Your Complete Guide to Washing and Caring for Activewear
So this year, you’re still on track with your fitness goals and may even be planning to try a new, more challenging workout.
Over the past few years, you’ve amassed quite a collection of leggings, yoga pants, sports tops, socks, bike shorts, trainers, exercise mats, yoga blocks, foam rollers and whatnot.
Every time you step out of the door, you have a brand-new set of gym clothes on. But who’s to blame? There’ve only been a hundred activewear sales since the end of every year.
But if there’s one thing staying fit never prepared you for, it’s the stink that comes with sweaty sports apparel.
To be fair, you’ve done your best to stick with quick-drying, moisture-wicking gym clothes. You’ve invested in breathable and lightweight polyester tanks, odour-fighting compression shorts, quick-drying yoga pants and even Climacool (nylon, polyester, and spandex blend) sports bras.
However, most of these articles of clothing are no match to your sweat-heavy 2- to 3-hour sessions at the gym or on the road.
Now, you sometimes feel a rush of dread as you finish washing clothes that were soiled from spinning class because they always come out smelling awful!
Worse still, the smell seems to linger even after they’ve been through the wash. Milder maybe, but still with that faint scent of the time you spent sweating your *ss off at the gym. So, how to wash activewear, exactly?
You’ve been putting extra detergent and sometimes even go the extra mile by soaking your soiled gym clothes for an hour or so. How come it isn’t working? What is it about washing sports clothes that you’ve been missing?
Well, today’s your lucky day.
Here, we’ll not only talk about how to wash sports clothes properly but also dish out lots of advice on how to care for your activewear.
Top 10 Tips on How to Wash Activewear and Stinky Gym Clothes
If you’re ready to learn how to wash stinky gym clothes (eww!) and all kinds of smelly workout clothes remedies, we’ve got the answers.
Here are the top 10 tips on how to wash soiled and smelly activewear:
1. Wash your workout clothes ASAP
When it comes to cleaning bad-smelling, sweaty clothes, especially activewear, the sooner you wash these, the better the results. So, it’s best to wash gym clothes every day.
Washing your gear after each wear, especially after getting it super sweaty, helps prevent bacteria from proliferating in your clothing.
But if you wear leggings and sports tops around the house (not for working out), then you can wait until the second or third wear to wash them. The reason for this is that the less you wash your activewear, the longer its lifespan.
2. Air out your soiled gym attire
But what if you don’t have time to launder your soiled clothes immediately after a sweaty workout? What you should do is hang your dirty workout gear out to dry. Make sure they are completely dry before transferring them into your hamper.
If you don’t do that, the perspiration in your wet clothing can get transferred to the other clothes in your hamper. Even worse, it’ll create a stink that’ll be hard to remove, plus the odour may stick to the other clothes.
A better practice would be to have a separate hamper for your gym clothes. This way, you have a dedicated container for your dirty, smelly laundry, and there’s no way any of the smell can get caught in your ‘regular’ clothes.
3. Turn them inside-out
Odour-causing bacteria love warm and damp places, which is why they enjoy hanging out and reproducing in your armpits. Moreover, residue from the deodorants and antiperspirants you use will gather in the armpit section of your sports tops.
Thus, it makes sense to turn your soiled clothes inside-out to remove dirt and odour and to achieve an overall deep, thorough clean. Doing this also prevents your favourite activewear from getting snags. Of course, another reason for washing your clothes inside-out is that it helps safeguard and preserve the colour of the fabric.
4. Hand-wash your activewear
Although it means making an extra effort and investing more of your time, hand-washing athletic clothes is the best way to clean them. This is especially true for sports bras (and bras in general) that require gentle care.
By hand-washing your gym clothes, you know for certain that areas that require more attention, such as the armpit and crotch, get a more thorough washing. This method also helps preserve the quality of your activewear and extends their lifespan.
5. Wash your gear in cold water
Most athletic gear is made from fabrics that are sensitive to heat, including synthetic materials like elastane (a.k.a. spandex, Lycra) and polyamide (e.g., nylon).
Although using heat to wash activewear won’t damage them right away, heat exposure during washing and drying can lead to faster breakdown of the fibres. This can significantly shorten the lifespan of your gym clothes, make them smaller or looser (depending on the fabric) and cause them to lose their stretchability.
If you want to machine-wash your gear, use a gentle cycle in cold water using a mild soap. Or set your washing machine on a cool or mildly warm setting.
Make sure you keep the temperature on your dryer down, too. The best temperature to wash gym clothes is cold water below 30 degrees Celsius.
But a better practice would be to let your clothes air-dry on a flat surface or drying rack, away from direct sunlight. This means your clothes will take a little longer to dry, but doing so helps to prevent damage to your favourite workout attire.
6. Avoid putting too much detergent
In fact, you should use less detergent for your activewear — about half of what you normally use.
Now, this may sound contradictory to what you know about how to clean stinky clothes. It just seems natural to think that adding some extra detergent to your wash would ensure the thorough clean of your activewear. Sadly, no.
