Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.
Hi! Why do my jeans smell like milk?
Let me start with an admission that I am not a Clean Person. I'm an every-other-day shower-er, but I'm also wasting away the sunset days of my youth in an office chair, so I hardly ever break a sweat. The other dirty thing about me is that only have twogood pairs of jeans, and now [deep breath] I'm going to unburden myself of the secret that I don't wash them much. I make a once-or-twice-monthly sherpa-led trek to the laundromat (I live in San Francisco; hills) with all of my earthly possessions on my back, and that's all the washing my jeans get.
Even so, I feel like dirty jeans could smell like a lot of things: sweat, cigarettes, beeror liquor, spilled food...but milk? Why? Let me also clarify that the milk smell is not emanating from the crotch of the jeans. In fact, the crotches of both pairs of jeans don't really have any smell. So what is up!? Maybe I should be Asking a Doctor Person, but when I smell my own bare legs they don't smell like milk, so I don't think the issue is dermatological. Help?
You know? I don't know precisely why your jeans smell like milk. I have an idea why they may smell, and what you can do about it that doesn't involve more trips to the laundromat, but I can't pinpoint the reason that they smell of milk, specifically. What I suspect is that they're taking on an odor and that odor is reading to you as milk, though it may smell differently to someone else. Now, you needn't go forcing a friend or loved one to sniff your dungarees, but if you were so inclined I bet they'd be like, "Mercy, Hank, those jeans smell like herring!" or something equally as odd. That is to say, don't worry too much about why the jeans smell like milk, in particular, because I truly don't think you're excreting dairy products from your knees.
What I do think is happening is that you're making a few minor laundry mistakes that are easy to fix, and these mistakes give me the perfect excuse to talk generally about denim care. By now, you've probably heard so many conflicting things about how to care for your jeans—don't you dare wash them! Eww you're so gross, wash your jeans! No no, just freeze them! Forget freezing them, just light them on fire and be done with it!—that today I'll try to break things down in a way that demystifies all of those different directives.
The first thing to take into consideration is what type of jeans are in need of cleaning; there's a difference in how you'd wash those old 501s you've had since college that you wear to weed the garden and the Rag & Bone jeans you just dropped $250 on. For today's purposes, we're going to leave raw denim aside because raw denim is a totally different animal and also raw denim aficionados can get kind of crazy about their pants-based hobby (for more on the subject check out our Guide to Raw Denim).
When and Why to Wash Your Jeans
Let's start with that "never wash your jeans" thing. Look, if you don't want to wash your jeans, that's up to you to decide. They're your jeans! But if that advice sounds a little off to you, well, that's because it is. Here's the thing: The never-wash people claim that laundering will break down the denim and cause the dye to fade, but what they leave out is that the buildup of dirt, skin, your natural body oils, and environmental grime will also cause the material to break down. Wear will also cause the dye to fade. So! If you prefer wearing clean pants, go ahead and wash your jeans secure in the knowledge that you're not doing major damage to them. In fact, in many ways you'll ensure they last longer.
In terms of when to wash them, it really depends on how much you've worn them and what you've been doing in them. If they smell, are visibly dirty, or have gotten stretched out or are sagging at the knees, they're probably due for a spin in the washing machine. Even if they don't, remember that most laundry soil is invisible (so: that skin, body oil, sweat, etc. is there even if you don't see it) and aim to wash your jeans maybe every 5-10 wearings.
The Best Way to Wash Jeans
Despite the fact that washing isn't actually the enemy of your jeans, there are a few best practices to know about. Turn your jeans inside out before chucking them in the washing machine—that will help to preserve the color, as well as allow the dirtiest part of the jeans, the inside, to get more exposure to water and detergent. For darker jeans, the use of a detergent designed for dark clothing will also help to preserve the color and prevent fading.
Jeans can also be hand washed, which will help to cut back on wear and tear because it's a much gentler experience for the fibers. Because jeans are bulky, the bathtub or a utility sink is probably the best place for this operation, which otherwise just involves the use of cold water and a small amount of detergent. Submerge the jeans fully, allow them to soak for 15-30 minutes,and then rinse well. I find doing a triple rinse by draining the wash water, refilling and draining the tub twice with clean water, and ending with one last rinse under the tap works best. (It sounds more time consuming than it actually is, I promise.) Once the jeans are rinsed, roll them up and press firmly on them to release water but don't wring them, which will twist and break down the fibers. Then lay them flat or hang them to air dry.
In terms of the persistent smell our Letter Writer is experiencing, I suspect it's happening due to the overuse of laundry detergent or liquid fabric softener or both. It's incredibly tempting to think that more detergent = more clean, or that more fabric softener = softer jeans. But in reality, the overuse of laundry products will just make those jeans more dirty, because it will lead to product buildup. And when that product buildup joins forces with that skin, and body oil, and sweat that I keep talking about, it leads to smells. Possibly even milk-like smells.
If you suspect that you've been overusing detergent and/or fabric softener, there's a very simple solution; run the jeans (or whatever) through the wash with a half cup of white vinegar and no detergent. The vinegar will serve to eliminate lingering odors and acts as a natural fabric softener, and the wash cycle sans detergent will remove any sudsy buildup. Going forward, pay close attention to your dosing and do your best to curb the instinct to overuse detergent and fabric softener.
Electric Dryers: The Real Enemy
While you should definitely wash your jeans, when it comes to throwing them in the dryer, you may want to think twice. In the case of your bang-around jeans, go ahead and dry them. But pricier pairs, especially very dark jeans, are not going to love a high heat-drying experience.
Go ahead and use the medium heat setting for regular old jeans, or for jeans that you want to shrink up a bit to counteract the stretching that happens during regular wear. If you want to avoid shrinkage, or prevent fading, use a low heat setting or air dry by hanging or laying flat.
Because air drying isn't an ideal option for everyone (especially those, like our Letter Writer, who wash at a laundromat) many people opt to dry clean their more expensive jeans to help preserve the color.
A Note on Freezing Jeans
Look, if you really enjoy slipping into a pair of chilled jeans, by all means throw them in the freezer. But if you're freezing your jeans because you think it will get them clean, don't waste the precious freezer space: The efficacy of freezing jeans to eliminate bacteria is a myth. Sure, the jeans will emerge from the deep freeze odorless, but as soon as you put them on and your body heat makes contact with the material, all the bacteria and whatnot that was lurking therein will be reactivated.
Freshening Jeans Between Wearings
Before we wrap this thing up because, dear God, so many words about jeans, let's get back to our Letter Writer's predicament with the sour-smelling jeans. Hopefully, performing a triage wash without detergent and adopting better laundering practices in the future will solve this milky mystery. Either way, there are plenty of reasons one might need to refresh a pair of jeans in between washings and so here are a few tips on that front.
You can, of course, buy a commercial fabric refresher. Or you can make a DIY version by diluting 1 tablespoon of baking soda in 2 cups of water and adding 5-10 drops of essential oil (choose your favorite scent!). You can also decant white vinegar or vodka into a spray bottle and use that as a deodorizer; just give whatever's taken on a slight funk a light misting.
It's also not a bad idea to hang previously worn jeans that you intend to wear again on a sturdy pants hanger in a place with good circulation—near a window or fan would be great—to help them air out between wearings.