Levi’s CEO Says to Wash Jeans in the Shower—Here’s What Happened When I Tried It
Want your favorite jeans to look great and last longer? According to Levi's head honcho, this unusual laundering method is the way to go.
If you’re into contradiction and confusion, just Google “how often should you wash jeans?” The responses range from every three wearings (according to the American Cleaning Institute) to once every 10 wearings or more. And in 2014, Levi’s CEO Charles Bergh said you should never wash jeans. He recently amended that statement, saying, “True denim heads, people that really love their denim, will tell you to never put your denim into a washing machine. So that’s what I do. If I drop some curry on my jeans, I’m gonna clean it. But I’ll spot-clean it.”
Hold on to your Levi 501s, folks, because Bergh adds that when he does wash his jeans, he does so in the shower … while wearing them. Lather ’em up with body wash, and wash ’em like you would your own skin. (Oh, I think he’s one confused puppy. Maybe his mama never taught him how to do laundry?) But hey, he is the denim guy, so I didn’t want to dismiss his suggestions without giving them proper consideration. After all, he has some very specific reasons for recommending this cleaning method.
So I decided to give Bergh’s idea a try and also run it by a trusted laundry expert to see if this method would clean denim properly. But first I had to tell my hubby about my experiment. It’d be just my luck to slip on a blob of body wash and break a leg. I’d need him to explain to the EMTs why his wife showers with her best jeans on!
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What is the best way to wash jeans, according to the Levi’s CEO?
As noted above, Bergh recommends spot-cleaning jeans (treating only the stained area) when necessary. I’m forever spilling things on my jeans, but because I know how to remove stains this way, I can wear them again without tossing them in the wash. This might mean blotting watery stains with a wet cloth, using a little baking soda to pull out oil stains, or applying some store-bought stain remover.
But you can’t spot-clean forever, can you? Bergh’s response: “If I’ve been out sweating or something, and they get really gross, I’ll wash them in the shower”—while wearing them.
Why is this method better than machine-washing jeans?
If Bergh’s method really cleans jeans, then washing in the shower is a two-fer: You clean your bod and your jeans using the same water, soap and muscle, and that saves water, time and energy. Perhaps even more important, your jeans will last longer because the cotton fibers aren’t being subjected to the agitating motion of a washer, which breaks them down bit by bit.
There are also environmental concerns when it comes to making blue jeans. Some manufacturers use as much as 920 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. Not running the washer is a small way to repay Mother Nature for what Bergh feels is a waste of water. (It’s worth noting that at any one time, nearly 50% of all people are wearing denim, so these effects really add up.)
And then, there’s the impact of coloring the fabric. According to a 2020 study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, the blue-jeans dyeing process releases hazardous, long-lived chemicals—like mercury and cadmium—into waterways. Microscopic shreds of dyed denim are shed during washing (52,000 to 60,000 shreds per wash, believe it or not), and these particles have been found in waterways throughout the world. Washing jeans less frequently (or with less agitation, as with Bergh’s method) could reduce these problems.
How to wash your jeans in the shower
courtesy Karen B. Gibbs
Intrigued? If you are an environmentally conscientious and adventurous denim-wearer who wants to wash your jeans like Bergh does, here’s how to do it.
Step 1: Go commando
Unless you want to dye your underwear blue, it’s best to skip wearing underwear under your jeans for this washing method. You’ll also have one less garment to peel off when you’re done.
Step 2: Choose the right water temperature
Since jeans should be washed in cool water, choose the coolest temperature of water you can tolerate. There’s no way I can shower in cool water, so I’m resigned to watching the hot water wash the indigo dye (and all its toxic chemicals) down the drain.
Step 3: Soak them
Allow the water to run down your jeans until they are totally soaked. If you have a handheld shower attachment, use it to saturate the fabric between your legs. Otherwise, you’ll have to do some mighty crazy contortions to get that part wet.
Step 4: Lather up
Squirt body wash or rub bar soap in your hands or onto a nylon puff or loofah. Work it into a lather. Now, spread the lather all over your body and your jeans, and scrub away. (Real talk: Short of taking off your jeans in the shower, I have no idea how to wash whatever body parts are under the jeans.)
Step 5: Rinse them
Rinsing your body should be easy. Rinsing your jeans is another matter. Do your best to wash off all the soap, using the pulse setting on your showerhead for some extra oomph. Again, if you don’t have a handheld shower, you’re going to have to repeat the contortions you went through to soak the crotch of your jeans.
Step 6: Take them off
Now here’s the hard part. Somehow, in a very safe manner, peel the wet jeans from your body. If you’re balance-challenged, you may want to sit on a shower bench or even the floor of the shower to do this. While you’re down there, check to see if your legs are dyed blue. If so, toss the jeans in the sink and scrub yourself back to your original color.
How should you dry jeans after this?
If you want to remain true to your commitment to Mother Earth, save energy by air-drying your jeans indoors in a warm room or outside in the sun … but don’t continue to wear them while they dry. “Clean clothing that air-dries won’t smell sour, but less-than-clean clothing could,” explains Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, Clorox’s cleaning expert. “Wearing jeans while they dry would attract more dead skin cells, sweat and body oil, so this isn’t a practical option.”
You’ll also have to contend with how the fabric reacts to conditions out of the shower. “Wet cotton will quickly reach the ambient temperature around you,” Gagliardi says. “If it’s not hot out, it will pull heat out of your body to evaporate away the moisture on your jeans—which, during anything but a heat wave, is questionable.” Plus, if it’s a humid day, it will take even longer to air-dry.