Too much laundry soap or detergent can make it difficult for you or your washing machine to rinse your garments thoroughly. When this happens, soap buildup takes place. This works like a magnet for sweat, odour-causing bacteria and funky, smelly fungi, quickly leading to an unpleasant lingering smell.
You’ll also notice that your clothes smell just fine when fresh out of the wash. But then, as soon as you wear them, they become smelly. The culprit? The bacteria multiplying due to the warmth of your body and the moisture from your sweat. Now, if there’s soap buildup from your last wash, the residue and microbes will combine and lead to a more unpleasant odour.
If you’re worried about odour, use half the detergent you usually add to your wash PLUS about 100ml to 250ml of white vinegar (this depends on the load) to a rinse cycle. You can then proceed to wash your gym clothes as you usually would.
Another solution to the detergent factor is to use sportswear-specific laundry detergent. These specially formulated detergents come with natural odour-fighting ingredients that attack and neutralise odour-causing bacteria.
7. Never use fabric softener
This may seem surprising because fabric softeners provide an easy way to eliminate odour in your regular day-to-day clothes. However, using fabric softener on athletic gear can be counterproductive.
Fabric softener in whatever form can damage stretchy fabrics (e.g., nylon, spandex, etc.). It also attaches itself into the fibres of your clothes, thereby clogging the pores of the material and creating a coating or film on your clothes. This residue not only dulls the colour of your gym attire but also blocks sweat and dirt from getting washed out. It then causes that old-smelling, lingering musky smell similar to that of clothes that have been stored for far too long.
It’s fine to use fabric softener on your towels or other items made from natural fabrics so they’ll feel soft and plush. But it’s something you need to avoid at all costs for the sake of your workout clothes.
8. Wash gear made from similar fabrics
One thing to remember about machine-washing your sports clothes is that you should never, ever wash it with the rest of your ‘regular’ laundry — at least, not with clothes that are thick, heavy or rough, like jeans or jackets with zippers. Even a fragile top with sequins can rub against your gym clothes the wrong way and cause the fabric of your expensive pair of leggings to pill.
Moreover, since most gym clothes are of roughly the same weight, when you include something super heavy in your laundry load, it’ll soak up more detergent than your activewear. The best method for washing your sportswear is to keep it together in one load. This way, you can make sure your sweaty stuff gets a thorough clean. It also won’t get pulled or snagged on other items.
Also, if the sports fabric in your workout clothes has a tendency to pill or feels brushed, do not wash it together with cotton items. Otherwise, it’ll end up with these annoying little balls of cotton.
9. Wash with like colours
You might think: Elementary, my dear Watson.
Yes, this is a basic clothes washing rule that some people still manage to miss. Now, there are some popular, quality sportswear brands that do not strictly require this after subjecting their products to what they call a 10-wash test — the test they use to ensure the materials they use don’t bleed.
However, it’s still best practice to wash clothes with like colours to prevent dye transfer, especially if you’re talking about washing maroon leggings with a couple of light-coloured tops.
10. Invest in a laundry bag
If finding time to hand-wash your gym clothes is a super-remote possibility or has zero probability of happening, use a laundry bag during each wash.
Whenever you wash workout attire that’s made from synthetic materials like spandex, nylon, polyester, etc., thousands of microplastics or tiny plastic fibres are released into the environment. More microplastics are released when you wash your athletic gear with hard or heavy fabrics like denim.
These microplastics can contaminate the water supply and travel as far out into the oceans, where they could end up being ingested by fish that people eat, causing microplastics to get into the human food system.
By keeping your activewear inside a laundry bag during each wash, you not only collect harmful microplastics but also protect your clothes from early wear and tear.
Why Gym Clothes Smell Bad Even After Washing
Sometimes, gym clothes still smell even after washing or laundering because of certain mistakes like:
- Not airing them out to dry before putting them in the hamper
- Not washing soiled gym clothes immediately
- Not turning the clothes inside-out before washing
- Using too much detergent
- Using fabric softener — which is a major no-no
Of course, the primary reason sports clothes still smell after washing is the stubborn mixture of perspiration, odour-causing bacteria and body oils.
So, if you don’t adopt the recommended practices on how to remove sour smell from clothes, your sports clothes will still smell even after washing.
The 7 Best Detergents for Gym Clothes
Aside from knowing what to do when clothes still smell after washing, it would help to be familiar with the best detergents for smelly gym clothes. That is, if you don’t have time to measure and add vinegar to a rinse cycle during your wash.
So, without further ado, here’s a short list of recommended detergents for workout clothes:
1. HEX Performance Advanced Laundry Detergent
Considered the best detergent for musty clothes, particularly smelly activewear, HEX gives clothes a thorough deep clean without damaging the material. Since it’s hypoallergenic, it has no dyes, perfumes, fillers or brighteners that can harm people with sensitive skin.
2. Win Sports Detergent
This product has powerful stain removers and is one of the best laundry detergents for synthetics. It also gets rid of odour-causing oils that cling to athletic apparel and is ideal for use on technical fibres and synthetic fabrics.
