The Great Bra Washing Extravaganza

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I can see the sidelong looks, hear the nervous tittering — it never fails when the subject of bra washing rolls around. And I know, just by looking at those of you shifting about in your seats, which of you can't remember the last time you laundered the bra you're wearing right now.

It's okay though, I understand. Our relationship to our bras is often … complicated. Including the whole, "Do I have to wash it?" part of things. (Yes, you do.)(I know! Sorry.) So today we'll try to uncomplicate things a little bit.

Before we get into the mechanics of bra washing, though, I do want to detour to echo some of the things that Laura Beck wrote the other week, in a fantastic post about her experience getting fitted for a bra — this is one of those pet topics that I feel super passionate about. Every woman should have bras that fit properly, and not just for vanity's sake. Though vanity's sake, especially when it comes to feeling good about your breasts, is a perfectly acceptable reason to get fitted. There, I said that. Flog me if you must.

The health benefits of wearing a properly sized bra, however, are for real. Because not wearing a bra that fits right can compromise your breast tissue, cause tension in your shoulders and neck, lead to headaches, and most frighteningly can result in cervical spine issues as well as spinal pain. YIKES. Let's not have any of that.

This leads me into another subject that is extraordinarily important for us, as gals who hang out on a widely read and influential women's interest site, to holler about loudly: cup-size subjugation. It's no joke that far (far, far, far) too many women cannot easily find bras in their size, and it's even less of a joke how much money they're expected to pay for those bras when they do find them. That blows.

And while it is absolutely understandable that the response to this situation is to buy ill-fitting bras, too few bras, bra brand extenders, etc. the result of doing is that we're allowing the status quo to remain unchallenged. If you do have a hard-to-find size, the best thing you can do for yourself and your hard-to-fit sistren is to buy all the properly fitting bras. ALL OF THEM. The more demand there is for less-than-standard sizes, the more manufacturers will take notice, especially given that breast health is such a hot issue right now. If we all band together we can do this thing! [GROAN] Bra puns aside, if you're a 40E and you keep on buying 38Ds from Victoria's Secret, Victoria's Secret has absolutely no impetus to carry the 40E you so desperately need.

With that soliloquy on the nature of bra fit and the tyranny of bra manufacturers out of the way, to your questions! Because once you have bras that don't make you feel horrible, you'll want to treat them right.

(It bears noting that you'll continue to have more questions even after reading this, which you should absolutely either leave in the comments or email to me so I can round them up for Bra Washing 2: Electric Boobaloo. Also be warned I will make every possible boob and bra pun possible. My apologies in advance.)

How Do I Wash My Bras?

There are two basic options you have for washing bras: hand washing or machine washing. Within those two categories, there are subgenres and nuances because of course. But in the interest of keeping things relatively digestible, today I'll cover the basics and then throw in one wild card option for you that falls more into the category of 'rinsing' rather than 'washing' but is still a really important thing to know about.

So! Hand washing is, as you might guess, ideal when it comes to laundering your bras. However, I am nothing if not a realistic Clean Person and I know that not everyone is going to hand wash their bras. But the Guild requires me to strongly impress upon you how far superior hand washing is. So consider yourself impressed! With that, here are your basic hand washing instructions:

1. The best place to do your handwashing is in kitchen sink. Do I need to tell you to clean the sink first? I might need to tell you that. So tell you I will: CLEAN THE SINK FIRST. If for whatever reason your kitchen sink isn't the best spot for you to be doing hand laundering, the bathtub or bathroom sink will also work, as will a washing bucket. The idea here is that you'll want to create a standing body of water in which to put your detergent and the bras.

2. Fill the sink or tub or washing bucket with warm water and a mild detergent. Down column I'll take you through a whole bunch of detergent options for your delicates; for now, just note this really important thing: you don't need or want to use a lot of detergent — a teaspoon up to a tablespoon will do it. Now add in your brassieres, smoosh them down so that they become fully submerged and saturated with the detergent solution and then leave them to sit in the bubble bath you've drawn for them for 10 to 15 minutes.

3. When the time is up and Calgon has taken your bras away, head back in and give each bra another gentle pressing, while submerged, which will help to release oil and dirt trapped in the fabric. Next you'll drain that dingy, nasty wash water — oh and here, please take a second to note how gray your bras just turned that water so that you can remember that the next time you try to convince yourself that your bras don't get dirty! — and rinse each bra exceedingly well with clean water. My technique of choice to ensure that my bras are rinsed completely of detergent is to drain, rinse out, replug, and refill the sink with clean water, then re-submerging my delicates and giving them a good smooshing as the first pass in rinsing them.

4. Once you're confident that you've rinsed the bras free of detergent, press gently on each one to squeeze out as much water as possible. Here you'll want to be careful not to wring or otherwise get too rough in your handling. You know how sometimes your paramour gets overly enthusiastic about grabbing at your bosoms? And it hurts them? Your bras are delicate and similarly sensitive to the touch. And while some of you might really enjoy that rough handling, it is a truism that your bras don't share your interest in BDSM.

