Denim is a fashion staple that transcends trends and seasons. From classic blue jeans to edgy distressed jackets, this versatile fabric has something for everyone. But have you ever wondered about the various types of denim washes and how they’re created? In this post, we’ll explore the world of denim washes, from raw denim to bleached finishes, and share style tips for rocking each look.

First, What is Raw Denim?

Before we dive into the different types of denim washes, let’s talk about raw denim. Also known as dry denim, this is denim in its purest form – unwashed and untreated. Raw denim has a deep, dark indigo color and a stiff texture. Over time, as you wear and break in your raw denim jeans, they’ll develop unique fades and creases that reflect your body and lifestyle. It’s like having a one-of-a-kind piece of art!

How Do Different Denim Washes Work?

So, how do we get from raw denim to the various shades and textures of washed denim? It all comes down to the washing process to get a variety of different denim washes. Denim is treated with different chemicals, enzymes, and physical techniques to achieve the desired look. The length of the wash cycle, the temperature of the water, and the addition of stones or other abrasives all contribute to the final result. Let’s take a closer look at some common types of denim washes.

Different Types of Denim Washes for Jeans

From subtle fading to dramatic distressing, there are countless types of denim washes out there. Here are a few of the most popular:

1. Stone Wash Denim

stonewash denim - different types of denim washes

Stone washing is a classic technique that uses pumice stones to soften and fade the denim. The stones rub against the fabric, creating a worn-in look and feel. Stone washed jeans have a vintage vibe that pairs well with everything from t-shirts to blazers.

Era: Stone wash denim gained popularity in the 1980s, and quickly became a symbol of the casual, laid-back fashion of the time. Remember puffy stone washed jean jackets?

Style tip: Ladies, you can cuff your stone washed jeans and pair them with ankle boots for a cool, laid-back look.

For men, you can mix stone wash denim with a vintage graphic tee and a pair of high-top sneakers. Layer with a denim jacket for a double-denim look. We give style tips for the denim-on-denim look in our guide for how to style a jean jacket.

2. Acid Wash Denim

acid wash denim - different types of denim washes

Acid washing denim involves treating the denim with chlorine or other chemicals to create a mottled, marbled effect. The result is a bold, edgy look that’s perfect for making a statement. Acid wash denim jackets and jeans were huge in the 80s and 90s, and they’re making a comeback in a big way.

Era: Acid wash denim was a hallmark of 1980s fashion, often associated with the rock and punk scenes of the time.

Style tip: Ladies, balance the intensity of acid wash denim jeans with a plain top and simple, minimal jewelry. Add white sneakers to keep it fresh.

Men, you can try pairing acid wash jeans with a black t-shirt (or crispy white one) and dark boots.

3. Rinse Wash Denim

Rinse washing is a gentle process that involves washing the denim with minimal agitation and no added chemicals. The result is a softer, more evenly faded look that retains much of the denim’s original color. Rinse washed jeans are a great choice for a polished, put-together look.

Era: Rinse wash denim became popular in the 1990s. This wash offered a cleaner and more uniform look that appealed to the minimalist fashion trends of the decade.

Style tip: For women, consider dressing up your rinse washed jeans with a crisp white button-down and loafers for a smart casual outfit. Add a fitted blazer to top off the look.

Men, you can do something similar with a white button-down, loafers and a tailored blazer that has a little flair.

4. Enzyme Wash Denim

Enzyme washing uses natural enzymes to break down the denim fibers, resulting in a soft, slightly faded finish. This eco-friendly process is gentler on the fabric than chemical treatments, and it creates a comfortable, lived-in feel.

Era: Enzyme wash denim became most popular in the early 2000s. This was part of the eco-friendly clothing movement.

Style tip: Ladies, pair your enzyme washed jeans with a cozy sweater and sneakers for a perfect weekend look.

Men, try pairing enzyme wash denim with a classic tee and sneakers.

5. Bleach Wash Denim

As the name suggests, bleach washing involves treating the denim with bleach to create a light, bright finish. Bleached denim has a beachy, sun-kissed vibe that’s perfect for summer. You can find bleached denim in a range of shades, from pale ice blue to crisp white.

Era: Bleach wash denim saw a huge spike in popularity during the late 1980s and early 1990s – when grunge was becoming more mainstream.

Style tip: Ladies, embrace the laid-back feel of bleached denim by pairing it with a breezy linen top and espadrilles.

Men, try bleach wash denim shorts with a crispy white tee. You can add loafers or canvas shoes to tie it together.

