Make the best environment for storing clothes and shoes

Keeping clothes and shoes in good shape when they are not being worn not only lets you keep your favorite items, it’s also better for the wallet and environment. A study in Norway found that most clothing is used for 4 or 5 years and up to a fifth of textile waste is nearly unused. More recent research in the UK estimates the average garment life to be as low as 2.2 years. The rise of “fast fashion” has led to clothing and shoes that don’t last quite as long, and often come contaminated with unhealthy chemicals. The same simple methods to keep clothes out of the landfill work for almost any type of garment or footwear, though good storage can add decades to well-made items but only years to cheaper pieces.

There are a few obvious science-backed concepts to keep in mind when putting away seasonal, formal, festive, or just spare clothing and shoes. By controlling the humidity, ecology, and atmosphere of a storage area, it can be made into a more preservative environment to help make clothes last longer.

Best humidity for storing clothes and shoes

The best relative humidity (RH%) for clothing is between 30% and 50%. It shouldn’t be too moist because the materials traditionally used for clothing and shoes like cotton, linen, leather, and canvas are easily degraded by water. The outdoor humidity is available on any weather report or app, but indoors it may be higher as a result of water use or possibly dryer due to heating. Relative humidity meters are inexpensive and a good way to be sure there is a low potential for mold growth in your closet and elsewhere in your home. Here’s how to think about humidity for your clothing:

Closeup of a hand holding white fabric stained with black mold

Mold can grow on fabric in high humidity

  • Clothes or shoes kept at more than 90% relative humidity may become damp, and the water may cause direct damage, discoloration, or cause leather to rot.
  • Clothes or shoes kept at more than 50% relative humidity are at a risk of mold growth. Mold and mildew give off a terrible smell and can even grow into visible colonies that stain the garment. They reproduce by releasing spores into the air that are also unhealthy to breathe.
  • In dry conditions, below 20%, leather, rubber, and a few other materials can harden and crack over long periods of time, but dryness has a limited impact on most other fabrics.

There are a few different ways to properly manage humidity in your closet or other storage spaces.

3 garment bags on the floor

Garment bags can protect clothing

Garment bags and shoe boxes

You can manage humidity directly by sealing garments into airtight garment bags that keep them away from any changes in moisture. Vacuum bags are not recommended because they can damage nice clothes by kinking the fibers and causing permanent wrinkles. If getting garment bags for everything is daunting, prioritize favorite or delicate pieces.

Cardboard shoe boxes can retain moisture, so plastic shoe boxes are best for humidity control. However, plastic can trap moisture in, which may allow mildew to grow over time. Be sure shoes are dry and clean before storage to minimize the chance for mold growth, and check for the smell of mildew every few months. If in doubt, silica gel packets for shoes are inexpensive and will absorb moisture.

Dripping metal faucet

Dripping faucets add moisture to the air

Control the source

Another way to control humidity is to stop using any plumbing fixtures nearby and eliminate all water leaks. If possible, store clothing in spaces that are known to stay dry year-round.

Dehumidifier in the living room with the water drawer open

All dehumidifiers have to be drained in some way, usually by a drawer at their base

Dehumidify

Remove the humidity from the air by using a dehumidifier. These devices come in many sizes and shapes but all of them are designed to lower the relative humidity. They require plenty of electricity and need to drain the liquid water somewhere, however. A humidifier draws around 700 watts of power, so if run 24 hours a day it would cost around $70 a month at the average electricity price in the US. In addition, they either have to be physically emptied or have easy access to a drain. But if the humidity can’t be controlled to around 50% consistently, a dehumidifier may be the only option to prevent mold growth.

Best ecology for storing clothes and shoes

The best ecosystem for storage is deep inside a cave, which means no ecosystem at all. Mold spores, bacteria, insects, rodents, and many other creatures that find their way into your closet can potentially damage stored clothing. Mold and mildew smell bad or and stain fabrics, but moths and other insects will take bites directly out of your clothes. 

Small corked glass bottles of cedar oil with small cedar chips

Cedar oil is strong smelling and much safer than mothballs

Use cedar for insect control

Moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, and other common wardrobe bugs are repelled by the scent of cedar wood. Cedar chips, cedar hangers, and cedar chests all release cedar oil that repels many insects. The oils do fade over time so fresh cedar oil needs to be reapplied once the scent is gone. Cedar oil may also stain so use it carefully and keep it out of contact with silk or other fragile fabrics.