Right then, those are your hand washing instructions. But yes, I see you sitting out there, screwing up your face and sucking your teeth at me and seething because you find that process that I just took you through? TO BE UTTERLY RIDICULOUS, SERIOUSLY LADY, WHO THE HELL HAS THE TIME AND ENERGY FOR ALL THAT?? And to you, my lovely little lemon-sucker, I say "Come along this'a way. Mama's gonna take care of you right now." Which of course means that it's time for our machine washing instructions:

1. If you're going to machine wash your bras, will you at least do me the great favor of going out and getting one of those small mesh laundry bags that zip up, into which you will place your bras? THANK YOU. I ask so little of you, truly.

That bag is going to serve two related purposes, the first being that it will keep your bra from running wild alongside your rougher items of clothing — jeans, yoga pants, the bullies of the laundry cycle — and getting caught up in a bad crowd. Literally. The straps and stuff, if the bras are washed loose, will wind themselves around larger items of clothing, and then they will get allllllllll kinds of stretched out and you'll have a strap-slippin' mess on your hands. Or rather, on your shoulders.

The other thing that will happen is that the hooks on the bras will catch onto your clothes, which will cause pulling, pilling, and poking. So show your bras and your not-bras some love and bag them boulder holders up.

2. If you've got it, use the delicate cycle. If you don't got it, use the cold water wash cycle.

3. DO NOT PUT THOSE BRAS IN THE DRYER ALONG WITH THE REST OF THE CLOTHES YOU JUST TOOK OUT OF THE WASHER. They're already contained in that convenient little baggie! Just take that thing out and set it aside while you transfer the rest of your things to the dryer. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

And finally, here's that wild card option I offered you. The one about the rinsing. Or as I like to call it, Shower Washing:

Get in the shower. You know, as you do. But bring your bra in there with you! I KNOW, IS YOUR MIND BLOWN TOO? Because I still find this method to be delightfully revelatory. Once you're in there with your bras you have two adventures from which to choose: the adventure in which you wash the bra with a mild detergent or the adventure in which you merely rinse the bra.

It's that second one I want to chat about a bit with you. Because rinsing a bra regularly is a great thing to do. For one thing, regular rinsing will cut down on the amount of laundering you need to do. We'll talk shortly about how often you should be rotating and washing those bras, so just hang tight on that front. The other thing is that certain bras, like those with padding, actually benefit from being treated to the less frequent end of the washing spectrum. What happens with the padding is that over-washing them will lead to detergent build-up, because it's harder to rinse the padding clean of the soap, and over time that padding will break down. HOWEVER. This is not a license to not ever wash your padded bras. Yeah, see how I know what your devious little mind is up to? You've still got to wash them — sorry, Poppet!

How Do I Dry My Bras?

You'll always want to air dry your bras, either by laying them flat on a towel or by hanging them on a drying rack. If you opt for the hanging method, please please please do not hang them by their straps, which will cause those very important pieces to stretch out.

Oh and aha! Since we're on the subject of straps I can wedge this in here: many of you (us, many of us. I have puny bird-shoulders, bleh.) have problems with slippage, even when the strap is on the tightest setting. If this happens to you it may be indicative of two things: (1) that the bra has gotten stretched out and is no longer working properly or that (2) your build is such that standard bra straps are too long for you. In both cases, you should know this thing — you can have your bras tailored! Yes seriously! If the bra is an older one and it's still doing its job with the exception of your slipping straps, or if you fall into the bird-shouldered category like me, that little bit of knowledge is going to save you a lot of time, money and aggravation. Just have those straps shortened, like you would a dragging hem!

But back to drying bras out; if you live in a high-moisture or -humidity area, employing a fan will help matters greatly in terms of aiding drying time. Remember back when we talked about washing and drying roller derby pads? The fan was an essential component of the operation, and while of course bras aren't as bulky as pads and therefore will dry faster, if you're having problems take a cue from our pals on wheels and turn a fan on your bras to get 'em dry faster. If your home is retaining so much water that nothing can dry, get yourself some DampRid and scatter them about the home to help lower the moisture levels.

Machine drying is problematic for two reasons: (1) the heat is just too much for the elastic, which over time will break down, shortening the lifespan of that bra you just paid good money for and (2) all that banging around in there can lead to pilling, warping and/or holes in the material. If you absolutely must machine dry your bras please do not tell me use the no-heat tumble dry setting only.

How Often Should I Wash My Bras?

The good news here is that there is no hard and fast rule about how often you should wash your bras.

The bad news is that you do have to wash them. "But my boobs aren't dirty!" you'll exclaim at me. "Yes they are!" I'll respond. You still won't believe me and so this is where I have to talk to you about how your bra goes under your armpits and your little face will crumple up and I'll feel bad but not bad enough to keep from adding, "Oh and you know that little trickle of sweat that rolls down your back in the summertime? Yeah, that's going right onto your bra. And also your boobs are dirty. They deposit skin and oil on your bras all the livelong day."

