This question comes up a lot on martial arts forums and at first glance, it appears ridiculous. Why would you be able to wash your martial arts uniform but be told not to wash the belt? Well, there are some good reasons that people might think you can’t wash your martial arts belts, and, in some cases, it may even be true that you shouldn’t wash them.
Can you wash your martial arts belts? Yes! You absolutely can wash your martial arts belts. You should wash your martial arts belts every now and then to avoid a build up of bacteria and dirt.
Admittedly, some dojos may say otherwise. Let’s see why that might be!
Why Would Anyone Think You Can’t Wash Your Martial Arts Belts?
Well, there are several stories that may explain why people think that there’s a prohibition on washing your belt in martial arts.
The Changing Colors Of A Filthy Belt
One of the oldest stories is this one. It promotes the idea that originally there were no colored belts, just white and black belts. When a practitioner was given their white belt over time it would turn yellow with their sweat and they would achieve their first rank.
Then as they fought more it would turn green from grass stains. Then brown from the dirt rubbed into it and eventually it would be so filthy that it would turn black and finally, at this point, the student would be awarded their black belt.
Why It’s Not True
Firstly, most martial arts have an East Asian origin. If you’ve ever been to this part of the world then you will know that they are fastidiously clean people. The idea that you would be asked to wear a belt as it got filthier and filthier is ridiculous.
Plus, a dirty belt is far more likely to turn brown immediately than to go through distinct yellow and green phases first. When did you ever see a white item of clothing turn green unless it was dyed that way or was going moldy?
The filthy belt story is a great story but it’s a story, nonetheless.
There are several variations on this story and all of them have no basis in fact.
The Origins Of The Belt System
What is true, however, is that originally there were only white and black belts. Actually, if you go back far enough – there was a time when there were only white belts, because ranks were confirmed with written certificates not using a belt system.
The belt system was introduced in judo in the 1800’s but only had white and black belts. In the 1910s, they added dan gradings (black stripes, then red and white check before a final red belt). Colors only appeared in the 1930s when judo was introduced in Europe.
This is another good reason that the changing colors story can’t be true – for the longest time, martial arts belts weren’t colored at all.
The Jiu-Jitsu Story
There’s another story that maintains that Jiu-Jitsu students simply don’t wash their belts. They say that these students believe that washing their belts will “wash away their knowledge” of their discipline.
This tall tale maintains that as a student gains their experience in Jiu-Jitsu that experience is marked as filth on their belts. It also says that students with a white belt are demonstrating a commitment to a new beginning and “a fresh start” and that washing your belt would send you back to the beginning.
Why It’s Not True
This is clearly the same kind of nonsense as the dirtier belt story. Jiu-jitsu originates in Japan. Japanese people aren’t impressed by people who don’t wash their clothes. You’re not going to win the respect of a Japanese fighting master by stinking up his dojo. That’s not how things work in Japan.
However, it is true that a number of dojos outside of Japan that practice Jiu-Jitsu have a large number of students that don’t wash their belts thanks to this rumor.
Can You Wash Your Taekwondo Belt?
There are a fair number of people who were particularly confused on the issue of washing taekwondo belts.
Most taekwondo dojos recommend that you do wash your belt. Just don’t wash it too often to prevent it from wearing and tearing (ending up a little shabby looking).
That seems like reasonable advice.
American Dojos And The Washing Of Martial Arts Belts
This brings us to the main culprit of the “you shouldn’t wash your belt” myth in modern martial arts. American dojos.
There are a large number of American dojos and American martial arts outfitters that recommend students don’t wash their belts. Some appear to have fallen for the myths as outlined in this article and are now promoting the idea that this is “traditional”.
Others, however, appear to be following the manufacturer’s guidelines on garment care! Yes Kataaro, Custom Martial Arts Products, for example, simply says “Don’t wash your belt because it might shrink”!
But really, if your belt shrinks in the wash, you might want to choose another outfitter to buy your belts from in the first place. Once again, Japanese martial artists wash their belts all the time and they don’t have any issues with their belts suddenly becoming smaller.
Why You Should Wash Your Martial Arts Belts
Now, we turn to the important question which is not “can you wash your martial arts belt?” but “should you wash your martial arts belt?”
To that we can confidently say, “yes”. You should wash your martial arts belt and that’s because it’s a potential source of communicable diseases and other infections.
There are many conditions that can be passed on to other people (or alternatively picked up from other people) on your clothing and they include:
- Skin diseases – any communicable disease of the skin will be transmissible on dirty clothing. Think herpes, warts, ringworm, scabies, shingles, yeast infections, thrush, impetigo and more.
- General fungal infections – fancy catching thrush from a belt? We didn’t think so.
- General parasitical infections – body lice and head lice won’t survive long on a filthy belt, but they’ll do better than they would on a clean one.
This is without a doubt the best reason to get your belts washed. Now, it’s fair to say that in striking-style martial arts, you’re not going to come into contact with an opponent’s belt too often but why risk it?
In grappling-style martial arts, however, you’re going to be rolling all over the mat and regularly be in contact with your opponent’s clothing. Why would you choose not to wash your belt when you know it could give you or your opponent diseases?
Some people say that this is controversial but it’s not, this is how the medical evidence stacks up and there’s no good reason to ignore it. It’s not like washing a martial arts belt is a difficult or risky job.
How To Wash Your Martial Arts Belts
OK, now that we’ve established that you should wash your belt, let’s take a look at how to wash it:
- Use cold water. Hot water might shrink your belt or make it stretch during washing.
- Add vinegar to the water. Yes, it doesn’t smell fantastic but it’s a great anti-bacterial agent and will stop your belt from being stinky and/or contagious.
- Add some laundry detergent. Soap, as it’s otherwise known, helps get the grime off your belt without too much effort.
- Soak the belt at first. Let it get wet and covered in the vinegar and soap.
- Then twist and agitate the belt to start washing it (think the action of a washing machine).
- Once it’s properly washed – give it a rinse in cold water to get the excess soap and vinegar off.
- Then hang it up to dry. Don’t put it away wet, unless you want your belt to go moldy.
Here’s Noah Legel describing his technique for washing a karate belt in order to avoid infectious diseases on YouTube:
Can you wash your martial arts belts? Yes, you can and yes, you should. The idea that you shouldn’t comes from a couple of misconceptions of traditional martial arts culture. Washing your belt is simply a question of using cold water, vinegar and soap and some washing motion. It’s easy, safe and essential for good hygiene.