Many people used to store their clothing with mothballs, which are small scented balls soaked in pesticide used to keep moths away. Mothball ingredients are now known to be toxic and likely carcinogenic, unlike cedar oil. Most are banned in the EU and under limited legality in the US, so in general mothballs are best avoided.

A hand in a blue glove cleaning under a shelf

Remove dust anywhere it builds up

Stay clean

Dust contains many things that damage clothes like mold spores, bacteria, and chemicals. A dusty environment is a great place for a whole ecosystem of creatures, none of which are good for clothes. Mold spores may germinate and start growing from trapped moisture. Food particles attract rodents. The hair in dust can draw moth larvae. 

Cleaning your clothes, shoes, and storage area both before storage and if necessary dusting during storage can help your clothing last longer. If you find a pervasive infestation of insects, freeze clothing for 3 days before putting it back in storage to kill any remaining larvae.

A variety of clothes packed tightly in a plastic tub

A plastic box or tub can seal out rodents

Rodents require hard containers

The best way to protect clothes from rodents is to place them in hard plastic containers. Storage spaces are usually unoccupied, so rodents may cause significant damage before they can be starved, trapped, or chased out. Mice and rats chew up clothes and worse leave behind droppings that can transmit several different diseases. Standard rodent control methods are to remove any possible food sources, seal up entry points, and trap any animals that may be present. Call a professional exterminator if the problem persists.

Best atmosphere for storing clothes and shoes

Clothes and shoes are best stored somewhere dry, dark, without chemical contaminants, and with clean air. We discussed how to keep a storage area dry enough above, so let’s consider a few other things that are part of or are traveling through the air that should be considered.

Red jacket faded by the sun

The color everywhere light hit the fabric of this jacket

Keep the light out

Any storage space for clothing should have minimal light that is turned off most of the time. It isn’t just sunlight that can cause colors to fade, consistent light of any type will eventually bleach the dyes that make clothes vibrant.

A mild temperature is best

Clothing and shoes are best stored at mild temperatures that would be comfortable for the average person, between 55°F/ 13°C and 80°F/ 27°C. Large swings in temperature may cause condensation that leads to mold growth and should be avoided if possible.

Dust, pollen and small particles fly through the air

Control dust in the air

Be sure that your storage area is behind closed doors and windows to prevent outside dust from coming in. Dust contains a wide variety of spores, bacteria, and chemicals, which can all have an impact on clothing.

If dust is a recurring problem, using an air purifier in your storage space can help to reduce free-floating dust and mold spores. Many purifiers can also remove chemicals like VOCs and ozone, but check to be sure the manufacturer says so because not all purifiers are the same.

Experts say to never use an ozone-emitting air purifier to control smell or for any other reason near your clothing or shoes. Ozone is an oxidizer just like bleach, so it can dry out leather, dull color, and degrade fabrics. In addition, when ozone reacts with natural body oils it can produce unhealthy chemical products that are best avoided.

Green striped shirt with blank white tag

Air out and wash new clothing

Avoid storing new clothing

It might be less obvious that new clothes are often a source of chemicals that can end up in the air and absorbed through your skin. New clothes should be aired out and possibly soaked in detergent. If stored before cleaning, the chemicals may transfer to other garments.

Chemicals like formaldehyde help to reduce mold and mildew during transport but are not healthy to breathe. Airing out new clothing in a well-ventilated area for at least 12 hours can help to remove formaldehyde.

Chemicals that don’t end up in the air like loose dye particles can be removed by soaking new clothes in a bucket of warm water with a cup of baking soda or borax for about 8 hours. An alternate method is to add a half cup of white vinegar to the rise cycle during washing. Both of these methods can also help to remove formaldehyde.

Remember that new clothes will bleed dye for the first few washes, so only combine them with similar colors or much darker colors.

 

Your social life, budget, and environment all benefit from making clothes last longer. Keep an eye on the Molekule.Science, our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for more science-backed ways to make things easier.

Written by

Haldane King is a molecular biologist by education, a statistician by training, and a researcher by nature. He spent 15 years in the market research world helping to grow all types of companies from pharmaceuticals to software to insurance. Haldane has researched the world of air quality, air pollution, and air purifiers at Molekule and now proudly attends to the Molekule.Science blog.