Before we can get into the question of how often to wash a bra, we first need to take on the topics of Bra Wardrobe and Bra Rotation.

First of all, do you not LOVE the term 'bra wardrobe'?? I once met a woman who had a dedicated LINGERIE CLOSET and nearly died from all the envy. It's a little ridiculous, of course, the term 'bra wardrobe' but actually I like it precisely because of that: it shouldn't be ridiculous that we possess a bra wardrobe. We wear these things every day and they are a health thing and come on, there should be no shame whatsoever in taking care and pride in our bosoms and that which hoists them up. Bra wardrobes for everyone! Or not! Don't bother with them at all! Wearing a bra is a choice! Hurrah for choices!

The subject of the bra wardrobe brings me nicely into a discussion of bra rotation, which is what a well-appointed bra wardrobe will facilitate: if possible, you'll not want to wear your bras two days in a row. Doing so will help to preserve the integrity of the bra's elastic, which is sensitive to the heat and oils produced by your body.

Having said that, it's time to address the subject of how often to wash that bra. It is, to be honest, a bit subjective — akin to jean washing, in a sense — but because people do tend to want practical guidance, I offer this for those of you who want it: aim to wash that bra every 3-6 wearings.

Some of you have just recoiled in horror at that statement! For you I offer this suggestion: you can extend the time between washings with Swoobies, which are like dress shields for bras. (And oh yes, we will talk about dress shields one of these days, oh yes we will.) Swoobies will also help if you've got a skin condition that makes your bra uncomfortable to wear; if you are dreading what commuting during the summer months does to your bra; if you wear a hard-to-find sized sports bra that you want to get an extra wearing or two out of before laundering.

With What Shall I Wash My Bras?

You want to use a mild detergent when it comes to washing your brassieres, for the same reason that you want to wash them and also for the same reason that you don't want to dry them: that elastic is so, so, so sensitive. So a mild detergent is the thing here.

A few months ago, I rounded up a whole bunch of lingerie washes on my personal blog, which I'll just repurpose here because why not? There are, assuredly, a whole bunch more that aren't here so you should email me or comment to let me know what gentle detergents you like that I haven't mentioned here. ALSO FOR THE WOOLITE DENIERS: I know. I know what you're going to say. I KNOW OKAY?!?! I just … don't entirely agree that Woolite is the Devil because no one has actually proved to me beyond saying, "WOOLITE IS THE DEVIL" that Woolite is actually the Devil. I've happily use Woolite for ages, as have many experts in lingerie and hosiery I've spoken to in the course of being a Clean Person.

Soak Lingerie Wash, CA$16.00/14 oz
Tocca Laundry Delicate, US$15.00/8 oz or a set of 4 scents (2 oz each) for US$22
Intimacy Lingerie Wash, US$16.00/32 oz
Forever New, US$7.00/32 oz
Le Blanc Silk & Lingerie Wash, approx US$35.00/64 oz
Eucalen No Rinse Delicate Wash, approx US$17.50/16.9 oz
Woolite Extra Delicates Care, approx US$5.00/16 oz
Charlie’s Soap, approx US$15.00/32 oz
Ivory Snow, approx US$7.00/25 oz
Victoria’s Secret Gentle Liquid Detergent and Softening Dryer Sheets, US$12.00-14.00

But My Bras Are Stained!

If your clothes stain your bras with dye, go ahead and treat them in the same way you would stains on any other clothing. The only thing to be mindful of is the products you choose — just go for as gentle an option as you can find.

Here's an easy tip for when you find yourself with deodorant residue on a bra in between wearings: wipe the stained areas clean with a damp washcloth. You might have to put a little muscle into it but combine that with some patience and you'll be able to wear it under a sleeveless shirt without feeling worried.

But Jolie, What About …?

Soft cups;
Sports bras;
Fancy bras;
Nursing bras;
Hard-to-find sizes;
How expensive this all is;
And all manner of other bra-related questions, anxieties, hopes, dreams you might have.

I COME BEARING MORE GOOD NEWS! In addition to picking up with additional bra washing questions down the line in this column, I'll also be launching a short series here on all manner of brassiere-related topics.

In the opener of this post I talked a little bit about how passionately I feel about bras, and I'm so excited to explore the topic further with you all. To that end, that list of "But what about?" items is meant to you a sense of some of the discussions I want to take on, not just in terms of cleaning — though of course we'll talk about laundering and maintaining specialty bras of course — but also when it comes to defining them, finding them, understanding their unique needs, forging a meaningful relationship with them … all that good stuff. To make this discussion the best it can be, you should tell me what you want to learn and/or talk about. Email me with questions or suggestions at joliekerr@gmail.com. If you are an expert on any bra-related topic please get in touch so I can pick your giant brain! And mostly, GET EXCITED!

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, Spring 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

Image via Julija Sapic/Shutterstock.