Dirty laundry tells a smelly pickle of a tale about our hygiene


  • Living
  • Sunday, 22 Oct 2017

I want to start by saying it’s not my fault: I’ve been wearing dirty clothes for the past week. And when I mean dirty, I mean I’m reusing everything. Yes, underwear and socks too.

Like I said, it’s not my fault. I went away for work, and work got extended, and extended, and then blended into another obligation, and then extended again, and so my initial stock of clothing to last a few days has been recycled to last 18 and counting.

When I put a number to it, it really makes me sound disgusting. But how horrible is it to not wash your clothes frequently?

Well, for one, I’m sitting here writing this, and though I’m wearing the cleanest of the dirty shirts – which was the dirtiest of the dirty shirts just a few days ago, but in comparison is relatively fresh now – I’m constantly aware of its musty odour.

So you definitely don’t want to be hugging too many people when you’re in the state of zero laundry that I am currently in. But other than odour, what is the real risk of wearing the same stuff for 18 days?

People are pretty disgusting, though we like to think that we’re all clean and pretty. We shed around 500 million skin cells every day. We also sweat a litre each day. And if you’re wondering where that litre of sweat is because you haven’t seen it? It’s in your clothing.

The interesting thing about sweat – well, somewhat interesting – is that it doesn’t smell on it’s own. It gets broken down by bacteria on your skin, and that is where the entire BO smell comes from.

Also, there is normal sweat that can come from any part of your body, and apocrine sweat, which is some of the smelliest sweat that is created by glands found in all the happiest places, like your genitals and underarms, and also your eyelids. (I don’t think I’m worried about my eyelid odour at this point, though maybe I should be.)

All this sweat – and I’ll keep it about me here, 18 litres for 18 days – is in my suitcase located in my used and dirty clothing. Now, the sweat will have evaporated partially but the bacteria that eats the sweat is probably still in the clothes, and to test this theory all I have to do is smell them.

Yep. There’s bacteria in that clothing.

Medical Daily.com suggests that clothes close to the apocrine glands – which is a fancy way of saying your crotch and armpits – should be washed every day. OK, I’m 18 days late on that one. They recommend towels are washed every three days – turns out at home I use my towel for much too long – and pyjamas should be washed weekly.

Even new clothes need to be washed! I’ve never been a practitioner of this, often just whipping on that new shirt and heading out, but an ABC news report sampled clothing from popular chains in the United States and found on one blouse skin flora, faecal flora (fancy way to say crap, literal crap), and respiratory secretions (meaning someone coughed up a lung on the blouse). That is disgusting.

Other items they tested had vaginal organisms, yeast, germs in general and, of course, more faecal matter – ’cos crap is everywhere. Which means my clothes are probably covered in much the same stuff, but at least it’s all mine. If that gives any comfort at all.

But what happens if you continue to wear dirty clothes?

Aside from smelling myself, and possibly others smelling me, I haven’t noticed much of anything. For one, stains could become permanent. Usually when we stain our clothes with wine or coffee or faecal matter – just throwing that out there – we at least rinse the clothing if not wash it fairly soon.

So letting your clothes sit in a state of disgustingness means the stains get a chance to get settled and set up tents, then housing, then whole suburban communities complete with a movie theatre and Wal-Mart. Which makes them much harder to get rid of. Because once you experience the convenience of Wal-Mart, let’s face it, you don’t want to go anywhere else.

So skipping washes can ruin your clothing. But what about what happens to us?

In theory you can get a rash from the oils and dander trapped in the fabric constantly rubbing against your skin, it seems. I suppose a skin rash isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person, but just the same I think I’m going to see if the hotel has a laundry service.

And in the meantime, I’m on my way out to buy a clean shirt and hope it doesn’t have faecal matter on it.

Avid writer Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at star2@thestar.com.my.


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