What To Do When Your Gym Clothes REEK


Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I’m trying to be completely natural with my cleaners (yes I know I am a hippie), so I currently use a combo of Peppermint Dr. Bronner’s, Borax and washing soda in a recipe I found online for my clothes. It works great, I haven’t noticed any of the fading etc. that some people report when they switch to homemade detergents.
The only thing that doesn’t get clean is my synthetic fabric workout gear. I use a lot, I workout sometimes twice a day and don’t re-wear gross sweaty clothes. So my laundry is about one or two loads of just workout clothes a week. I wash them separately on cold, so maybe that’s why they aren’t getting cleaned as well? IDK, I’m a newbie to natural cleaning practices. If my current detergent is the problem, do you have any solutions that would work better. I’ve heard vinegar might help, but wouldn’t the acetic acid just neutralize the base in both the soap and the carbonate ion of the washing soda?

Funky-smelling gym clothes happen, this is more or less a fact of life. They happen to me, in fact! Which I tell you mostly because people sometimes say things to me like, “Well if you’re such a Clean Person, then why do you even have to know how to clean things up?” And then I lock them in a closet with only a bucketful of bleach and ammonia to keep them company because seriously? (Squalor PSA: That is a joke, please do not ever mix bleach and ammonia together!)

Before we get into de-funktifying your yoga pants, a quick detour to discuss why gym clothes tend to hold onto smells even after being washed. Essentially, what goes on is that the fibers aren’t fully penetrated by the wash water, which happens for a few reasons: (1) the nature of fabrics like Spandex and Lycra is that they repel water. Which is great when you’re working up a massive sweat and your clothes aren’t waterlogged from it, but it’s obviously less great when waterlogged (and detergent-logged) is what you want! (2) Build up of body oil, detergent and/or fabric softener contributes to the inability of water to penetrate the fibers.

Fabric softener in particular is to be avoided when laundering gym gear made of synthetic materials—it leaves behind a coating that will prevent the clothes from getting fully cleaned. You’ll also want to use less detergent, as counterintuitive as that seems, to prevent build up on techie-type fabrics. If you suspect that build up is causing your clothes to retain an unpleasant odor, one suggestion is to run them through the wash cycle with no detergent at all, which can help to rinse away any lingering excess detergent or fabric softener. One more thing that can cause smells to linger is drying your exercise togs on high heat, so stick with a lower temperature if you machine dry. At the end of this little chit chat, I’ll list out some more best practices when it comes to washing your workout clothes. As always, you should chime in with your tips!

But back to that vinegar question! So white vinegar is indeed the trick but there are a few things to know, method-wise, that will help to maximize its effect, both of which will address your concerns about the vinegar neutralizing the base in the soap or the soda.

The first method, which, to the extent it means anything to you, is the one I use, is to pre-soak the gear in 1 cup of white vinegar and cold water before laundering as usual. I usually do this in my (CLEAN!) kitchen sink and just let the stuff chill out for 15-30 minutes, then throw it in the wash. It works for me because I can spend the time gathering up the rest of the dirty laundry, the detergent, my quarters, etc. and means I won’t be tethered to the washing machine awaiting its final cycle. Which leads nicely into the second method for employing white vinegar: adding a cup of it to the machine’s rinse cycle. Oh right, and if you’re trying to eliminate a major stink, you can up that to two cups.

Either will work equally well, so it’s entirely a matter of determining for you which is most convenient. In both approaches, the vinegar is run through the wash separate of the detergent, which means it won’t interfere with the soap. The stuff won’t come out smelling of salad dressing either — there may be a faint whiff, but it will dissipate as the gear dries regardless of air or machine drying.

