When you think about it, the fabrics in our favourite gym gear are pretty impressive. They can wick away sweat and stretch along with our every squat and downward dog. “We’ve been machine-weaving cotton for hundreds of years, but that high-tech performance fabric, which is a polyester-Lycra combination, is a relatively new thing,” says Minnesota-based laundry expert and author of Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore Patric Richardson. “It’s an incredibly sophisticated fabric.”
And as anyone who’s ever forgotten to empty out their gym bag knows, that sophisticated fabric can get a little smelly. “Although it pulls the sweat away from your skin, it does have to go somewhere, so it sits in the fabric,” says Jennifer Lau, Nike master trainer in Canada and co-owner of Toronto training facility FITSQUAD.
So how do you beat the stink? First, you can indeed throw your workout clothes in the washing machine, says Richardson. As for what settings and soaps to use, the two pros break down the best way to get your gear squeaky clean.
What kind of detergent is best for activewear?
“The thing that everyone notices about performance wear is that even after you wash it, it often still smells terrible,” says Richardson. That’s because the fabric is hydrophobic (it repels water) and oleophilic (it absorbs oil). Fun fact: “The sweat under our arms, between our legs and behind our knees is oilier than anywhere else on the body,” says Richardson.
Getting that oil out requires a one-two punch. Start with one to two tablespoons of detergent—a small amount because you want to minimize residue, says Richardson. He recommends opting for one that’s labelled for sportswear, baby clothes, hosiery or swimwear, as all these formulas are designed to rinse away completely.
Next, add a tablespoon of Richardson’s magic ingredient: oxygen bleach, an enzyme that dissolves oil. And before you panic, unlike chlorine bleach, oxygen bleach is totally colour-safe. You’ll typically find it as a powder and can look for “sodium percarbonate” (A.K.A. “sodium carbonate peroxide”) on the ingredients list.
Try Aspen Clean Oxygen Bleach Stain Remover, $20, aspenclean.com.
Thinking about adding a bit of fabric softener? Richardson cautions against it when it comes to workout gear. “You don’t want anything that coats the fabric because it affects its performance.” And as Lau points out, “I don’t need my performance clothes to get any softer.”
What washing machine settings should I use?
You might think cold water is the way to go, but you need a bit of heat to activate the detergent and oxygen bleach to tackle the stink. Richardson recommends the “warm” setting and sticking to an express cycle. “Polyester is going to release dirt very quickly, so there’s no need to put it in longer and beat it to death,” he says. A speedy cycle also means you don’t have to worry about washing everything inside out to prevent damage and piling from the repetitive movement of the machine, says Richardson, because it’s such a quick exposure.
To help protect delicate items like sports bras with lots of intricate details, Lau likes to put them in a mesh laundry bag. “They’re especially good for bra cup liners,” she says. “I take them out of the bra, so they don’t fold and crease, because foam sometimes doesn’t go back [to its original shape].”
And while a gentle cycle might be tempting, Richardson prefers the express setting because it includes a fast spin so that your workout gear doesn’t come out sopping wet. And that leads us to the next crucial tip…
Can I put my workout gear in the dryer?
“Lycra should never go in the dryer,” says Richardson. “It will lose some of that magnificent stretch.” Instead, you’ll want to hang your gear on a line or drying rack. “It’ll dry very quickly,” adds Richardson. And by that same no-heat rule, never iron your workout clothes. If needed, you can give them a quick steam.
How often should I wash my workout clothes?
Both Richardson and Lau agree that you should wash your performance wear every time you wear it. “The intention of a lot of performance gear is that you will be wearing it a lot, so it should be durable for wear and for cleaning,” says Lau.
It’s more about looking out for your skin than the clothing, says Richardson: “The truth of the matter is that it’s holding all that sweat and bacteria and you’re putting it on your skin. When the bacteria get wet with sweat, it comes back to life.”
The good news is that you can mix your performance wear into a load with any other clothing that can handle oxygen bleach, which is just about everything other than wool or silk.
Do I need to let my gear air dry before I wash it?
“If something’s really stinky, I try to wash it that day and not let it sit at the bottom of the laundry basket because then it’ll just stink up the rest of the laundry,” says Lau, who prioritizes washing sports bras and base layers from winter running—the stuff that gets extra sweaty. But if you don’t have a spot to air-dry it, that’s fine too, says Richardson. “Once you use that oxygen bleach, it’s going to take everything out,” he says.
Hate that gym-bag stench? “When you’re travelling back and forth from the gym, keep a separate laundry bag so that if you have sweaty clothes, they won’t stink up the rest of your apparel,” says Lau, who also recommends a loose dryer sheet in your gym bag to help mask odour.
Try Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lemon Verbena Dryer Sheets, $13, well.ca.
What if my activewear still smells after I wash it?
A warm express cycle with oxygen bleach should do the trick for all your apparel, but if there’s anything that can’t go in the wash, Richardson has an unexpected trick: “You can actually spray it with vodka—it kills the odour on anything.” He recommends finding the lowest-price vodka you can, then putting it in a misting bottle and using it for your sneakers, gym bag and yoga mat. And don’t worry, you won’t smell hungover, says Richardson. “When it dries, vodka is odorless and colourless.”