Preventive Medicine: Clean Clothes as a Key to a Joyful Life Out On the Road

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Packing light equates to a need for washing a few articles of clothing over and over again. The specific aim of this review is to provide guidance for those who might not have fully mastered every facet of the high art of in-sink laundry.

This is a topic that everybody needs to know about. Even if you’re extremely rich, overnight services are not always available. Some high end hotels won’t wash your under pants for any price. It follows that a modicum of self-reliance seems required for even the most powerful captains of industry.

The first step is to choose your clothing carefully. You might prefer cotton and wool fabrics at home, where energy intensive washers and dryers unlock their potential for providing comfort. But, on the road, these fabrics tend to be bulky, absorb moisture, and harbor odors. Denim is heavy and extremely slow to dry. In contrast, many non-wetable fabrics made of synthetic blends do not absorb water. Blends of polyesters, nylons, lycras, and similar fabrics can appear wet because water clings to them due to electrostatic forces and surface tensions, but since the water molecules do not actually inculcate themselves into the polymers themselves, they dry faster. Socks and most pudendal underpants represent items that need to be washed after every single use, so they’re the most critical garments to select carefully. Pants and many shirts can often survive for more than one day of use without triggering an arrest by the local health authorities. Nevertheless, it seems easy to love high-tech fishing gear made of sun retardant, non-wetable fabrics that pack down into very low volumes and do not wrinkle too much when they are wadded up.Â

Color can be an important consideration. Solid blacks, like all whites, will prominently display every speck of dust they accumulate. Other solid colors also produce relatively sharp contrasts with stains. Dull, dual or multi-colored clothing hides dirt, stains, and wrinkles. High energy, high bleach laundry systems might get the discoloration out of your white underwear at home, but all travel gear should be multi-colored, and that rule holds in spades for underwear.

You can carry single-use packets of laundry detergents. Travel packets are available from well known brands, including Tide, Woolite, and others. I prefer to use ordinary hand soap for socks, and leave some of the soap in them. That is, I prefer to NOT rinse them very well after the last soaping. This is because the soap powder will dissolve in the sweat upon the next wearing. It not only acts as an effective anti-deodorant, it decreases friction and reduces blistering. Keep in mind that athletes are frequently advised to rub a bar of soap on their socks before practicing. (Incidentally, under arm deodorants applied to the soles of the feet work even better than soaps for ensuring smell-free socks on long airplane trips.)

When washing these clothes in a hotel bathroom, it’s often useful to start by getting into a shower with your clothing on, not off. This will usually allow you to apply soap or shampoo directly to the areas that need them most. In medicine, these are often referred to as intertriginous zones, where skin meets skin, such as the junction of the upper extremity with the thorax (a.k.a. “axilla” or “armpit”). Once you’ve starting the process of washing these areas, then put a stopper in the drain and take the clothing off. Dropping the clothing to the bottom of the tub allows them to be washed with your feet while you conduct your ordinary rituals of bathing. Stomping on your clothes with your weight applies energy to drive water in-and-out like only the most vigorous of hand washing routines can match. And, it makes your feet feel good.

Wringing out clothes prior to hanging is hard work. Best to start this process with your feet as well. For fast drying, roll your articles in cotton bath towels prior to hanging. This can reduce drying times dramatically. And again, once you have rolled your articles into a bath towel, stepping on the role will increase the effectiveness of the maneuver.

Wind is the best drying force, but its availability is limited in many hotel scenarios. You can quick-start the drying process for socks by placing them over the nozzle of a hair dryer if available, and letting the wind fill the whole sock. I travel with postal-weight rubber bands that can be used to fix the socks to hairdryers that can then be left on their side on a sink top for 5-to-10 minutes while I do something else. Hair dryer nozzles in shirtsleeves and pant legs can also help speed things along when you’re in a rush, but these articles require much more of your active attention, and as a consequence, hair dryers aren’t preferred. Hotel lamps with incandescent bulbs are the next best thing to a real clothes dryer. Hang your big articles over the tops of the lamp shades. Socks can be dangled over the metal stays that fix the shade to the lamp. When you’re stirring, the radiant light from the lamp will dry most clothes in a few hours. Even after bedtime, there is often more air moving over a lampshade in the room than over a true clothes line in a little bathroom. Even when the bulb is an energy saving fluorescent model with little heat output, lamps are often good surfaces to maximize the exposure of an article to moving air. Lamps can usually be moved to a place where you can capitalize on any moving air from a climate control system. Of or on, turn the articles that you hang over lamps from time-to-time to dry moisture that tends to linger in creases and thus speed the process.

