How to Clean Smelly Workout Clothes

After a challenging workout, the next hurdle is cleaning your clothes. FS Stock/Shutterstock

Workout gear is so incredibly high-tech. High-performance clothes wick away sweat, keeping you dry and comfortable while you're exerting yourself at the gym or on the trails. But that sweat has to go somewhere. And you may notice that the funky stench is still there, no matter how many times you run your clothes through the washer.

Workout gear is made from polyester and polyester clothes smell worse than cotton after exercise because it's a better breeding ground for the bacteria that grow odor, according to microbiologists.

In fact, fresh sweat doesn't have much odor. But as it seeps into polyester clothes, bacteria break down acids, hormones and sulfur compounds into smaller, stinkier compounds. For the study, researchers collected T-shirts from a small group of exercisers after intense spinning sessions, and incubated the shirts for 28 hours before having them inspected by a trained odor panel. (Fun job.) The polyester workout shirts were much more rank than the cotton ones.

Researchers suspect bacteria is able to better grow on polyester because of the nature of its surface. They suggest that if body odor is an uncomfortable problem, try cotton.

But most exercisers have come to love their high-tech clothes. So here are some suggestions for keeping them from reeking.

Get some air

A lot of people hit the gym or yoga studio, then stuff their duds into a bag until they get home. That just makes things worse as the tight, dark quarters encourage the smell to blossom.

Chuck Stark, a senior instructor at the REI Outdoor School in Chicago says immediately hanging up and airing out workout clothes can release the smell.

“When I get to work, I take off my shirt and hang it on a hanger,” he said. “Then at the end of the day, I’ll ride home in that shirt, then hang it up again. I can wear it four days before it’s time to wash it.”

Even if you have no intention of re-wearing your clothes until they've been washed, it's a smart move to give them time to breathe before you wash them, cleaning expert Jolie Kerr writes in Esquire.

"Let the clothes dry/air out before you put them into the hamper or laundry bag. When sweat-soaked workout clothes are tossed into a soggy heap, you're pretty much creating an ideal environment for bacteria to throw a big ole smell party."

Go inside out

washer filled with clothes
Try turning your clothes inside-out before tossing them in the washer. megastocker/Shutterstock

Before you even consider what you're putting in the washing machine, turn all your clothes inside out. All your sweat, oils and other icky bodily secretions accumulate on the inside, so flip things and put that surface on the outside.

Turning things inside-out gives the water and detergent a better chance to get right to the source of the stink.

A white vinegar pre-soak

White vinegar is the go-to trick of choice for odor killing. Kerr writes in Jezebel, "Pre-soak the gear in 1 cup of white vinegar and cold water before laundering as usual. I usually do this in my (CLEAN!) kitchen sink and just let the stuff chill out for 15-30 minutes, then throw it in the wash."

If you don't want the hassle of pre-soaking, you can add a quarter or a half cup, either at the beginning of the wash cycle or during the rinse cycle.

Toss in baking soda

One option to vinegar is baking soda. If baking soda gets the rancid smells out of your refrigerator, it should work for your workout gear. Toss in about a cup during the wash cycle.

Specialty detergents

detergent bottles
There are sports detergents specially made to tackle your active clothes. Nataly Studio/Shutterstock

Because you're not the only one who has had to deal with the workout stink issue, detergent manufacturers have also addressed the problem. Check out the laundry aisle and you'll see all sorts of sports detergents promising to fix the smell issue.

Whether you choose to use one of these specialty products or just your normal detergent, never use more than is recommended. It seems to make sense that the more soap, the cleaner our clothes should smell, but the opposite can be true, Kerr says.

"When you use more than the appropriate dose, the suds don't get fully washed out in the rinse cycle. And if soap is left behind on the clothes, it gives all that odor-causing bacteria an extra source of power, because bacteria loves to feed on soap."

Skip the fabric softener

Your workout clothes are probably soft enough, so leave the fabric softener on the shelf. It will cover your clothes in a coating that can trap smells and that coating will be tough to remove.

“It damages anything that stretches,” Kerr says. "A lot of times gym clothes come out of the wash and you get a whiff of something that doesn’t smell clean. That’s because fabric softener is locking in odors.”

Reconsider the dryer

"Always use the sniff test before putting the garment into the dryer," Mary Zeitler, lead consumer scientist at the Whirlpool Corporation Institute of Home Science, tells Health. If not, the heat will help set the smells into your clothes. Choose low or air-dry settings.

If you have the space, let clothes air dry instead. Typically, high-performance fabrics dry quickly and will even last longer without the rough and tumble spinning of the dryer.

Put clothes on ice

You might even want to attempt freezing dirty clothes to get the stink out. Some people do this with jeans and claim they come out smelling just like new, albeit quite frosty. Give it a try ... and hope that the people you live with won't mind seeing your sweaty gym shorts next to their favorite ice cream.