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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!
How can I keep my underwear from ripping to shreds in the laundromat, which I am forced to use as someone who doesn't have a washer-dryer unit in their apartment or the patience to hand-wash?
I used to wear Cosabella underwear — the stretchy, lacy kind — but right now all my thongs look like colanders. Help! — Tiffany Yannetta
Tiffany, my friend, I feel you. I am also dependent on a laundromat for my wash day needs and have suffered from all manner of indignities delivered unto my clothes by brutish machines. The silver lining in all of that is that I've personally spent a lot of time considering ways to mitigate the damage that industrial washers and dryers can cause and I can now pass some of that wisdom onto you.
There are three factors that contribute to the shredding of your unders. Blessedly, there are also easy ways to address each one without having to resort to hand-washing. We'll take them from most crucial to least.
Bag Them Up
The primary culprit behind the cruel and senseless shredding of your thongs is the rest of your clothes. Basically, your jeans are ganging up on those poor, defenseless underpants.
The very simple solution to this problem is to put your delicates into a washable protective mesh bag. Because the bags are made of mesh, water and detergent can reach whatever is in the bag, cleaning them just as well as if they were roaming free in the drum. Keeping small and delicate items contained will prevent them from becoming entwined with heavier clothes like sweatshirts, or wrapped around a pair of leggings, or caught on the zipper of your favorite jeans, which is what causes delicates to become stretched or ripped.
If you choose to use mesh bags — and I really hope you will! — it's important not to overstuff them. You want to leave about a third to a half of the bag empty, so that the items within have room to move around. If you stuff the bag too full, your underwear may not come out as clean as they should be, which obviously no one wants. Buy a set of bags so you have more than one in which to place your fancy thongs, which will also allow you to bag them up sorted by color.
Change Your Sorting Style
Speaking of sorting! Most of us sort our laundry by color — one load for whites/lights, another for darks/colors. But there's another way to think about sorting clothes that's especially relevant to the safe care and keeping of your unmentionables: by fabric type.
The idea here is to eliminate the jeans-ganging-up-on-your-panties factor by sorting the wash in such a way that heavy, bulky items like pants, sweatshirts, towels, etc. are washed together and smaller, more delicate garments like fine cotton shirts, lightweight pajamas and delicates like tights and underwear are washed separately of clothes that are likely to overwhelm them and cause damage.
Separating by fabric type also allows you to use the gentle cycle, provided that the machines at your laundromat offer that option (mine do!).
Consider Skipping the Dryer
My laundromat buddies and I discovered something recently: There is a screwhead in the back panel of the dryers that pokes out, which means that clothes can snag and tear on it. Check the machines you're using and if you notice a similar design flaw, consider letting your finer items air dry, rather than running the risk of the machine turning your drawers into swiss cheese.
If you've made the very wise choice to place delicates into a mesh bag, you will also quickly discover another thing that makes them so great: It's so easy to pluck that mesh bag out of a heap of wet clothes and set it aside as you load everything else into the dryer! That way, you won't be sorting through every piece of laundry to extract the delicates you don't want to machine dry.
I'm Not Gonna Make You Hand-Wash, But…
Allow me to level with you: I personally do not hand-wash my underpants. And because Tiffany was very clear that hand-washing her unmentionables is a bridge too far, I'm not going to violate her boundaries by insisting that she do so. Plus, the use of those protective mesh bags combined with a little change in the way she sorts her clothes on wash day will almost assuredly solve her colander-thong problem.
But, since we're here and since I'm bound by the sacred oath of The Society of Cleaning Enthusiasts, I think it's worth touching on the subject of hand-washing as an option for gently laundering delicate items. We've covered hand-washing instructions before, as well as a whole host of specialty detergent options, so in the event you want to take a crack at it in pursuit of protecting your panties, go for it! My friends over at The Sweethome tested delicates detergents and recommend Soak, which is a no-rinse formula. I've personally used Soak; I think it's great and it is definitely a huge plus that rinsing is not required — hand-washing is actually a surprisingly fast and simple operation, but removing a step is still a welcome time-saver.
The discussion of rinsing brings me to one quick, but crucial, thing to mention that is very specific to women's underpants: If you're hand-washing with a detergent that isn't a no-rinse formula, it's incredibly important that you rinse them very well, post-washing. Lingering residue from soap can lead to vaginal itchiness and even yeast infections, and literally no one wants that.