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The No Sweat Approach to Caring for Dirty Workout Clothes

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High performance workout clothing requires a little extra TLC. Follow these simple steps to keep your activewear clean and smelling fresh.

Last updated: November 18, 2021
6 min read
The No Sweat Approach to Caring for Dirty Workout Clothes

When you give your all to a workout, you can expect immediate benefits, like reduced anxiety and better sleep. But you should also expect to take home a set of sweaty, smelly workout clothes in need of serious attention. That’s especially true if you wear workout clothing made from high-performance fabrics like moisture-wicking synthetics, which require special care in the wash.

Here’s how to keep your workout wear extra clean, including tips for how best to care for your clothes in the laundry.

The Case for Regular Cleaning

First things first, if you want to maximize the lifespan of your workout clothes, you'll need to adopt a bit of a routine. Proper care requires regular washings and extra attention on the dirtiest items.

Wash sports bras, shorts, and leggings after every use, since the groin and the area under the breast are susceptible to yeast infections. Your sneakers may be harboring harmful bacteria as well, so clean the liner if it’s removable, and throw your socks in the wash. And while a cotton t-shirt can be reworn a couple of times if it doesn’t get sweaty, synthetic fabrics can be like magnets for bacteria. They’ll start to stink faster and should be washed after every use.

How to Wash Your Dirty Workout Clothes

  1. 1.Air Out Your Sweaty Clothes Immediately

    Keeping your workout clothing stuffed in your backpack or gym bag can cause mold or mildew to form and lead to nasty odors. When you get home from your workout, immediately hang up your workout clothes until they’re dry or you’re ready to run a load of laundry.
  2. 2.Separate Your Laundry

    Keep similar fabrics in the same load of laundry. Separate your cotton T-shirts and gym towels from your synthetic workout shorts or leggings. This is because the lint from cotton will stick to your athletic clothing. You should also keep heavy fabrics like denim and anything with buttons or zippers separate. These can cause more abrasion, damaging the delicate fabrics of your athletic wear.
  3. 3.Turn Exercise Clothing Inside Out

    Give your washing machine access to the most bacteria-ridden surfaces of your clothing by turning your bottoms, shirts, and undergarments inside out before you put them in the wash. That’ll help maximize your washing machine’s effectiveness, since odor-causing bacteria will build up the most on the inside of your clothes.
  4. 4.Pre-Soak in Vinegar Before Washing

    If you have issues with your clothes retaining odors even after washing, try soaking them in one part white distilled vinegar and four parts cold water. Leave them submerged for 20-30 minutes while the solution does its work. The acid in the vinegar will unlock oils, dirt and bacteria from the fabric of your workout clothing, so your washing machine can do a better job of eliminating all the nastiness.
  5. 5.Use the Right Amount of Detergent

    If your clothes are really dirty, you might be tempted to use more detergent. But this won’t get your workout clothes any cleaner. In fact, it will cause soap to build up in the fibers of your clothing, which will attract new odor-causing bacteria so your clothes start to smell more quickly. To prevent this problem, use a little less detergent than you would for your normal clothes. It’s also recommended that you use powdered detergent to properly care for Nike Dri-FIT items.
  6. 6.Add Baking Soda or a Laundry Booster to Reduce Odors

    Adding about one quarter to one half cup of baking soda to your load of laundry will help neutralize odor-causing acids. You can even sprinkle a little baking soda in your sneakers if they’re not washable to help reduce odors. Another option is to purchase a laundry booster designed for athletic apparel. These have odor-eliminating agents and can be added in the same compartment you use for your detergent.
  7. 7.Avoid Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets

    Fabric softener leaves a residue on your workout clothes that becomes like glue for odor-causing bacteria, especially as it builds up. This makes it more difficult for water and detergent to get your clothes clean. Similarly, dryer sheets can clog up your fabrics, making them more difficult for laundry detergent to penetrate. If you want to keep your workout clothes soft against your skin, consider using dryer balls, which gently soften clothes and prevent wrinkles.
  8. 8.Wash in Cold Water on Gentle Cycle

    You don’t want a washing machine to beat up delicate performance fabrics too hard, and you also don’t want to expose them to high heat, which can destroy the fibers. To keep your athletic clothes effective for longer, wash them in cold water and opt for the gentle cycle.
  9. 9.Air-Dry if Possible

    To extend the life of your synthetic workout clothing, use the lowest heat setting on your dryer or air-dry your clothes entirely. Heat can exacerbate odors, damage the fabric, cause shrinkage or shape alterations, create more static and weaken the power of elastic. You can go ahead and put cotton clothing in the dryer, but ensure that performance fabrics like Nike Dri-FIT aren’t exposed to high heat.

FAQ: Washing Dirty Sportswear

Why Does My Sweat Make My Clothes Smell?
When your workout causes your body temperature to rise, you’ll sweat to cool yourself down. The fluid itself doesn’t smell, but as the bacteria on your skin breaks down the acid in your sweat, it produces an unpleasant odor that gets trapped in the fibers of your clothing.
What Happens When You Stay in Sweaty Clothes?
Odor is the least of your worries when you keep wearing sweaty clothing for too long. Moisture increases your risk of infections like folliculitis and yeast infections, clogs your pores and leads to acne, and can cause unnecessary skin irritation. Staying in wet socks can also increase your risk of Athlete’s foot, and other fungal infections can occur in moist areas, as well.
Can You Put Workout Clothes in the Dryer?
If you do use a dryer, be sure to tumble dry on a low setting. Excessive heat can deform elastic and damage synthetic fibers. The best way to extend the life of your workout clothing is to hang it on a drying rack after you take it out of the wash.
Can You Wash Sneakers in the Washing Machine?
If you want your sneakers to last, it’s not recommended that you put them in the washing machine. Instead, remove any dirt with an old toothbrush, and then make a mild cleaning solution with water and laundry detergent. Use the solution to clean the uppers, laces, soles and liners and then allow your shoes to air dry.
What Is Laundry Stripping and Does It Work for Gym Clothes?

Laundry stripping is a popular cleaning trend in which you soak clothing in a mix of borax, detergent, baking soda, and warm or hot water for up to 12 hours to give it a thorough cleansing. Laundry stripping can be a way to deep clean excessively sweaty activewear and remove dirt, but it's time consuming and not necessary as a daily routine.

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