Our editors carefully select every product we recommend. We may earn a commission from these links. Learn more

The Complete Guide To Denim Care

Apparel comes in all manner of materials nowadays, from the hyper technical to the incredibly basic can-we-even-call-this-fabric varieties. And there are a few out there that are everlasting classics we can’t imagine our lives without. This category includes one of our all time favorites: denim.

But while many classic fabrics are super easy to care for, like standard cotton (which requires little more than a basic knowledge of washing machine tech, some detergent, and a grasp of what ‘like colors’ are), denim is a little bit different. This iconic material requires some special attention in order to keep it looking and performing its best. And while we would’t call it complicated, your life could be made a lot easier by learning exactly how to care for your denim. Which is what we’ve sought to teach you in the following complete guide to denim care.

What's The Deal With Denim?

A Brief Primer

Perhaps you already know that denim is actually traditionally made from cotton (though the original was said to be a weave of silk and wool) – or maybe you just now found out. What you might not know, however, is that denim differs from standard cotton in a very specific way. You see, denim – as defined by the Levi’s brand – is “a durable cotton twill textile, typically used to make jeans, overalls and other clothing.” And what differentiates it from regular cotton is how it is woven.

A material weave of any kind consists of a series of horizontal (weft) and vertical (warp) threads. In denim, the cotton threads are woven with single weft threads passing under dual warp threads over and over again throughout the material. This process causes the fabric to have a distinct diagonal ribbing effect that distinguishes it from other twill fabrics. And that’s all there is to denim. Yes, that means there are no color requirements for denim – they can be black, white, or technicolor (if the fabric manufacturer is talented enough).

Traditionally used as work pants, cotton denim is renowned for its durability, unique appearance, and overall connection to all things Americana – from its association with the working class, to its connection to anti-establishment mentalities, to its status as an iconic U.S. style staple. And we feel safe in saying that just about every westerner has (or should have) at least one pair of jeans in their wardrobe. And its reach as a material is much wider than that. Truly, denim is one of the greatest fabrics known to man.

Daily Detailing

Regular Spot Cleaning

As great as denim is, it isn’t invulnerable to dirt, grime, and general filth. That being said, we encourage everyone to wash their denim as little as possible. No, we don’t mean never wash it – that can be disgusting and has the probability to spread germs to you, your work and living spaces, and to other people. But, if you can get away with it, avoiding washing as much as possible is preferable. This will extend the life of the fabric, as well as preserve its appearance – as washing will cause your denim (whatever color it may be) to fade.

One way to manage hygienic practices while preserving your denim is by spot washing. Like you might when cleaning leather, isolating dirty spots (non-stains) and cleaning them on an as-needed basis is an excellent option. And it’s very simple. All you need is cold water, a mild soap (scent-free and non-abrasive), and a toothbrush or old cloth. Simply dampen the area you are intending to clean, apply a small amount of soap, gently scrub/pat the dirt out, and rinse the soap from the now-clean spot. This technique isn’t going to work for every spot, but it’s a good starting point that will keep you from having to do a comprehensive wash.

Be Wary Of The Wash

Several Careful Steps

Here’s a cold hard fact about denim: if you wear it, eventually you’re going to have to wash it – unless you’re a complete slob. The fact of the matter is, no matter how careful you are, the simple act of wearing a piece of clothing makes it dirty over time. As such, you’re going to want to wash your denim from time to time. Unfortunately, washing can make short work of the fabric if you aren’t careful. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to give you and your denim a competitive edge, which are as follows:

Use Cold Water

Rule number one: always clean your denim with cold water. Nothing will demolish your denim faster than hot H20. Not only will the warm liquid strip the color from the fabric, it will also cause it to shrink and – if you’ve already got the perfect fit – can make your favorite blue jeans completely unwearable. While it might sound contrary to suggest cold water can effectively clean, it’s true in this case – at least when paired with a cold-water detergent designed for darker colors.

Use A Specialized Detergent

Especially with darker colored denim (and double especially for raw, unwashed denim), washing can strip the dye from the fabric. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for this not to happen, even in perfect conditions. But you can combat it by using a specialty detergent. There are a lot of detergents out there designed just for washing dark colored fabrics. And, if you take an extra couple minutes in the laundry aisle at your local store, you can find one that’s gentle and color-saving.

