How to get the smell out of gym clothes

Bacteria lingers on gym clothes even after they go through the laundry. Here's how to wash your workout clothing to actually kill bacteria and keep them smelling fresh.
Image: laundry day.Washing machine full of colorful clothes
Choose a detergent that’s specifically formulated for activewear, which is often made from synthetic fabrics that traditional detergents aren’t as efficient at penetrating.Carol Yepes / Getty Images
By Wendy Rose Gould

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Anyone who works out frequently enough is probably familiar with that awful musty smell that seeps out of gym clothes even after they’ve been through the wash. It’s a scent that plagues you with every burpee, thrown punch, or row on the elliptical, and it’s seemingly impossible to get rid of.

Curious about what that smell is, why it lingers so unpleasantly, and how to get rid of it once and for all? We consulted a few experts.

Why gym clothes smell even after laundry day

A few factors come into play when it comes to that lingering musty gym clothes smell. The primary culprits are bacteria, sweat and body oils, which build up inside synthetic fabrics and cause a literal stink. In addition to subjecting gym apparel to large quantities of the above, the fabric they’re made from is another odor contributor.

“Modern synthetic fabrics that make up our activewear (which are essentially plastic) were built to wick moisture off the body in order to dry fast. Due to this wicking benefit, these fabrics are oil loving. In other words, they easily absorb oil, sweat and bacteria [and have a tendency to hold on to them],” explains Drew Westervelt, a former professional athlete and founder of Hex Performance, a detergent for activewear.

Traditional detergents were made for traditional fabrics, such as cotton, and aren’t as efficient when it comes to penetrating these synthetic fabrics. As a result, all that bacteria, sweat and body oil get trapped inside the fibers and continue accumulating with every workout. The added fragrance in some detergents may help temporarily, but it’s more of a cover up and not a true fix.

How to nix the stink for good

Making sure your gym clothes don’t accumulate that gnarly smell begins the second you finish your workout.

Skip the hamper

First, remove the clothes as soon as you’re able and don’t throw them in the laundry bin. Instead, turn them inside out (the sweat, bacteria and oil are more concentrated on the inside) and either allow them to air out or send them straight to the washer, says Leanne Stapf, chief operating officer at The Cleaning Authority.

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“Bacteria feeds off darkness, and heat can also magnify the smell from residual bacteria, so you really should avoid tossing gym clothes into a hamper,” she explains. If you must put them in a bin, choose one that allows ample light and airflow, and don’t let the pile get too high.

Choose the right detergent

Once you’re ready to launder your gym clothes, there are two things to keep in mind. First, less is more when it comes to detergent. Westervelt says, “More detergent is not the answer. All that does is leave behind detergent in the fabric, which is a food source for remaining bacteria and odor.” Follow the label instructions and don’t get pour-happy.

Second, reach for a detergent that’s specifically formulated for athleisure, activewear and performance fabrics. At the very least the detergent should indicate it’s intended for synthetic fabrics. Examples of such detergents include Westervelt’s own Hex Performance, as well as OxiClean, Sweat X Sport and Nathan Sport-Wash. You wouldn’t use stainless steel appliance cleaner on your wood floors, and you wouldn’t use toilet bowl cleaner on your windows. It’s the same idea here.

“You could also try a DIY route,” says Soraima Padilla, the operations manager for Molly Maid in La Verne, Calif., a Neighborly company. “Baking soda is a known deodorizer, so it's not surprising that this works so well. Just add a cup of it to the washer, along with detergent and one cup of white vinegar.”

Sweat X Sport Extreme Laundry Detergent

Nathan Sport Power Wash Laundry Detergent

HEX Performance Fragrance Free Laundry Detergent

OxiClean Liquid Laundry Detergent

Skip the dryer and hang

After running your gym clothes through the wash, either let them air dry or put them in the dryer on a low/no heat setting.

“Machine-drying your performance fabrics is typically a no-no anyway since it can wear down the fabric, but letting your clothes air-dry is another way to increase freshness,” Padilla says. “Sometimes, machines don’t get clothes all the way dry, and then they sit in a hot, moist pile waiting for you to take them out of the dryer. Not exactly the best move for freshness. Letting them hang-dry ensures they get constant air flow as moisture evaporates.”

By following the above advice, gym clothing stink should become a terror of the past. Bring on the fresh scent — and the burpees.

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