The Smelly Leggings Problem We Need To Talk About

Photographed by Danny Kim.
Don’t be embarrassed. It’s not just you.

It’s been documented in a Reddit thread. Professional dancers call it “Two Show Pussy.” Tide has picked up on it, creating an ad that is even more oblique than tampon commercials, promising that its Odor Defense Collection will deal with your “yoga aroma.”

It’s that crotch smell, which for some reason seems to be amplified by stretchy yoga pants. And because we wear stretchy pants everywhere (thanks, athleisure), it’s becoming somewhat of an urgent problem.

“I had a pair of Lululemon pants that permanently smelled like my vagina, and it freaked me out to the point I trashed them,” one woman told me. “In focus-group interviews, women have said that’s a place where smell in clothing is particularly bad,” says professor Rachel McQueen of the University of Alberta, who studies how textiles develop and retain smell.

Yes, sometimes it could be caused by a yeast infection or something else funky going on with your nether region. If it’s particularly fishy in nature, go visit your OB/GYN. But more likely, you’re completely healthy and normal — it’s just the pants that are the problem.

“There is so little known about the science of it,” says McQueen. “The mechanism of odor from humans is so complex. There might be research going on in-house [at textile manufacturers), but it’s all quite confidential.” (Male textile researchers wouldn’t return my emails on the topic of vagina odor in textiles. Can’t imagine why.)

Professor McQueen focuses mainly on underarm odor, and she says research is scant, but she did have some hypotheses and tips to share:

1. Avoid the Stretchy, Sweat-Wicking, Synthetic Stuff

Allow me to get science-y on you for a moment. Most odors are composed of chemical compounds, each with its own unique chemical structure. And a lot of our body’s odor compounds — though not all — tend to be polar, like water. Because cotton is also polar, it absorbs sweat and underarm odors and traps the chemical compounds, leading to much less intense odor. (That’s also why cotton gets really heavy when it’s wet; it’s carrying around all that liquid inside the fibers.) Then, when you wash it, the water gets inside the fibers and cleanses away all those odorous compounds. Bam, clean clothing.

But polyester, which is required to make clothing stretchy, is non-polar and non-absorbent. This is what makes it so famously “sweat-wicking.” On top of that, because it repels water, polyester is harder to clean in the washing machine, which might be why, even after you wash your workout clothes, the odor sometimes doesn’t go away.

2. Keep Cotton Away From Your Crotch
But wait, there’s another thing to consider. Cotton tends to get a musty smell when it’s in humid environments where it doesn’t dry out quickly. Professor McQueen notices this when trying to line-dry clothes in humid climates versus dry ones. Could our crotch qualify as a perpetually humid environment? I asked her. “I don’t think that’s a stretch at all,” she said.
Photographed by Danny Kim.
3. Reject Rayon
Right now McQueen is asking people to donate smelly tops so she can verify the types of clothing that get permanently stinky. “My experience has been that some of my smelly tops have been rayon. There’s a buildup where, after many wears of it, you put it on and it starts to stink immediately.” Anecdotally, she noticed it with her husband’s rayon workout top. “I thought, Ugh, I think he accidentally put this top in the clean laundry pile, because it stunk. I washed it again, and it still stunk. It was disgusting.”

4. Ban Black
McQueen has also heard from survey respondents that black textiles are a problem. “We’ve had at least two or three people that have mentioned black clothing. Maybe it’s something in the dye,” she says. “Or maybe it’s just people wear a lot of black yoga pants.”

It could be it’s a coincidence, but I heard this from another quarter as well: a Facebook group of women. “It's mostly tight-fitting pants with stretch to them,” one commented. “And generally black colored.” Hmm, maybe there is something there.

(All these hypotheses seem to jive with my personal experience. The worst pants I ever owned that I finally trashed were black cotton/polyester/rayon stretch pants, a potently fragrant combination.)

5. Pick Wool For Less Wafting

So what exactly does that leave? It might sound weird to wear wool for workouts, but fine merino wool (a.k.a. performance wool) in leggings, tops, and even sneakers is having a moment. Wool is Professor McQueen’s personal fiber of choice for performance gear, even though its oft-touted antimicrobial properties are a complete myth. “Because people have experienced that it doesn’t smell badly of body odor, they have made that leap,” she says.

In truth, wool is even better than cotton in terms of odor control, because it’s a lot more absorbent. Plus, it’s sweat-wicking, releasing moisture and — McQueen posits — odor easily and quickly. So by the time you’re walking out of the gym, sweat dried, you’re fit to walk into the coffee shop. (Meanwhile, odors cling to polyester’s surface and waft away slowly over time, leading to a continuous stink all day.)

“But that is very much a hypothesis,” McQueen cautions. “I haven’t had sufficient amounts of funding to explore these research questions.” Somebody please give this woman a grant. (Or just take her survey; she needs more respondents to figure this very important question out. Science needs you!)

6. Manage It With An Antimicrobial
Sweat itself isn’t stinky. It’s the bacteria in it that causes B.O. If you can kill the bacteria, then you might kill the stink.

“Putting an antimicrobial treatment on a textile wouldn’t be a complete solution, but it might be part of the solution,” McQueen says. But not all antimicrobial gear is created equal. In fact, her team has found that antimicrobial treatments, including silver, work much better in the lab than on our skin. If you’re gung-ho about it, she suggests finding an antimicrobial product that seems to actually work and sticking with it.

“One product that I think sounds quite promising is copper,” she says. It’s been studied extensively, not for odor but for antimicrobial properties, and has been given EPA approval for health claims, though not in a textile form.

Strangely enough, copper-infused clothing exists, though this brand combines it with polyester and spandex, which we’ve established gets stinky.

7. Clean Them Conscientiously
Another way to manage odor might be to clean your pants the right way. Credit goes to the Reddit board for this tip: Don’t just toss your pants in with detergent. Give them a spray of vinegar, vodka, or tea tree oil, all mild bacteria killers. Or try an enzyme cleaner, built to deal with stains caused by bodily fluids like sweat or…you know.

8. Let It Go
Or you could just not worry about it. According to the internet and the women I asked on Facebook, even though everyone seems to have smelled their own crotch, it’s exceedingly rare to pick up on someone else’s musty yoga aroma. Unless you are putting your face near their crotch, of course.

Acroyoginis and cheerleaders, take note.

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