If you’re vinegar averse, or if you’ve just truly found that it’s not working for you, there are other options:

  • Baking soda: Add 1 cup of baking soda to the wash cycle (note that vinegar does better in the rinse cycle, while baking soda is best used right up front in the wash cycle);
  • Laundry boosters: Use a booster like Borax or Charlie’s Soap in addition to your detergent;
  • Specialty detergents: Check out brands such as WIN, Tide Plus Febreze Sport, OdorXIt, OdorKlenz, and Scent-A-Way (that last one is a hunting-specific product which is kinda fun, unless you’re, like, a deer or a friend of Dick Cheney);
  • Sunshine: Good old sunshine is a fantastic odor neutralizer; turn items inside out to prevent fading and to maximize the freshening power of sunlight (that sounded like terrible marketing copy, oof);
  • The freezer: Yup! Go on and freeze your gym clothes, which will kill smells (this also works great on jeans that you’d prefer not to wash). Just … make sure to mention it to anyone who shares your home so they don’t think you’re using the icebox to hide evidence of a terrible crime or whatnot.

Best practices for laundering gym gear:

  • Allow items to air out a bit immediately after use rather than tossing them directly into the hamper/laundry bag while damp from your workout;
  • Turn garments inside out;
  • Wash with cold water to preserve the integrity of high tech fibers;
  • Use less detergent to prevent build up;
  • Avoid fabric softener;
  • Add a ½ to full cup of white vinegar or baking soda to the wash to keep odors at bay;
  • Air or low-heat dry.

Since we’re tangentially on the subject of homemade detergents, I figured I’d include a link to the recipe that the LW uses and has liked, and ask those of you who are making your own detergents to tell us what sort of potions you’re brewing up.

I was wondering if you can help me with a smelly shirt problem. I bought this one 100% silk blouse from J. Crew about a year ago. I have worn it possible 10 times since then. I have noticed that the odor under the arms does not seem to go away. I have washed the shirt numerous times with regular and strong detergent but nothing. I have even used vinegar on the smelly parts but nothing. It is a really bad BO smell like one has been wearing the shirt for months on end. I really love this shirt, it fits great and has a nice color. Do you have any advice?

I for sure do, and this advice can apply to items that have taken on a smell you don’t care for that can’t be laundered, like pocketbooks or beaded items or any manner of other non-washable items I’ve gotten emails about!

Since you’ve already successfully laundered the shirt without damaging the silk, you could take a crack at washing it with one of the boosters mentioned upcolumn, Borax or Charlie’s Soap, which may work where the vinegar failed you. But if you’re absolutely fed up with trying to wash it, go ahead and get an activated charcoal (also called ‘active charcoal’ or ‘active carbon’ or ‘activated carbon’) odor eliminating product. We’ve actually talked about activated charcoal before but waaaaay back in the very first column I wrote here, so let’s review what I said then:

You can buy activated charcoal in a whole bunch of different forms (including, I kid you not, activated charcoal underpants) but I would suggest trying out one of the Innofresh products for two reasons: (1) they’re small and come in bar form, which makes them easy to use with clothes and (2) they offer my readers a 10% discount and that’s such a nice thing of them to do, don’t you think? Use the code “JolieCleanperson” at checkout to get that deal.
To use activated charcoal you’ll need a sealable plastic bin or a garbage bag. Place the stinking item in question and odor absorber in the bin or bag, seal it up and let it laze around your house for a day or so. Then open it up, give the [item] a sniff and see how things smell. If there’s still a lingering odor, seal it back up and give it another day or two of relaxation.

You can find loose activated charcoal at aquarium supply stores; it’s also one of the components in many brands of kitty litter, so if you’ve got some of that around the house it can be put to use to remove odors from your belongings. I mean not, like, used kitty litter because LOL EEW. But you know that, I’m mostly just yanking your chain. (You know that, right? Right. I’m having a panic attack.)

Since both of these things are loose powders, put them into a Ziploc bag or a sealable Tupperware-type container in which you’ve poked a bunch of holes. Sit the bag or container upright in a larger sealable bag or container, put the stinking item in alongside and close it all up. In 12-72 hours your clothes or bags or shoes or dresser drawers or whatever you’ve decided needs freshening up should smell like new. Or rather: like nothing.

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, 25 February 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

Photo via Shutterstock

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