn’s clothes and bedding. In most cases, that’s just not true. “Unless your baby has allergies, eczema/topic dermatitis, or another condition causing sensitive skin, washing your little one’s clothes with the rest of the family’s clothes isn’t likely to irritate your baby’s skin,” say the experts at Nemours. Test one article of clothing first if you have a newborn. Even if there’s no reaction, Nemours’s Larissa Hirsch, MD, recommends opting for detergents free of colors or fragrances and, as a precaution, avoiding antistatic products or fabric softeners, which often have chemicals that can irritate skin. 

“We have 14 kids, 11 of whom are living at home at the moment, so we have a ton of laundry to do, but we do not abide by the ‘wear it once and it goes in the wash’ policy. In fact, there are times when my wife or I might tell a child that after three days in the same shirt or sweatshirt, it’s time for it to go in the laundry. The food stains are typically a dead giveaway. Jeans get two or three days’ worth of wear, depending on the activities. Underwear has a ‘one and done’ policy in our house, obviously. Shirts can go more than one wear. It really comes down to level of activity in the clothes, whether more food made it into the mouth than on the piece of clothing and even our level of ‘laundry fatigue.’” — Matt Sabo, Gloucester, Va.

“I think it’s disgusting to hear that parents and adults wear their garments more than once. We do not use any item more then once. Glass, towels, or anything. Ick.” — Francene Dudziec, Scranton, Pa.

“I wash my kids’ clothes every single time they wear them. Kids are always playing on the floor or outdoors and wiping their noses on their sleeves. My children wear fresh clothes every single time they change, and they change underwear every time too. I am also a big believer in using natural, nontoxic cleaning products and no dryer sheets.” — Shivani Gupta, Deerfield Beach, Fla.

“As a mother of four, I hate doing laundry! Every week I attempt to cut down on the massive loads. Socks and underwear are washed after every wear. PJs get multiple wears. Shirts and pants — it depends on if there’s visible dirt and smell. Sometimes the kids want to sleep in their clothes. On an exhausted night, I’m all for it! — Kelley Kitley, Chicago.

Washing kids’ clothes doesn’t need to be a massive chore. Unless children have sensitive skin, most experts agree you can wash their clothes along with yours anytime you see stains or they start to smell. The problem is that kids tend to get dirty more often than adults do, so those stains and smells pop up more frequently. One general rule is that the lighter and softer the fabric, and the closer it hugs the body, the more often you need to wash it. But as long as you don’t notice dirty patches, kids can wear clothes multiple times before they’re ready for the laundry pile.

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