There’s little that matches the satisfaction of starting a new day on the road without a single article of dirty clothing. Washing daily or semi-daily allows one to experience the joy of clean cloths regularly while avoiding the dysthymia of placing dirty laundry in your bag.

Good luck.

P. David Mozley, M.D.

  10 comments for “Preventive Medicine: Clean Clothes as a Key to a Joyful Life Out On the Road

  1. August 3, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Great stuff Dave and thanks, though I have to admit I’d really like to think (in a delusional sort of way)that I’ve put all that sink and bathtub work behind me.

    I will go absolutely out of my way to find either through the hotel or my guide, a nice local woman to beat my cloths clean against some rock in a local water source for a buck or two (or whatever the local currency is)then what we’ve (think the Gypsy in Katmandu)been known to do in the past

    :-))

    Best,
    Steve

  2. als
    August 4, 2007 at 2:16 am

    Very useful advice, but clearly meant for males, some of us wear black most of the time and never wear socks. Shampoo works for laundry detergent also, it is often already in your hotel room. I’ve only seen those little packets once, in a Georgia Walmart.

    The drying advice is inventive. High tech laundry equipment is not in my experience, so the fun of doing more than simply hanging up the stuff on the shower rod escapes me, but it sounds like you enjoy it. I’d add the advice of taking enough tiny underwear instead so you could simply wash it before the return trip and avoid the custom agents entertaining luggage search.

    How about a packing article next?

  3. P. David Mozley, M.D.
    August 4, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks for your interest in some of my ideas.

    If you will please consider Googling “travel laundry soap” or something similar, then you will hit plenty of sites that will ship you single-use packets of Tide, Woolite, Forever New, and other laundry detergents.

    Your point about shampoo is well taken. In fact, hotel shampoo often leaves more of a fragrance than hand soap, which can provide more of an anti-odorant benefit when you take off your shoes for an overnight flight at the end of a long day on the road. (Don’t you wish that the whole world would take my advice on this matter?)

    My apologies for not being more sensitive to the fact that it might be easier for men than women to buy underpants that are multi-colored. Popular brands, such as Jockey, Dockers, Polo, Fruit of the Loom, and many others, sell underwear for men that are colored just like Brooks Brothers business suits. Perhaps I should resolve to spend more time thinking about women’s underwear in the future. In the meantime, maybe the basic principle will still be useful when thinking about the clothing you select to leave home with. Most any solid color is probably more robustly stain resistant than white. Black outerwear might constitute the highest form of fashion for evenings out at home, but it doesn’t hold up well on the road. Solid colors show wrinkles all too well after just a few hours of sitting on them. The wrinkles tend to become even more dramatic after a trans-oceanic flight. Little disguises the problem like the stripes and checks motifs in old fashioned business suits for men. The same color patterns are becoming increasingly available in outer wear for women. It seems like a veritable truth that grays, blues, and browns hide dirt better than black, but it might be that data from well controlled scientific studies are hard to cite.

    At the risk of sounding even more pedantic than usual, my advice to women includes:

    >>Prioritize function over fashion.

    >>Wear non-white socks or socklettes while out of the road so that your feet don’t blister.

    >>Select underwear that is resistant to staining and inhospitable to microbes that depend on moisture for their survival.

    >>For comfort as well as hygiene, everyone should travel in underwear that is at least one size larger than the undergarments they wear at home.

    >>And perhaps most importantly, always feel free to push back on or ignore advice from men like me who act as if we know what’s best for you.

    Good luck on your next journey.

    P. David Mozley

  4. als
    August 4, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    for the girls, Hanky Panky. It is one size, and if you don’t fit in it, you shouldn’t be seen in public anyway. No VPL, the blight of the American Landscape.

    Any do you really think that just because you put the MD after your name you don’t need to spell? I’m not that impressed that I can ignore sloppy language use.

    Fashion can be equal to function if you think hard enough about it. It is a service to others not to visually offend.