The Laundress Denim Wash

While you could settle for a dark color-friendly laundry detergent, we’d take it a step further and say you should opt for this specially designed Denim Wash from The Laundress. Not only will it keep the colors vibrant, but it will also ensure that the fabric doesn’t warp, shrink, tear, or whatever else. ($18)

Delicate Wash

We understand that not everyone has the time or the wherewithal to wash their clothes manually. But, if you’re going to put your denim in a machine, there are a few things you should always to in order to keep the ill effects of machine washing at bay. For starters, turn your jeans inside-out before you put them in the machine. This will help preserve the color as they’re swishing about. Second, always wash your jeans on delicate. Denim is a tough fabric, but it isn’t invulnerable to harshness. A delicate wash might not seem as thorough, but trust us – it’s plenty thorough enough to clean a pair of blue jeans or your favorite denim jacket. As a side note, you should always remember to empty out your pockets and (if possible) wash all your similarly colored denim in the same load or even wash your denim one at a time.

Wash By Hand

In an ideal world, you’d wash your denim by hand. While time-consuming and a lot more involved, this is absolutely the best way to clean your denim from a fabric-maintenance standpoint. It’s far more gentle than machine washing, more thorough when it comes to spot cleaning, and will ensure that you don’t accidentally mix up your laundry and dye all your light colored gear with darker bleeding inks. The steps you’d follow are basically the same as the spot cleaning, except on a larger scale. Wash your denim in a bathtub, sink, or other large vessel for the best result, and – as always – hang dry it.

Hang Dry

As mentioned earlier, hot water is the bane of denim. A big part of that is because of the heat. So, since you aren’t washing your denim in hot water, you shouldn’t dry it with direct heat, either. That means don’t tumble dry your jeans. Once they’re washed, hang them and let them air dry. Yes, it is going to take a good deal longer, but it will also mean your jeans will fit better and last for much longer. It’s also a good idea to put the jeans on before they are completely dry. This will allow you to stretch them out for the perfect fit without harming the fabric. No, you don’t have to wear wet jeans all day. Just try them on, stretch them out a bit, and take them off again to finish drying.

What About Dry Cleaning?

Not Worth Your Wage

There are those who might suggest dry-cleaning your jeans to keep them their bluest blue (or blackest black, or whatever), but we completely disagree with this school of thought. For starters, dry cleaning is unnecessarily expensive, especially for a type of fabric associated with hard work and an adventuresome spirit. It’s not delicate like suit fabric and shouldn’t be treated as such, especially since most of us wear a pair of jeans more often than a single suit. Secondly, dry cleaning requires chemicals and, as a general statement, we are pretty unilaterally against putting harmful chemicals on our bodies as much as possible. As folks who live in blue jeans, you can understand how this might be a problem. Still, if you so desire, dry cleaning your jeans is an option that will not harm the fabric overall.

Other Options

Fact Or Fiction

In our travels, we’ve come across a few other suggestions as to how to maintain denim that we’d like to address. Some of them have legs, others are a little too bizarre and/or dangerous for our tastes. But, since they’re out there, we consider it our responsibility to at least discuss them here.

Never Wash Your Denim: We’ve heard this one a lot more than we ought to have. Everything you wear needs to be washed at some point. The risk of disease and/or contamination is simply not worth keeping your denim vibrant and unsullied by cleaning products. It’s clothing, not a holy shroud. Jeans and denim jackets are not meant to be unsullied, but they also aren’t so valuable that you’d not want to take soap and water to them. Wash your denim, don’t be a slob.

Freeze Your Denim: The idea behind this suggestion is that the sub-zero temperatures will kill off bacteria living in your jeans and, thus, clean them – albeit in a makeshift way. Honestly, it’s not the worst idea we’ve ever heard. While some strains of bacteria could theoretically survive being frozen, most will actually die. That being said, this does not actually result in the reduction of dirt and grime buildup on your denim. It also takes up a bunch of space in your freezer and, if you’re not extra careful with thawing your jeans, could result in shortening the life of the fabric – as cold fabric is stiff fabric and, especially if moisture enters the equation, could end up actually physically breaking your denim.

Put Your Jeans In The Oven: Similar to the freezing tactic, this is intended to kill germs by creating an unlivable environment. Again, not the worst logic – so long as all you care about is killing germs. Problem is, this is a very dangerous thing to do, especially if you have even the smallest amount of flammable material (like motor oil, you motorcycle-riders) on your denim. Do not try this method. A new pair of jeans or a denim jacket is significantly less expensive than, say, a new home. Don’t commit arson, wash your jeans with soap and water.