All right, ’fess up—how often do you wash your workout gear: After every single sweat session? Every couple trips to the gym? Whenever you start noticing a stench lingering on your favorite high-waisted leggings?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule everyone should stick to when it comes to washing activewear.
Nobody’s here to preach about how you should be sudsing up after anytime you sweat. Truth is, there’s no hard-and-fast rule everyone should stick to when it comes to washing activewear. There are, however, some helpful tips and guidelines from cleaning pros that can help your workout clothes last longer than a HIIT class.
“How often you wash activewear is totally dependent on the individual—the amount of activity, the amount of sweat you produce, personal preference,” says Maggie Oakley, merchandise director at Smartwool, an outdoor activewear brand. (Yeah sorry, sweat monsters—you likely need to spend more $ on detergent than your friend who seems to only glisten at the gym.)
Your laundry routine also depends on where you call home, believe it or not: Live in the desert, and you might get away with hanging up sweaty gear to dry between wears; have a humid house where even line-dried clothes stay a little damp, and you’ll want to wash after every wear.
But keeping your kit clean is important—and the sweat factor is far from the only reason why.
“It’s not your sweat that produces odor, it’s bacteria—and they multiply in moist environments like sweaty clothes,” explains Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona.
We all have some yeast and bacteria on our bodies naturally, and it doesn’t cause a problem, she says. But if you’re in clingy (read: not-so-breathable) workout clothes and the balance of bacteria gets out of whack, you can get a rash…or way worse. How much worse? Think staph infection or MRSA. Okay, your likelihood of picking up either of those is slim, but why risk it when washing up will prevent bacteria buildup in the first place?
To nix as much bacteria as possible, wash your activewear with hot water. And definitely sidestep fabric softener—it releases a lot of oils that clog up clothing fibers, and bacteria cling to the oils like crazy, says Reynolds.
Another secret to banish bad odors from your duds: Mist fabric lightly with vodka in a spray bottle and hang it out to dry. Says Nelson: “As the liquor evaporates, the smells do too!”
Adding bleach to the washer helps nix nasty bugs (but can harm colors and some synthetic fibers), and pouring a little vinegar into the rinse cycle does the same trick, as it has antibacterial properties and breaks up bacteria-attracting oils in your clothes, says Marilee Nelson, cofounder of natural cleaning products brand Branch Basics.
Here’s how often you should be getting all your sweaty gear spic ‘n’ span.
If your workout didn’t leave your shirt totally drenched, you might be able to get away with skipping a wash.
That said, hang it up to dry as soon as you get home, and maybe rinse out any sweat first. “UV light is damaging to bacteria, so line drying in the sun in particular will kill the vast majority of bacteria,” says Reynolds.
One exception: sports bras, or any top with a built-in bra. The skin under women’s breasts is a common place for yeast infections, warns Reynolds, so you’ll want to wash pieces that cling to this area to make sure you’re not spreading harmful bacteria.
When it comes to shorts and leggings, you’re better off sudsing them up ASAP.
“You’ll want to wash anything that comes into contact with the groin more frequently,” says Reynolds—especially if you tend to go commando in said shorts or leggings. Here’s why: This area of your body is super-susceptible to irritations and yeast infections. Give a pair of bottoms the chance to accumulate bacteria, then wearing them again means you risk contracting an infection down there.
Don’t skip washing your socks, even if you think your feet stayed cool and sweat-free during that morning run.
When it comes to your kicks, if yours have a removable liner, put them in a laundry bag and wash weekly, suggests Reynolds. Also, spray your sneakers inside and out with a disinfecting spray (Clorox and Lysol both make them), or dust them with baking soda. Then leave them out in the sun for extra bacteria-killing power between workouts.
You can stretch more wears out between washes if your clothes are made of natural fibers.
Synthetic fibers have been specially constructed to wick away sweat and keep you cool, yes. But when it comes to harboring nasty bacteria, they’re the worst.
“Bacteria cling to synthetic fibers more than natural fibers,” says Reynolds. On the flip side, natural fabrics like wool and cotton breathe better and don’t trap nearly as much bacteria—and because of that, you might get away with wearing them for several gym sessions without cleaning and still sidestep the stink.
Reynolds’s advice if you’re wearing natural fabrics: Keep track of when you work out and how many sessions you can rack up before those clothes start to smell—then just make sure you soap them up a workout or two sooner next time.
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