    And wear not only beautiful but comfortable shoes, same rationale. Be kind to others.

  5. als
    August 4, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    try Patagonia for the underclothes, Fruit of the Loom is less than elegant.

  6. saw
    August 11, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    I love the advice on how to wash and dry one’s clothes in a hotel room. I have always thrown my clothing over the shower rod or air conditioning/heating unit; however, in some countries neither is available. I have never encountered a room where there is no lamp, so I would guess that this method could be used anywhere.

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of leaving a small amount of detergent in any article of clothing, especially an area of such high friction as the feet. Is it possible that someone with sensitive skin might have an allergic reaction? Walking the streets of a foreign city with an itchy rash would be enough to put a damper on anyone’s vacation.

  7. P. David Mozley, M.D.
    August 12, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    The most common rash of the feet is “athlete’s foot” (tinea pedis). The most common foot injury is blistering due to friction from a shoe rub. Clean feet, clean socks, and to a lesser extent perhaps, a soap film left in your socks, should tend to prevent both problems, as well as reduce issues associated with foot odor.

    Potentially allergic reactions to ingredients in some foreign soaps that you might find in far away hotel bathrooms are an interesting idea. “Pure” soap itself is not regulated. A pure soap is defined as a product composed exclusively of alkali salts of fatty acids (see http://www.goplanetearth.com/fda_defines_soap.html ). However, if a soap product contains fragrances or moisturizers, then it is classified as a cosmetic, and regulatory agencies like the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) require them to be hypoallergenic, that is, not likely to be irritating, even upon prolonged contact (after all, one rarely rinses off all of the soap particles one applies during bathing). The FDA standard for approval to market goes even further by requiring these cosmetic soaps to be not harmful upon accidental contact with the eyes (albeit they may be irritating to the eyes). It’s unlikely that these cosmetic soaps will cause a problem on the skin of the feet if they don’t cause a problem when applied to more sensitive skin during bathing rituals. Allergic reactions to cosmetics are rare (see http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-safe.html ). Reactions to soaps are apparently even rarer.

    All that said, your key point is well taken: traveler beware. No one really knows what all the ingredients are in a foreign bar of bathroom soap, and some countries have, shall we say, “more relaxed” regulatory standards than others.

    Good luck on your next trek.

    P. David Mozley, M.D.

  8. als
    August 13, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Dr. Mozley-Now that I have read your other pieces I feel that a bit of contrition is in order. I can’t help but wish that I had a print version. There have been several occasions when I have found myself flat out in a hotel room at 7am with no Internet access and expected to appear at a 5-course dinner by 8 pm. It would come in very handy to have some strategies available. Your advice is a new country between what is printed as an aside in a guidebook, simplistic web advice and the archives of journals. If you make it, I will buy several to give to those who frantically text message me when in crisis abroad. It will save me some effort, and likely will be more medically sound than my version. The option to ask a specific question online is helpful but a hand sized print version would be a useful adjunct. Can we hope for bug bite information in the future perhaps?

    Perhaps my objections to your laundry advice were a little harsh. As someone who has traveled alone with several small children, my experience is extensive in this area. I might add a little additional product advice. If you can repackage it in a travel friendly container, nalgene perhaps-“Zout” will get most any organic stain out, but it can also remove paint or sticky labels, so be careful. It used to be available only at medical uniform stores, but it is now available in most supermarkets or chain pharmacies. Rene Furterer (Amazon has it) makes a shampoo that lathers in salt water, in the event that fresh water is at a premium.

    The soap in the sock advice is a novelty. I also wondered about the hypersensitivity issue mentioned in the earlier comment. Perhaps we should simply appreciate the possibility that someone’s feet won’t offend us.

  9. als
    January 4, 2008 at 6:41 pm

    Another travel laundry detergent to consider-for those of us who might need to wash our cashmere sweater in the sink…..http://www.dropps.com/store/dropps.html

  10. Yael Lenkinski
    March 17, 2008 at 1:55 am

    Hi David,
    I hope you remember me. I have nothing to do with your travelling (though it sounds interesting). Just wanted to say hello and see how you are doing, what and where, and maybe with whom (depending on who it is…). So, if you so wish, drop me a word. I would love to hear from you.
    Yael

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