How To Wash Your Workout Clothes So They’re Actually Clean

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
For many years, I worked in the laundry room of a university gym, where I had the glamorous task of washing student athletes' practice clothing and towels. I spent so many hours diligently separating sweaty compression shorts and folding musty towels that I'm acutely familiar with the smell of used workout clothes. But even with all my experience handling dirty sports t-shirts, I never learned how to completely get the smell out of workout clothes.
Cleaning sweaty clothes can be a beast. The reason your workout clothes smell so stank has to do with the buildup of sebum, or oil that's secreted from the sebaceous glands of your skin, explains Kyle Blakely, vice president of Materials Innovation for Under Armour. When you work out, your body makes more sebum, which essentially becomes food for odour-causing bacteria, he explains. On top of that, many workout clothes are made with synthetic fibres that are oleophilic, or oil-accepting, meaning they harbour sebum and bacteria.
These days, there are lots of fabric innovations that are aimed at addressing these specific odour issues. For example, anti-microbial and anti-odour chemical treatments can be applied to synthetic fabric to mitigate any smelliness, Blakely explains. Workout clothes made from cotton, which is a natural fibre, tend to be less smelly because they're less olephilic, he says.
But even with the fanciest workout clothes, you still have to clean your garments. This will get rid of any odour that makes you self-conscious in hot yoga class, but also prevent any infections that can result from poorly washed or dried clothes. Not sure if you're doing it right? Here are Blakely's tips:

Use hot water occasionally.

The best way to release odour is to wash garments in hot water, Blakely says, but there are some downsides to that, as it's not the most environmentally friendly choice. "Hot water can also damage other desirable aspects of a garment, such as moisture management, colour retention, and durability," he adds. You should follow the wash instructions (typically, wash cold, tumble dry low) that come with your specific garment to ensure they last long. But, "a good hot wash occasionally will help rid a garment of any tenacious sebum, without causing excessive garment life or environmental issues," he says.

Avoid fabric softeners.

While it's hard to resist the fresh smell of a fabric softener, you'll end up playing yourself if you use them on your workout clothes. Many traditional formulations will deposit chemicals on the fabric that can hamper moisture management, Blakely says. The same goes for dryer sheets, unfortunately. "The use of any type of fabric softener — liquid or dryer sheets — will have an adverse effect on removing the odours," he adds.

Find the right detergent — and use it wisely.

A word about detergents: avoid ones that are made with chemicals called surfactants, which are meant to help lift stains and oils out of fabric. While that might help the issue in the short term, they also stick to the garment and make space for unwanted sebum to hang out, Blakely says. "Therefore using too much detergent will actually have an adverse effect on removing the odours," he says. For these reasons, he recommends detergents that are surfactant-free for workout clothes.

Switch your clothes from the washer to the dryer ASAP.

"One of the primary contributors to odour on fabrics is when they’re left in the washer wet for an extended period of time," Blakely says. Switching your clothes to the dryer ASAP so they're not sitting in their own filth is one easy way to prevent that stale, musty, wet smell that lingers on clothing.

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