Primal Numbers – Jeans and Germs

We live, arguably, in one of the cleanest times in history. From high-efficiency washers to hand sanitizers, there are machines and detergents to purify everything in sight. But in the midst of all this spotlessness comes a seemingly contrary piece of advice: you shouldn’t be washing your jeans. Is it a germy, unhealthy idea?or some welcome common sense in this era of super sanitation?

The no-wash advice comes from Chip Bergh. He’s the CEO of Levi Strauss and Co., and someone who knows a little something about denim. As this CBC blog reports, Bergh was one of the speakers at the Brainstorm Green sustainability conference this May, where he “beckoned attendees to forgo the washing machine in favour of ’spot cleaning’ their jeans with a ’sponge or toothbrush.’” Other high-profile names in fashion, including Tommy Hilfiger, have offered the same advice.

On the surface, the idea makes sense. Keeping your jeans out of all those rough-and-tumble cycles in the washer and dryer will take a lot of strain off the fabric and make it last longer. And not washing over the life cycle of just a single pair of jeans will save plenty of water and electricity.

There’s even a simple way to keep your jeans germ free and smelling fresh: put them in the freezer. The method has the earmarks of an urban legend, but some people swear by it. The logic is that the cold kills any germs that might accumulate on your trusty denim, while at the same time it gets rid of any unpleasant odours.

All in all, it sounds like a brilliant solution that’s good for the environment and your wallet, too. Until, that is, you look a little closer.

For starters, you might want to think twice about putting unwashed jeans next to the food in your freezer. That’s because, contrary to popular myth, cold temperatures won’t kill the bacteria on them. As the Smithsonian Magazine notes, many types of bacteria can happily hibernate in spite of your attempts to freeze them. Even if you do manage to kill a few thousand, “it takes only one survivor to repopulate your jeans when they warm up.”

So not only will your jeans still be harbouring their original bacteria, but the only thing you’ll accomplish is to spread those bacteria to the place you store your groceries, where they could happily multiply on your food containers and be transferred from, say, ice-cream lids to spoons or bowls.

The other thing to consider in the no-wash debate is the source of the dirt you’ll accumulate. For instance, many of the bacteria on jeans live on the dead skin cells that you shed onto your clothes. Go months, or a year, without giving your jeans a proper wash and it adds up to a lot of dead skin cells.

Then there are all the assorted goodies you pick up when your jeans come in contact with chairs in restaurants or theatres, and surfaces in other public places. Perhaps a trace of dog feces on your hem from that shortcut across the grass. Or the accumulated film of formula, runny noses, and countless spills that are part of life with babies and toddlers. And plenty of people wear their jeans to do hard physical work?everything from welding in factories to mucking out stalls on a farm. The kind of work that means real, honest to goodness sweat.

Once all that accumulated grime (and accompanying odours) gets ground in deep to fibres, it’s next to impossible to get it out. Even in a yearly spin cycle.

So as much as the idea of pampering your jeans has an air of romanticism about it?the notion of a trusted friend carrying a lifetime of memories?I think I’ll stick to throwing mine in the weekly wash. Because the only thing I want living in my Levis is me.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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