5 Things to Avoid Buying Secondhand

Things to Avoid Buying Secondhand
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

This post was originally published in 2016 and was updated in 2021.

Things to Avoid Buying Secondhand

A few months ago, I shared my tips for thrift shopping without regret. Thrift shopping is an excellent choice for the planet, not to mention your wallet. But there are some things I try to avoid buying secondhand.

I’m a huge proponent of buying secondhand, but not everything on the secondhand market is created equally in terms of stitching, fit, and fabric quality. And since most things have been used or worn before, it’s especially important to be aware of the way certain fabrics and materials wear over time.

It’s also important to be alert to any condition issues like pilling, pulling, staining, stretching, and shrinking. I recommend looking over the pieces you’re considering in natural light because yellow fluorescent light has a way of covering a multitude of problems. Try to get a good look at items near a window.

Working as the manager of a thrift store for five years made me much more aware of the styles and fabrics to avoid, as well as the most common wear issues on secondhand clothes.

5 Things to Avoid at the Thrift Store

1. Polyester & Rayon Blends

If you want your items to wash and wear well, avoid anything made of knit polyester and rayon blends. The term polyester can refer to a huge variety of textiles – from chiffons to satins to knits – and not all of them will show wear quickly.

But in my experience, clothing made from both knit cotton/polyester blends and rayon/stretch knits will start pilling after light wear, even if you take care to hand wash and air dry the items. And since you’re already buying these things secondhand, it’s best to just avoid these fabrics altogether.

(Polyester also sheds microfibers during wear and washing, which can end up in our waterways, food, and bodies!)

2. White Shirts

White shirts are so crisp and summery, but it’s best to avoid them on the secondhand market unless you’re shopping at a curated consignment store (or going for the grunge look).

In my experience, the majority of white tees, tanks, and blouses donated to thrift shops have either armpit stains or food stains that didn’t fully wash out. I constantly had to cull white clothing from our racks at the shop because of pit stains. If you must buy a white shirt, make sure to check it out in natural light.

3. Vintage Elastic Waist Pants & Skirts

While I’ve found lovely vintage skirts at secondhand shops, I would generally advocate avoiding anything 20+ years old with an elastic waist. Elastic wears out over time, losing its stretch and expanding.

To check for elastic loss, give the waistband of the item in question a firm tug and listen for the tell-tale crinkling sound of bad elastic. Sometimes elastic goes out in swimwear due to prolonged exposure to chlorine. In this case, the whole suit may feel brittle. When in doubt, put it back on the rack. Let an attendant know about serious condition issues.

4. Super Stretch Denim

The thin, stretch fabric that today’s fast fashion jeans are often made with loses its shape very quickly, conforming to the original wearer’s specific curves and movement.

It’s best to avoid pants, jeans, and jeggings made of insubstantial, stretch fabric because you’ll often find when you get them home that the knees start sagging or the area around the crotch and thighs has stretch marks from heavy wear by the previous owner.

5. DIY Hemming & Tailoring

Just say no to items that were cut, cropped, and taken in at home. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I’ve been pretty disappointed by items I took home only to find that the hem was uneven or the seam allowance too small for minor alterations of my own.

Even if the item was professionally tailored, it may still be a no go, because tailoring is body-specific. An item that may have fit you at its original proportions is now cut just right for the nice lady who donated it to the thrift shop. Tailoring makes it nearly impossible to tell what size the item really is since the size on the tag is now irrelevant.

A few other items to avoid: used socks and underwear (that one’s probably obvious), appliances with only 2 prongs on the plug (it’s a shock hazard!), and particle board furniture (it will likely fall apart in transit).

As with anything, there are occasionally exceptions to the rule. But by going into the store with a clear set of limits, it’s much easier to avoid regrettable purchases.

I’m interested to hear your thrift shop horror stories! 

What items disappointed you after you purchased them? What fabrics and qualities do you avoid when secondhand shopping?

Things to Avoid Buying Secondhand

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  2. Great blog post! I'm a fashion blogger in Las Vegas and my specialty is shopping and styling high-end clothes from the thrift store. Darlene http://whosaprettygirl.com

  3. Point #2 is a good case against white shirts in general; they lead short, perilous lives. I can't believe how far clothing quality has fallen in the past five or ten years. I'm only 31, but when I was younger even acrylics and/or clothes from the Dollar General or WalMart didn't look as chintzy as a lot of the things I see in "nicer" window displays now. So many fabrics look cheap even from ten feet away… One more thing; while dye can disguise some stains, it can reveal stains you didn't even know about. Always a gamble.

  4. YES! My shop uses a price list so nearly everything is the same price, but at "higher end" shops, they always price the trendy items more even though the quality is poor. Great tip on dying and washing certain fabrics to remove stains. I tend to buy the slightly dated stuff, because the fabric quality is better (even items from the early 2000s are significantly better quality).

  5. That's a good point. I used to buy tons of ill-fitting stuff at thrift stores only to get them home and realize I didn't really have the skill (or the time) to take everything in, up, or out. But I agree with you that simple fixes like shortening a dress can make a big difference.

  6. I buy natural fibres (wool cotton or silk) or a good weight, and an item with few seams so I can refashion it, and I am constantly shocked at how much of this there is in the charity shops…. people seem to 'throw out loads', and most times this stuff doesnt sell as they are dated..-so now I have to be careful not to buy too much, or more than I can sew… In the past, I have bought whites, linen will take a hot wash well so no stain issues – I got a divine cream silk blouse, complete with armpit stain, that dyed a shade of charcoal, and last year I tried shibori with indigo dye, so would highly recommend that! totally with you on the cheap fabrics, they are horrid to sew and funnily enough tend to be the more expensive items in the local charity shop as they are more fashionable looking!

  7. I avoid anything that will require extensive work on my part to adjust it. I found a lovely dress recently, but I would have had to shorten it, take it in, and readjust the bust darts, and probably the shoulders as well. For that much work, I'd prefer to start from scratch and make my own instead. If it just needs a bit of hemming or a little taking in, that's fine. I have a lovely linen sundress I found last year that was floor length on me. I shortened it to knee-length and I love it and wear it a lot now.

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