Turning a blind eye to Mother Nature, you could also squander electricity and toss your jeans in the dryer on the air-dry-only setting. Your choice. My lips are sealed.
Does this method get jeans clean?
On the surface, it appears that Bergh may be on to something … but Gagliardi says his laundering method won’t get jeans truly clean. “To thoroughly clean clothing, the cleaning solution needs to work itself in and out of the fabric. So does the rinse water,” she explains. “This mechanical action is an important part of the energy needed to clean clothing. Without it, some soil, sweat, body oil and dirt will remain on the fabric and can host odor-causing bacteria.”
Then there’s the temperature needed to clean denim. “Although cool water helps blue jeans keep their color, the idea of showering in cooler water sounds unpleasant, at best,” she points out.
Gagliardi’s third reason focuses on chemical energy, or the enzymes, brighteners, oxygen bleach and similar ingredients that make detergent and laundry additives so effective. Body washes and bar soaps don’t contain these powerful ingredients. Instead, they have cationic surfactants, which are great for gently cleaning skin and hair but not clothing. “Your clothes simply won’t get thoroughly clean with the shower-washing method,” says Gagliardi. “Plus, the residual soap left on the clothes becomes a dirt magnet that attracts soil and helps the jeans look dirty sooner. Thanks to the odor-causing bacteria that the residual soils can harbor, dirty clothes also smell, so that’s not optimal either.”
Here’s what happened when I tried this at home
I’ve written a lot about how to do laundry over the course of my career, but it never prepared me for shower-washing my jeans. First, going commando made me feel like I was on one of those jungle-based reality survival shows. (I live a sheltered life.)
Also, I am totally unwilling to shower in water that is not warm enough to cook Ramen noodles, so I upped the temperature and stepped into the shower. Not bad … yet. But as the water made its journey to my toes, my jeans became very heavy and started to slide down my hips. I yanked them up and set my legs in an ever-widening stance to keep my jeans from slipping down.
courtesy Karen B. Gibbs
Then I squirted body wash onto a nylon shower puff and worked it into a thick lather. In no time, I’d washed my upper body and started to scrub the jeans. I applied more body wash to the shower puff—it wasn’t going too far—and rub-a-dub-dubbed my way down my pant legs.
courtesy Karen B. Gibbs
When it came time to rinse, I turned the handheld shower to a full, heavy spray and watched as lather went down the drain—while some slipped inside my jeans. I started wiggling around, hoping the movement would help launder and rinse the jeans (and me).
I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave any residue behind, so I made an extra pass with the water. After a few minutes, I turned off the shower and tried to remove the jeans while standing. Bad idea. It was really hard to remain balanced while trying to get them off. I definitely don’t recommend you do it that way.
Fortunately, we have a shower bench, so I sat down, figuring it would be a breeze to slip off the jeans now. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought. After working the jeans down to my thighs, I tried to get them off each leg. That was a challenge. Between pulling them down as far as my hands could reach and pushing them with my feet the rest of the way, the jeans ended up around my feet. I finally stepped out of them, leaving them as-is, while checking my legs for signs of wear and tear. (I was sure I’d find scraped, blue thighs, but I was safe.)
courtesy Karen B. Gibbs
I wish I could tell you I dutifully hung the jeans outdoors to dry, but I didn’t. I impatiently dried them in the dryer on regular heat. They came out OK. I had expected them to be stiff because of the body-wash residue, but they weren’t. Gagliardi says that’s because body wash would need to accumulate over time to stiffen the jeans. I was also relieved that my new jeans did not shrink, despite the hot water bath. Plus, they still fit well and showed no obvious signs of being sudsed with body wash.
Unfortunately, the jeans did not smell especially fresh. I also started envisioning all those germs breeding in body-wash residue in my jeans, so after my evaluation, I tossed them in the washing machine with some good-smelling detergent and laundered them as usual.
In my opinion, washing jeans while wearing them in the shower is not a good idea. (Sorry, Mr. Bergh.) To my surprise, Gagliardi even tried it herself and agrees with me.
Environmentally, this method doesn’t save much water because you still need to wash and rinse the lower part of your body and rinse the jeans after you remove them. That adds up to a lot of water. On the other hand, as Gagliardi notes, “high-efficiency clothes washers use very little water. Cleaning jeans in the shower very likely uses more water than the amount of water used if you just added that item to the appropriate color load you are already washing. Plus, because there was no agitation and you use the wrong products, neither the outside nor the inside of the jeans really got cleaned.”
On a non-scientific level, it was very hard to lather the jeans using body wash, and it was even harder to rinse the body wash out of the jeans. Also, there was no effective way to clean the inside of the jeans (which is a definite must). Plus, it was really annoying to continually fight to keep the soaking wet jeans from sliding down. Worst of all, it was difficult and a bit unsteadying to remove the wet jeans afterward.
Should you wash your jeans in the shower?
All in all, this makes for good conversation at a party but not something I’d recommend. Instead, follow Gagliardi’s recommendations: Before washing jeans, turn them inside out and zip or button the fly. Wash them with like colors on a regular cycle using cold water and a good detergent. She also suggests using Clorox 2 for Colors for optimal cleaning. Then, let your jeans air-dry. They’ll look good, smell fresh and, above all, actually be clean.
About the expert
- Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, is the in-house scientist and cleaning expert for Clorox. She has more than 24 years of experience in laundry-product research and development.