Shades of Different Denim Washes

In addition to the various washing techniques, denim comes in a spectrum of shades from light to dark denim. Here’s a quick guide to the most common types of denim shades:

1. Light Wash Denim: The Summer Essential

light wash - different types of denim washes

Light wash denim has a soft, faded look that’s perfect for casual outfits. Think summer picnics, beach days, and laid-back brunches. Light wash jeans and jackets have a fresh, youthful feel that’s easy to dress up or down.

Style tip: Ladies,  wear your light wash jeans with a colorful tank top and sandals for an effortless, breezy look.

Men, pair your light wash denim with a striped tee and canvas sneakers for a classic, preppy look.

2. Medium Wash Denim The Everyday Go-To

Medium wash denim is a versatile shade that falls somewhere between light and dark. It has a balanced, timeless look that works for any occasion. Medium wash jeans are a wardrobe staple that you can wear year-round.

Style tip: Ladies, tuck a flowy blouse into your medium wash jeans and add heeled sandals for a chic, feminine outfit.

For men, tuck a graphic tee into your medium wash jeans and add a pair of sneakers for a laid-back, casual vibe.

3. Raw & Dark Wash Denim: The Classic Choice

dark wash denim - different types of denim washes

Dark wash denim has a deep, inky color that’s perfect for dressier occasions. Dark jeans and jackets have a sleek, sophisticated look that pairs well with elevated pieces like blazers and dress shoes. If you’re aiming for a polished, put-together vibe, reach for dark wash denim.

dark wash denim - different types of denim washes

Style tip: Ladies, pair your dark wash jeans with a crisp white button-down and leather loafers for a polished, put-together look.

Men, wear your dark wash jeans with a crisp button-down and a tailored coat for a sharp, professional look.

Pre-Wash and Post-Wash Distressing & Pattern Techniques

different types of denim washes

In addition to washing, denim can be treated with various distressing and pattern techniques to create unique looks. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Whiskered Denim
  • Hand Sanded Denim
  • Shibori Tie Dye Denim
  • Distressed Denim


Whiskering involves creating faded lines or “whiskers” on the thighs and hips of the jeans. This technique mimics the natural wear patterns that occur over time, giving the jeans a broken-in look.

Era: Whiskering became a denim trend in the late 1990s. This added authenticity to the jeans by imitating natural wear patterns.

Style tip: Ladies, help the whiskering stand out with a fitted top and a blazer for a smart-casual ensemble. Top it off with an eye-catching pair of heels.

Men, you can pair whiskered jeans with a button-up shirt and suede boots to mix rugged and refined.

Hand Sanding

Hand sanding is a manual distressing technique that involves rubbing the denim with sandpaper to create a faded, worn effect. This method allows for precise control over the placement and intensity of the distressing.

Era: Hand sanding as a technique became widely used in the fashion industry during the early 2000s.

Style tip: Ladies, combine hand-sanded jeans with a delicate lace top and ankle boots for a contrast between rugged and feminine.

Men, try pairing hand-sanded denim with a vintage rock band tee and leather jacket for a vintage, timeless look.

Shibori Tie Dye

Shibori is a Japanese dyeing technique that involves folding, twisting, or bunching the fabric and binding it before dyeing. The result is a unique, patterned effect that adds a bohemian touch to denim.

Era: Shibori tie dye denim grew in popularity as a style in the 1970s. This reflected the era's love for bold patterns and self-expression.

Style tip: Ladies, pair shibori tie dye denim with a simple white tank and sandals for a laid-back, bohemian look.

Men, match shibori tie dye shorts with a plain, solid-colored tee and canvas slip ons for a relaxed, artistic vibe.

Distressed Denim

Distressed denim features rips, tears, and frayed edges for an edgy, lived-in look. This technique can be achieved through various methods, including manual ripping, laser distressing, and enzyme washing.

Distressed Denim - Different types of denim washes

Era: Distressed denim became popular in the early 2000s, reflecting a grunge and rebellious fashion statement.

Style tip: Ladies, for a blend of edge & feminine look, pair distressed jeans with a soft, flowy blouse and ankle boots or the always classic plain white-t. Add a leather crossbody bag to complete the outfit. 

Men, you can go for a rugged, casual look with distressed jeans, a plain white t-shirt, and sneakers. You can als pair a band tee with combat boots if you’re a fan of the rock-and-roll look. Throw on a denim jacket for an extra layer of style.

From raw denim to bleached finishes, there’s a denim wash out there for every style and occasion. By understanding the different types of washes and distressing techniques, you can choose the perfect pair of jeans or jacket to elevate your look. Whether you prefer a sleek dark wash or a laid-back light wash, denim is a timeless choice that never goes out of style.

At American Rag, we’re committed to providing not only the best denim styles but also the knowledge to help you care for your purchase. Shop our Men's Denim and Women's Denim collection with confidence, knowing that with a little TLC, your new favorite jeans will be a staple in your wardrobe for years to come.