You may look great wearing those comfy workout clothes you love, but you might not smell so great. That’s because clothing that is stretchy and wicks sweat away is typically made of synthetic fabrics that hold on to odors longer than other clothes, according to the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group.
Synthetic fibers are not porous and therefore don’t actually soak in sweat, which is a mixture of water and other chemicals from your body that can cause odors to develop. To be sure, that’s part of the appeal of these clothes -- they keep you dry as you work out because they wick moisture away. But there’s a downside: “The moisture evaporates, leaving behind the odor-causing chemicals on the surface,” says Rico de Paz, the Consumer Reports chemist who tests laundry detergents. “The synthetic fibers act like a strong magnet for these odor-causing chemicals, making them difficult to wash out, and they build up over time.”
Of the chemicals in sweat, sebum, or body oil, is especially difficult to remove -- it’s sticky, and it can attract other soils that increase odors. In fact, just 14 of the 41 laundry detergents in CR’s tests earn an Excellent rating in removing body oil. “That means they remove most of the sebum from our swatches,” de Paz says. You can get the details on the detergents that are great at removing sebum in CR’s current laundry detergent ratings.
In addition to being more prone to odors, synthetic workout clothes are more delicate than some other materials, and may need special care to protect their shape and fit. Whatever workout clothes you wear for exercise and beyond -- Lululemon, Sweaty Betty, Girlfriend Collective, Outer Voices, etc. -- below, you’ll find advice on how to care for them from the experts at the American Cleaning Institute, washer manufacturers LG and Whirlpool, Lululemon, and Procter & Gamble, the biggest seller of detergents.
Which detergents treat your athleisure wear right? One great liquid detergent that aces CR’s tests for removing body oil is Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release. To see more options -- and to compare how well the dozens of detergents perform for getting rid of all sorts of stains -- see CR’s laundry detergent ratings.
What to Do
Wash them right away. If you can, wash sweaty synthetics straight after your workout to help prevent odors from setting in, says Brian Sansoni at the American Cleaning Institute.
Separate very stinky athletic gear from your athleisure wear. For example, keep your kid’s soccer uniform separate from your athleisure wear in both the hamper and wash because the odors can easily transfer to your clothes, thereby increasing odor buildup in them, Sansoni says.
Pretreat stains. Do it as soon as possible, says a Whirlpool spokesperson. The physical properties of these synthetics make them more attracted to oils and grease, making stains tougher to tackle than in cottons or some other materials.
Follow the garment’s care label. Remember that these synthetics are often delicate. So you’ll want to first check the care label to see whether your clothes are machine-washable. And always sort your workout clothes by color -- separating whites, brights, and darks. “If the care label says ‘wash with like colors,’ this is an indication that the garment isn’t ‘dye fast’ and that the dye will bleed into the water and can settle on other clothes,” says Jennifer Ahoni, a communications manager for P&G.
Turn your clothes inside out. This allows the water and detergent to focus on the soils that have accumulated on the inside of your clothes, Ahoni says. While you’re at it, zip zippers and close buttons on hoodies and jackets -- they can get caught on fabrics and damage them.
Choose cold water and the gentle cycle. The cold water helps to prevent fading and preserve the fit of these synthetics. The gentle cycle is ideal for these fabrics.
Use the right detergent, and the right amount. Choose a detergent that aced our tests for removing body oil -- you’ll find them in our laundry detergent ratings. “Be sure to read the detergent label and measure out the recommended amount,” de Paz says. “Excess detergent can cause residue that remains in your clothes, which can then trap odors.” And if your washer has an extra rinse cycle, use it.
Rewash if needed. If your clothes still smell or have stains after washing, put them back in the washer. The dryer’s heat can set the odor or stains.
Dry as directed. Directions may vary, but most experts we interviewed suggest air-drying synthetics, even laying them flat, to protect the shape and fit. In a rush? Double check the care label. Lululemon, for example, says you can tumble dry its athleisure wear on low heat but adds that it’s better to air-dry it.
What Not to Do
Do not leave damp clothes in your gym bag or hamper. If you can’t wash your athleisure wear right away, place it where it can dry as quickly as possible to keep it from smelling even worse, Sansoni says. As with any fabric, keeping these synthetics bunched up and damp promotes bacterial growth, which gives off odors.
Do not use hot water and/or chlorine bleach. The bleach can be tough on these fabrics, according to Whirlpool, and the hot water can damage the fibers that make them stretchy, or shrink them.
Do not wash them with jeans. Heavy fabrics can be abrasive to these more delicate items, Ahoni says.
Do not use fabric softener. According to Lululemon, the softening agents can clog the fabric’s pores, inhibiting its wicking capabilities.