Is It Safe To Thrift Shop Amid The Pandemic?

Eliza Huber

The act of thrifting isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m talking bin-diving at a donation center, sorting through piles of T-shirts and Dickies in an old production factory, and sifting through old wardrobe items at rural estate sales, all in hopes of finding that one coveted item. Despite what the Instagram lifestyles of successful vintage sellers like Justin Reed and Janet Mandell would have you believe, being a full-time purveyor of vintage and secondhand clothing is not an easy job — especially now in the midst of the pandemic.

Even before COVID-19 hit the U.S, those whose job it is to thrift used some safety precautions to protect themselves and ensure that the items they sold were sanitary, whether that meant bed bug-free or clean of any stains and smells. Some sellers, for instance, froze their finds to eliminate any germs left on the items, while others used baking soda to get rid of the infamous thrift store smell. Many sellers were also accustomed to machine-washing their just-sourced items using the hottest temperature setting. (The latter is the same process recommended by the CDC for cleaning clothing that’s come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19.) 

But not all clothing can survive that kind of treatment. “I usually put the wash cycle on gentle or light, just to make sure the integrity of the clothes isn’t compromised,” Symphony Clarke, the founder of popular thrift shop The Thrift Guru, says. “You never know how long an item has been in a thrift shop, and I would hate for the seams to fall apart the moment you put it on a heavy cycle in the wash.” Instead of using a hot wash cycle, Clarke prefers to kill any germs by using the hottest temperature on her dryer. Clarke then smell-checks everything; if an item doesn’t pass her test, she’ll place it in a bin with activated charcoal for 24 to 48 hours. “Activated charcoal is a lifesaver when it comes down to eliminating strong smells,” she says. Since the pandemic started, Clarke’s also added a 30-to-60-minute-soak with Lysol Laundry Sanitizer to her process.

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Lysol is the first thing that Kitaen Jones, the founder of Memphis vintage shop Vintage & Soul, uses when thrifting. “I make sure to keep anything that hasn’t been sprayed down with Lysol in a bag away from the rest of my personal things,” she says. “I then wash each piece according to the label’s instructions with a laundry sanitizer that kills 99.9% of bacteria accompanied by regular detergent. Depending on the piece, I will then toss it in the dryer or allow it to hang dry.” Even prior to this year, this was Jones’ tried-and-true method. “Because I was pretty cautious before the pandemic, my routine hasn’t changed too much, but I now wear gloves when I am sourcing pieces and also when I am preparing orders for customers.” Jones adds that, for the safety of her customers and herself, she’s always been adamant about not buying anything that seems suspect (i.e. has a pungent odor, a stubborn stain, or that came from an environment that seemed unsanitary): “I just won’t bother with it.”

For the sourcing process, many vintage and secondhand sellers have already used masks and gloves. “Things aren’t properly washed and, in most cases, they dump items straight from a box onto a rack,” says Clarke. “Thrifting caused my allergies to flare up due to all the dust and debris.” Now, wearing a face mask is essential for more than just sorting through a box of dusty clothing — one should be worn at all times when outside or around other people to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Gabe Misael, who owns and operates popular Depop shop Geeb Clothes!, regularly wore a mask and gloves while sourcing pre-pandemic, but while that aspect of his process hasn’t changed, a lot about his other sourcing habits have. “Before the shutdown, I was hitting the thrift stores almost every day, attending huge events like ThriftCon and flea markets, as well as having private wholesale bulk buy deals with other daily vintage suppliers to get new inventory,” Misael says. “After the shutdown, however, all those things came to a hard stop. My private dealers had no new inventory and all the events and stores had closed.” To continue bringing in money — Geeb Clothes! is Misael’s main source of income — he had to get creative. “My sourcing process is now more streamlined with more consistent sources of wholesale and buyouts,” he says. “Instead of the individual pieces that I was looking for every day in stores, I can now sort through bulk of hundreds of items, and I do more buyouts of inventory and personal collections.” 

Misael also began to avoid sourcing from any thrift stores where he doesn’t know the employees. Joshua Hodgson, a fellow Depop seller whose online vintage store Tempo Finds sells everything from hard-to-find jeans to tie-dye T-shirts to limited-edition sneakers, has also been avoiding the big, well-known thrift shops. “The pandemic forced me to expand and search my city for new sourcing locations like local collectors and mom and pop thrift shops,” he says. 

Many prominent vintage sellers have taken to cutting out physical, in-person sourcing entirely, instead choosing to buy from online platforms like eBay, Poshmark, and Depop. Amanda Adam and Piper Cashman, who are behind the Depop shop Zig Zag Goods, used to buy clothing and footwear in bulk from flea market vendors. The duo now hand selects items from other vendors on the virtual marketplace to upcycle, paint, tie-dye, bead, and, eventually, resell their goods — something that has worked to their advantage. “This process gave us fresh inspiration to come in contact with pieces we wouldn’t have ever imagined searching for on the apps,” they say.

With new health and safety measures in place, as well as a fresh perspective on sourcing in general, today’s expert thrifters have shopping secondhand during the pandemic down. Their advice? Maybe hold off on diving back into your local vintage bins for now. Your friendly neighborhood online thrifters are both more equipped to do it safely for you and are in great need of the support right now.

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