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You Don’t Need a Special Detergent to Care for Your Bra

But it can be nice to have one!

Photo: The Coveteur/Trunk Archive

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, 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!

While shopping at Rigby & Peller, arguably the nicest bra store I've ever stepped into, I came across this special bra detergent [Intimacy Delicate Fabric Wash] that I obviously had to get. What I want to know is whether this is actually necessary? My bras seem to be just fine when I wash them with the rest of my clothing (and regular detergent) and just hang them out to dry, but this bottle insists bras need to be hand-washed, with special soap, and separately. Is this the secret to making fancy bras last longer? Or am I becoming my mother faster than I realized? — Chavie Lieber

It's been a minute since we've talked about bra care in this here space, and I love the way that Chavie's question is framed, because I have a Definite POV on the subject of fancy detergents and the salespeople who try to push them on you.

Before I get into it, though, let's back this train up so I can fill in a few details about this question. Rigby & Peller is a lingerie boutique that differentiates itself from other intimates retailers like Victoria's Secret by operating on an appointment-only basis and custom-fitting each customer during styling sessions, which is how they refer to fittings. In the fall of 2015, Rigby & Peller took over the US intimate apparel chain Intimacy, which offered the same services but with a less posh-sounding brand.

The bottle of bra wash that Chavie picked up after her fitting is a holdover from Intimacy, and it’s actually just a custom branded version of Forever New, a delicates detergent that's been around for more than 40 years.

I promise I'm going somewhere with this history lesson.

When you shop at high-end lingerie boutiques, it's pretty much a given that the associate tending to the needs of your bosoms will try to sell you on a delicates detergent. When that happens, my advice to you is to smile and say "Oh, I already have a bottle at home, so I'm all set!" Now, that may be a bald-faced lie, but it'll be our little secret. As to why I'm telling you to lie right to the nice lady who just fondled your melons, well, this is why: Stores like Rigby & Peller will almost always tack a mark-up onto that bottle of detergent, and they also engage in what comes, in my opinion, too close to fearmongering and shaming vis-à-vis the manner in which you're caring for your bra. And that annoys me. So! Lie like a rug, baby.

With that said, however, it's perfectly fine to invest in a special detergent for use on your bras and other delicates that you choose to hand-wash! Which brings me, finally, to the answer to the first of Chavie's questions: What I want to know is whether this is actually necessary?

No, the use of a specialty detergent is not necessary to the care of your bras.

If that seems too simple, don't worry, the fun really starts with her second question: Is this the secret to making fancy bras last longer?

The secret to long-lasting bras is actually much more the hand-washing rather than the specific detergent. Of course, someone who's in the business of selling you a specialty detergent isn't going to tell you that! But that's why you have me, so: You absolutely do not need a standalone detergent to care for your bras, and you may absolutely use your regular detergent. You can also keep machine washing and air drying those boulder holders (literally even the Rigby & Peller website says so), but machine washing will very likely shorten the lifespan of the bras.

Ready for another story? Here goes: In 2015, I went for a fitting at Intimacy. I brought with me all the bras I'd purchased during my first fitting in 2011, so I could speak with my fitter about the features I liked and didn't like to better inform my purchases. (I'm a planner, what can I say?) Because I'm me and know far more about bra care than any human ever should, I started to fall all over myself apologizing for what were, at the time, four-year-old bras, because the lifespan of a bra taps out at around the three-year mark as the elastic, which is crucial to the proper functioning of a brassiere, begins to give out. You can imagine my surprise, then, when my fitter announced that I had nothing to apologize for and that, in her opinion, I could easily get another year out of those bras.

Reader, I nearly keeled over from the shock of it all.

I tell you that story to tell you this: While it's not a requirement of successful womanhood to hand-wash your bras, it truly is the secret to maintaining delicate garments well past the point where you would expect to have to retire them. In the case of bras that are purchased at, say, Target, that probably doesn't matter much, but when you're spending upwards of a hundred dollars on a foundational garment, then, yeah, you want it to last for a goodly long time.

So no, you don't need a specialty detergent for your bras, and hand-washing isn't required, but I would very strongly recommend it. Of course, if you're going to go to all the trouble of hand-washing, you might as well have a fancy detergent for the job. Fancy detergents are fun! I have at least five bottles of specialty detergent in my home, which is certainly excessive. I make no apologies.

Before I round this out and answer Chavie's final question, let me leave you with some supplemental information from the archives about bra care. Here are instructions on how to wash a bra, either by hand or machine. Are you compelled by the notion of fancy detergents? Here's a round-up of all manner of specialty detergents for everything from denim to whites to, yes, bras. Got a problem with a smelly bra? You are not alone in this world.

As for the question of whether you're becoming your mother at an accelerated rate, the answer is a big ol’ yup. I say embrace it! It's inevitable. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I am my mother after all.