How to Clean Thrift Store Finds


Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: The article below was assigned before social distancing measures were widely enacted. With thrift stores beginning to reopen, we thought it was an apt time to share the piece. We hope you find Meggie’s tips helpful.

I wrote this article during my second week of social distancing. It was so nice to think about thrifting for a change. Walking through my entire process of cleaning thrift items spoke to my routine-loving heart. I hope that when we’re able to move about freely in the world again, visiting stores and hanging with pals, we’ll bring some of the things we thought about and read about during our slow, quiet self-isolation period with us, like giving secondhand shopping a try.

Maybe you’re hanging at home now, browsing the Internet, thinking of cute outfits you could wear, when our outfits will be seen by someone other than our pets (like my dog, Meatloaf, who knows nothing about fashion). Maybe the itch to shop comes over you. The good news is, you can try shopping secondhand right now! There are great folks selling vintage via Instagram. Some of my favorites are Tandem Vintage and Peppered Goods. For kids’ items, I love Rad Kids Vintage. And Etsy is also a treasure trove.

Now, without further ado, allow me to walk you through the cleaning process, starting with what happens when I get home from the store.

You’re Home from the Thrift Store

Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
Finding thrift things while visiting mom and dad in Naples, Florida.

Okay, you’re finally home from the thrift store! You’re high from scoring so many wonderful items at teeny prices. If you’re like me, you’re also a little tired because you ate all the Thai food with your best friend after thrifting. And, you’re sweating from the tricky maneuvering of getting everything inside in one trip. (I will NOT go out to the car a second time.)

Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
Not Thai food, but another favorite post-thrift snack. Taken in Florida after thrifting.

First up, gently set your things in an out-of-the-way corner to sort. Next, scrub your hands, of course. If you want, you can call your mom and/or sister to gloat about your finds, and maybe take some pictures of your haul for the Internet. (Especially if your items are neatly bagged in cute Baggu bags and the lighting is right.) Maybe you pour an afternoon coffee, get a big glass of ice water, and put on a Spotify playlist made specifically for this moment. Whatever works for you. Now, you’re ready to clean up your thrifted items.

Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
Thrift items ready for cleaning. These were purchased several weeks ago at the Goodwill bins in St. Paul, MN.

My Preferred Cleaning Method

Here’s the deal: These are my personal practices for cleaning thrift things. My mom passed many of these tips down to me. Cleaning thrift stuff will look different for everyone. I know some thrifters who leave all items in their garage in plastic totes for two to three months to ensure there’s no bugs or lice. This is one end of the spectrum. Then, there are thrifters (my sister) who have been known to let their kids wear thrifted clothes before they’ve been washed. This is the other end of the spectrum. (Sorry, Erin! That was probably just that one time at the cabin.)

We will have varying levels of comfort around how to clean and what feels safest for ourselves and our families. I believe in hot water + soap + white vinegar + rubbing alcohol (in various combinations) and going with your gut. (Unless your gut says, Ew, thrifting is gross. It’s safer to buy all my stuff at the mall. If this is your gut, put her on, I have to talk to her for a minute.)

My mom, Mary, the original thrift expert and cleaner of thrifed things.

Thrifting is Clean

I want to shift the perspective some folks have that thrifting as icky. Thrifting is recycling. Thrifting is stemming the flow of clothes to landfills. We’re putting dollars someplace other than fast fashion when we thrift. We’re flexing creative muscles and being original, economical, and intentional when we thrift. Mother Earth is giving us a leafy high five when we thrift our next work ensemble instead of ordering online. Thrifting is good, clean fun and we should see it as such.

I want to shift the perspective some folks have that thrifting as icky. Thrifting is recycling. Thrifting is stemming the flow of clothes to landfills. We’re putting dollars someplace other than fast fashion when we thrift.

I’ve heard all the complaints about thrifting: the clothes are stinky when I get them home; I don’t want to put my kids in clothes that aren’t fresh from Baby Gap; the texture of new clothes is better. I get it. However, those nicely pressed, brightly colored clothes are often made with harsh, unhealthy chemicals.

Our perception can be, “new means clean,” but that’s just not accurate. The “new” smell associated with new clothes is often formaldehyde, friends, or perfumes engineered to cover it. Other chemicals typically found in new clothes are heavy metals, flame retardants, silicone waxes, ammonia, and sulfur. Sometimes I get a headache while shopping at the mall and this can be from handling clothes with new dyes. We can remove these unhealthy chemicals by washing our new clothes or by buying organic and natural fabrics. Organic and natural clothes are lovely, but they can be spendy or hard to find. New clothes are not inherently more healthy than used clothes. We should wash all new or used clothing before wearing them.

How to Clean Your Thrifted Items

Alright! So! Onto the cleaning process. First, start by sorting your newly purchased thrift finds.

  • Make a pile of soft, fabric items to wash in the laundry.
  • Then, make a pile of kitchen items to throw in the dishwasher.
  • Finally, make a final pile of the things that can’t be thrown in the washing machine or dishwasher like lamps, plastic toys, wooden objects, bronze animals, board books for kids, shoes, etc.

The best strategy is dividing and conquering. Next, bring the laundry things to the laundry area, the kitchen things to the kitchen, and then tackle the miscellaneous pile.

Cleaning Miscellaneous Items

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A spray bottle
  • A few rags
  • A toothbrush
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • A few drops of an essential oil (optional)
  • Dish Soap
  • White Vinegar

Inside the spray bottle, put 2 cups of rubbing alcohol, 1 cup of warm water, and a few drops of an essential oil, if you’re feeling fancy. (I like tea tree oil because it smells minty and clean to me.) The CDC recommends using alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol for sanitizing. There are many recipes for DIY sanitizing spray. Research and play around with the formula until you’ve found the right one for you!

Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
Items needed for cleaning thrift finds.

To clean hard miscellaneous items:

  • Spray, scrub, and wipe down all the hard items to your satisfaction, using the toothbrush to get into any nooks or crannies.
  • Submerge solid toys or decorative items. Fill the sink with warm water, dish soap, and white vinegar, put the items in, and let them soak for several minutes.
  • Then, place all the items on a clean towel to dry, making sure all the water can escape the items.
Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
Some thrift finds I cleaned!

To clean shoes:

There are many options for cleaning thrifted shoes. You can:

  • Soak athletic shoes in diluted rubbing alcohol.
  • Remove the laces and toss the shoes in the washing machine.
  • If the shoes are leather, plastic, or delicately made, fill a bowl with warm water, dish soap, and white vinegar and gently wipe the shoes clean.

Okay, that was the hard part! The miscellaneous stuff takes the most time and you’ve done it. Great! Though the miscellaneous pile may seem daunting, it will only take a few minutes once you’ve got the hang of it and you have all your supplies at the ready.

Cleaning Kitchen Items

Next, head to the kitchen and place all your kitchen items into the dishwasher. Feel free to use the sanitizing setting if you don’t think anything will be damaged from extremely hot water. The only items you shouldn’t put in the dishwasher are old Pyrex or wooden kitchen items—those should be washed by hand.

Cleaning Clothing Items

Finally, (you’re nearly there!) it’s time to wash your new clothes in the washing machine. I personally make a detergent because I’m from a long line of people with sensitive skin and I’ve passed the condition down to both my kids. I also make detergent because it works really well and it’s easy to put together!

What you’ll need to make laundry detergent:

  • 3 cups of washing soda
  • 3 cups of borax
  • 3 cups of baking soda
  • 2 bars of shredded Fels-Naptha soap (I use a cheese grater to shred the soap.)
Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
My homemade detergent.

To clean clothing items:

Sort the clothes as you normally would and put a few tablespoons of detergent directly into the washing machine tub along with a squirt of dish soap. I also prefer to put white vinegar into the dispenser labeled “fabric softener.” Vinegar is great at getting out smells.

If an item has a spot, I’ll try pretreating it. I’ll put a pinch of homemade detergent on the spot and then add a little white vinegar on top. It makes a lovely hiss, like a science project, and gives me the sensation I’m really getting after the spot. I’ve also had good results with Grandma’s Spot Remover.

If clothes are dry clean only or (gasp) silk, I’ll wash them with similar items and a tiny bit of detergent on the gentlest cycle possible and then let the items air dry. If there’s something that simply cannot be washed, I’ll take it to the cleaners. Or, I’ll spray it with a mixture of ¼ cup rubbing alcohol, ¾ cup water, and few drops of lavender essential oil and see how it smells and feels when it’s dried.

Cleaning Thrift Store Finds | Wit & Delight
One of the recent items I found in the Goodwill bins. it’s 100% silk and I’ll be gently washing her in my machine at home. (Wish me luck!)

You’ve done it! You’re done cleaning your thrift items and each time you do this it will be an easier and more efficient process. You deserve a gold star, an approving nod, and ice cream in your favorite flavor. Happy thrifting!

Interested in thrifting?
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BY Meggie Maas - June 9, 2020

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June 9, 2020 11:21 am

For ultimate multi-tasking, start the dishwasher + laundry first, then clean the misc while those are running. Everything will be done around the same time and can be put away! 🙂

Stephen Hursley
June 10, 2020 3:30 pm

Great tips Meggie. I really liked the vinegar one to get the smell out of clothes. I’ve bought a lot of furniture from thrift shops in my day. I’ve tried a few DIY methods to get it cleaned but I really think the best thing to do is get it professionally cleaned. It’s still quite a bit cheaper than buying new furniture and it’s nice to know that it really is clean. I personally use San Juan County Chem-Dry’s upholstery service. They’re speedy, affordable, and reliable. I would recommend them to anybody in Farmington.

Kristin Shardlow
June 12, 2020 11:44 pm

Your DIY detergent recipe is going on my must-try list 👏

June 29, 2020 6:16 pm

Thanks for sharing! I love thrifting and when I tell friends, a lot of them think it’s “cheap” and that they prefer new clothing. That being said, thrifting isn’t for everyone but if you try- you can usually find ways to repurpose old items to keep them out of waste land fills and protect our environment. On the note of disinfecting- I get my home sanitized and protected against germs every 3 months which helps my family stay safe & healthy! Highly recommend!

July 1, 2020 11:35 am

Thanks for the super tips, Meggie! I make the same detergent, but I use bars of Bronner’s lavender soap instead of the Fels. Love the extra (very gentle) scent.

Karen Maas
November 19, 2020 8:30 pm

Hi there. I love recycling and buying second hand. I am writing you because my name is Karen
Maas so I had to reach out to you!!!Funny, right?

Be safe and thanks!!!

July 2, 2021 4:19 am

When I did buy new I had to wash it first anyway I can’t stand that smell. I’ve washed everything before I wear anything. I like consignment stores furniture I figured if they lasted this long great furniture. New furniture is all particle board may last a week??? Love shopping second or fourth hand.

July 15, 2021 11:44 am

I have a ? I have always bought clothes but I just bought a purse off posh and I wiped it down with clorox wipe and spayed inside with lysol should that be enough?

Carla D.
August 13, 2022 1:30 am

What do you do for bleeding clothes?

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