Here’s How to Get the Sweat Smell Out of Workout Clothes
Sweaty, soiled workout gear can start to stink if you don't wash it correctly. Try these tips to get the sweat smell out of clothes.
The sweat smell on your clothes
No one wants to hear (or even think) this, but if you work out regularly and don’t wash your athletic attire well enough or often enough, you very well may stink. Bacteria, sweat, and body oils collect inside synthetic fabrics like your leggings or sports bra and can cause a funky odor, says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And the more bacteria in your sweat, the greater your chances of stinking. (Here are the things your sweat says about you.)
Your choice of fabric matters, too. When 26 people took an indoor cycling class wearing shirts made of cotton, polyester, or synthetic blends, cyclists who sported polyester T-shirts smelled worse than exercisers who wore cotton, according to a study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Polyester and other synthetic blends can trap sweat and bacteria in the spaces between the fibers, causing a stubborn odor. (This is why you sweat so much.)
Now that you know why your workout clothing (and you) smell kind of funky, check out these expert-approved tips and DIY hacks that can help get the sweat smell out of your workout clothes—and keep it out.
Take off your sweaty clothes as soon as possible
Peel off your wet, sweaty clothing as soon as you can, Dr. Zeichner suggests. And be mindful of how you discard the dirty clothes.
“Do not put sweaty clothing in a pile or in a plastic bag, which will keep it wet and create an environment that allows for overgrowth of bacteria,” he says. “Ideally, hang sweaty clothing on a clothesline or on your towel rack so it can dry.” This will literally starve the odor-causing bacteria, as they can’t function and multiply without water. (The higher the bacteria growth, the more likely there will be a stench.)
(Don’t have time to shower after the gym? Here’s how to freshen up post-workout.)
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Turn clothes inside out before washing them
Another pro tip: Turn dirty clothing inside out before you put it into the washing machine. “This allows for better contact between the detergent and the area where sweat is deposited on the garment,” Dr. Zeichner says. Now you are ready to wash the stink, sweat, and grime out of your clothing.
Faced with a serious stink, it can be tempting to add more detergent. But resist the urge. “More is not necessarily better,” Dr. Zeichner says. “Using too much detergent means that cleansing molecules can become lodged within the weave of the fabric, and when this comes in contact with your skin, it can lead to irritation reactions.”
Bailey Carson, head of cleaning at Handy, an online marketplace for home services, agrees. “Although adding extra soap sounds like it would help relieve strong odors, using an overload of detergent can actually make matters worse,” she says. “Too much soap that’s not thoroughly washed out creates a damp environment ideal for the growth of mold and mildew, which worsens odors because of an increase in bacteria.” Follow the instructions on the detergent’s label.
(This is the only way that you should be cleaning your underwear.)
Use more than just detergent
Sometimes you need more than detergent to de-stink your athletic wear. “The best way to clean your sweaty, smelly, and gross workout clothes is to not only wash them with detergent, but also sanitize them,” says Mary Gagliardi, a scientist at The Clorox Company who’s known as “Dr. Laundry.”
(These are the germ-spreading items you’re probably carrying.)
Sanitation is especially important when washing workout apparel that has spandex in it. “This helps to remove and break down naturally occurring bacteria that gets trapped deep within the clothing fibers,” she says.
While using bleach to wash bleach-safe laundry has been the go-to for sanitizing laundry for decades, it doesn’t help fabrics you can’t safely bleach, namely wool, silk, mohair, leather, spandex, and non-colorfast colors. We’ve all seen what can happen to clothing that comes into contact with bleach when it shouldn’t: bleach spots and stains.
Laundry sanitizer products to the rescue. You can find them with other laundry-care products in stores like Target and Walmart, or online. “I recommend using a product that kills 99.9 percent of odor-causing bacteria to sanitize all your machine-washable laundry that isn’t bleach-safe,” Gagliardi says. This works at any wash temperature, so it’s perfect for items labeled “machine wash cold.”
If you don’t have a laundry sanitizer product, wash your workout clothes in the hottest water recommended on the item’s care label, she says.
Forsake the fabric softener
Fabric softener is great for some materials, but workout gear is not on this list. “When fabric softener gets into the pores of your workout gear, it will trap the dirt and sweat into the fabric, which could leave your clothes with that bad ‘gym clothes’ odor,” Carson says.
DIY get-the-stink-out hacks
There are some other DIY hacks that can also help de-stink your gear pronto. If you don’t have laundry sanitizer on hand, try one of the following tips.
Soak clothes in vinegar and water
Soak your workout clothes in a mixture of vinegar and water (1 part vinegar to 4 parts water) for 30 minutes prior to washing. “Doing so will fight the odors, as it breaks down the oils and bacteria accumulated throughout your workout session,” Carson says.
Sprinkle baking soda into the washing machine
Baking soda is for more than cakes and cookies. It can deodorize your refrigerator, trash cans, carpets, and more—including your stinky gym clothes. “By incorporating some baking soda into your laundry routine, it will aid in neutralizing odors without adding more strong scents into the mix,” says Carson.
Just add it carefully so that it doesn’t clump and clog the washing machine. “Sprinkle the half cup of baking soda in the washer before adding in clothing,” she says.
Squeeze lemon juice into the washing machine
Another option is to squeeze the juice of one lemon into the washing machine. “As the lemon juice breaks down oils left behind in the fabric, it simultaneously fights the bacteria and odors, leaving behind a fresher and cleaner scent,” Carson says. “Rather than simply veiling odors, this DIY hack also kills the bacteria causing the pungent odors.”
(Beware of these scary germs on your clothes.)
The last word
The more you sweat during your workout, the greater the chance that you—and your clothing—will have a nasty stench. Dry out your exercise attire so that bacteria can’t multiply, and turn the items inside out before running them through the laundry machine. Remember that fibers in moisture-wicking materials provide bacteria with havens to multiply. Using a laundry sanitizer, vinegar presoak, or adding baking soda or lemon juice to your load can also help curb odor.
Next, here are the everyday items germier than a toilet seat.
- Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research, Department Dermatology, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City
- Applied and Environmental Microbiology: "Microbial Odor Profile of Polyester and Cotton Clothes after a Fitness Session"
- Bailey Carson, head of cleaning, Handy
- Mary Gagliardi, a scientist at The Clorox Company