3. AthletX Enzyme Sports Detergent
This dedicated sports detergent gets rid of stains and odours from workout gear. It has a non-toxic enzyme formula that’s safe for everyone, including pets!
4. Sard Wonder Power Eucalyptus
Sard Wonder can be used as a laundry stain pre-treatment, soak or as an in-wash stain booster. It not only ensures your laundry is hygienically clean but also eliminates odour-causing bacteria.
5. Atsko Sport Wash
Safe for all washables, Atsko Sport Wash prolongs the life of technical fabrics, cleans and deodorises. It leaves no scent or residue and has no bleach, phosphate, or fabric softener.
6. Nathan Power Wash
Nathan is 100% non-toxic, biodegradable, and contains eco-friendly ingredients. It is pH-balanced, scent-free and bleach-free. It’s excellent for cleaning and deodorising synthetic fabrics and also works great on natural fabrics like cotton.
7. Omo Eco Active
Another sustainable laundry detergent product, Omo Eco Active is made from 70% plant-based cleaning ingredients. It has superior stain- and stink-removing power.
If you don’t want to use commercial detergents, you can try using natural cleansers and deodorisers. Aside from white vinegar, you can use baking soda, ammonia and borax.
- Baking soda: Baking soda is a popular natural deodoriser. Just add a cup of baking soda, detergent and a cup of white vinegar to the washer. This mixture should help you get rid of any unpleasant smells post-wash.
- Ammonia: Another solution is to use ammonia for smelly clothes — especially ones with lingering odours. Just fill the washer or a basin with warm water, then add a cup of household ammonia. Soak your soiled gym clothes in the mixture for 2 or 3 hours. Then, drain the water and wash your activewear like you normally do.
- Borax: Borax or sodium tetraborate is a naturally occurring compound used in laundry cleaning and disinfection. Just add your favourite laundry soap and a sprinkling of borax (about 1/4 to 1/2 cup) into the wash, and then add your laundry and fill the tub with water. Agitate the laundry for 30 to 60 seconds, and let it sit and soak for 20 minutes to a few hours, depending on how dirty the laundry is. Then you can close the lid and wash as usual.
Fabric Care Tips
Since activewear is made from different fabrics or blends, there are also different recommended ways to wash and care for them.
- How to wash cotton: When washing cotton, use a regular, normal or cotton setting on the washing machine. Instead of using the warm water of a normal cycle, choose 30°C (86 °F) as the temperature. It’s safe to dry on low heat in a machine, but it’s better to air-dry cotton. Avoid wringing it. Instead, squeeze the water out before air-drying.
- How to wash polyester: Polyester is generally machine-washable, although hand-washing is preferred. Place polyester items into your machine with the recommended detergent and wash with warm water using a gentle cycle. You can also wash them using a permanent press cycle that’s great for synthetic materials. It spins slowly to prevent new creases from forming on the fabric. If you’re wondering about how to get the smell out of polyester and neutralise static cling, just add 1/4 cup of white vinegar into the machine and wash as usual. Remove from the washer and let the clothes drip-dry on a clothesline.
- How to clean spandex or elastane: To ensure spandex retains its original shape and flexibility, always hand-wash with lukewarm water and mild detergent. Avoid twisting or wringing; instead, gently knead the garment. Then, rinse well with cool water and allow to air-dry. And if you’re wondering about how to get stains out of Lycra, you first need to select a stain removal product that has no bleaching ingredients. Apply the stain remover to the soiled area and let it sit for a few minutes. Work on the stained area gently. Hand- or machine-wash according to care instructions and let it air-dry.
- How to wash nylon: Wash separately using a cold water setting for best results. Use regular laundry detergent — never chlorine bleach — on nylon. Wash as usual and allow to drip-dry. But can you wash polyamide in general (nylon is a type of polyamide fabric)? Polyamide fabric is actually washing-machine-safe. However, only hand- or machine-wash it using regular, cold water, and use a bleach-free laundry detergent. After washing, let it air-dry.
The best way to determine the right method of washing specific fabrics is by reading fabric care labels or instructions placed on individual garments.
You can refer to the following guide for fabric care.
Fabric Care Instructions
|Cotton||Normal||30°C/86°F||Don't machine dry||Low heat to warm: 204°C/400°F||Depends on whether it's pure cotton or cotton blend|
|Polyester||Warm||43.3 to 32.2°C/90°F and above||Don't machine dry||Cool to warm||Avoid if possible|
|Lycra||Cold to warm||Up to 30°C/86°F||Don't machine-dry||No or lowest heat setting: 135°C/275°F||No|
|Nylon||Cold to warm||Up to 30°C/86°F||Don't machine-dry||No, low heat or rayon setting: 135°C/275°F||Minimal|
|Polyamide||Cold to warm||Up to 30°C/86°F||Don't machine-dry||No||Avoid if possible|
Get the Stain and Odour Out of Your Activewear
Now that you know how to get all the dirt and smell out of your workout clothes, you should be able to enjoy wearing them to the gym (or just about anywhere) without the dreadful post-wash odour.
But remember to always check all fabric care labels to prolong the lifespan of your activewear.