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A woman holding up and folding a blue long-sleeve shirt at home in the laundry room.

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How to Get That Lingering Sweat Smell Out of Your Workout Clothes

Experts share how to get rid of that “perma-stink” once and for all.

By Kylie GilbertFebruary 28, 2024

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Is your favorite workout tank or pair of leggings tinged by a sweaty smell that just won’t go away—even after you’ve washed it more times than you can count? You’re not alone. This “perma-stink” is a fairly common phenomenon, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. So how can you get a sweat smell out of clothes once and for all?

We spoke to a dermatologist and laundry expert to break down the science behind a pesky activewear smell. Plus, we rounded up pro tips for how to get those workout clothes smelling fresh again—and how to properly wash activewear in the future to actually remove odor-causing bacteria. 

Why Do My Workout Clothes Smell Sweaty, Even After Washing Them?

It’s simple: “Freshly washed workout clothes still smell sweaty because they aren’t thoroughly clean,” explains Mary Marlowe Leverette, a cleaning and fabric care expert and consultant to detergent manufacturers, textile distributors, and consumer laundry appliance developers. 

And there’s a scientific reason why that smell might become more noticeable once you get dressed and head to the gym. “If body oils and bacteria are still embedded in the fibers, the clothes are still going to smell after your body warms up the bacteria trapped in the fibers and releases the odors into the air,” Leverette explains. 

In other words, if your workout clothes still smell sweaty even after you’ve just washed them, it’s time to take a look at your laundry routine and habits.

How to Get a Sweat Smell Out of Clothes

So, how should you generally wash activewear to prevent sweaty smells from sticking around? And what can you do if you already have a lingering sweat smell to get rid of? Leverette shares her tips ahead. 

The Best Way to Wash Sweaty Workout Clothes 

If you usually leave used workout clothes in your gym bag or hamper for a few days before washing them with the rest of your dirty clothes later on, it’s time to reevaluate your laundry habits. 

The first step is knowing that activewear should (ideally) be washed after each and every use, Leverette says. “Allowing the sweat, body soil, and bacteria to build up makes it much more difficult—sometimes impossible—to remove,” she says. (Don’t worry, we’re sharing some tips ahead for a deep clean if you find yourself in this situation.) 

With that in mind, here are Leverette’s tips for washing sweaty activewear so that smells don’t stick around

  1. Fill a sink with one part distilled white vinegar and four parts cold water. 

  2. Submerge the activewear and let it soak for 15–30 minutes. 

  3. After the clothes are done soaking, sort activewear by color (dark or light) and wash them separately. Don’t include any towels or jeans in the load and close any zippers to prevent snags.

  4. Since most bacteria and grime are on the inside of the garments, turn your workout clothes inside out before placing them in the washing machine. 

  5. Add approximately 2 teaspoons of detergent for a full load (less for just a couple of garments). 

  6. When you’re ready to go, use cold water and the gentle cycle. “Hot water and strong agitation can damage the fiber of your workout clothing and shorten its lifespan,” Leverette says. 

  7. Hang your workout clothes to air-dry on a drying rack. (“If you must put them in the dryer, use the lowest heat setting possible to avoid damaging the fabric,” Leverette says.)

How to Deep Clean Sweaty-Smelling Workout Clothes

OK, so what if you didn’t exactly follow the above steps to wash your activewear right away—and are now looking for a solution? Leverette shares how to give your workout clothes a deep clean when odor has built up and a sweat smell just won’t go away: 

  1. Fill a sink with one part distilled white vinegar and three parts water. 

  2. Submerge the items (do only a couple at a time) and allow them to soak for at least one hour. 

  3. Wash as the label instructions recommend, or use a cold gentle cycle as outlined above.

  4. Add a laundry sanitizer to the final rinse cycle. This should not be chlorine bleach, Leverette cautions. Instead, choose a phenolic disinfectant (phenol is a type of antimicrobial agent) that won’t damage the fibers of your workout gear. 

A man inspecting a blue, short-sleeved workout top while taking laundry out of the dryer and putting it into a basket at home.

Robert Niedring / Cavan via Getty Images

Tips for Preventing Sweaty-Smelling Workout Clothes in the Future

Now you know how to get a sweat smell out of clothes—but are there any steps you can take to prevent permanently smelly activewear in the first place? Here are a few expert-approved practices to get ahead of things: 

1. Opt for Moisture-Wicking Activewear

If you aren’t already working out in moisture-wicking fabrics, this is the first basic step you’ll want to take to prevent your clothes from getting so sweaty—and smelly— in the first place, says Mona Gohara, MD, a Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. While fabrics like cotton will absorb sweat and leave your clothes wet and heavy, moisture-wicking materials found in most activewear will pull sweat away and allow it to evaporate, which can help prevent skin irritation and acne.

2. Try Antiperspirant and Glycolic Acid

Switching from a deodorant to an antiperspirant—which controls not just odor, but sweat as well—is also key for preventing sweaty workout clothes. Dr. Gohara also suggests swiping a glycolic acid pad under your armpits before applying your antiperspirant. Glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), is a chemical exfoliant often used in skincare products—and it has the added bonus of lowering the skin’s pH and killing odor-causing bacteria. Those benefits might be why the hashtag #glycolicacidasdeodorant has millions of views on TikTok—but to be clear, Dr. Gohara doesn’t suggest it as a replacement for applying a sweat-blocking antiperspirant before your workout. Rather, think of it as an available extra step in your anti-sweaty-activewear toolbox.

3. Air Out Workout Clothes If You Can’t Wash Them Immediately

Ideally, you’d complete the water-and-vinegar soak described earlier as quickly as possible after a workout, but what if that’s just not practical? Allow your workout clothes to at least air-dry before tossing them in a hamper—and try not to leave damp activewear to fester in a gym bag or hot car. Once you’re able to soak your clothes later on, leave them a bit longer in the water-and-vinegar solution—at least 30 minutes—before washing, Leverette says.

And remember: It’s always a good idea to take your sweaty workout clothes off—and shower—as soon as you can, even if you aren’t going to wash them immediately. “Wearing a sports bra for a few hours after working out can promote an increase in yeast and lead to a rash called tinea versicolor [a common fungal skin infection],” Dr. Gohara says. 

4. Know That More Detergent Isn’t Better

It might seem like throwing in an extra laundry pod or another teaspoon of detergent would help get your workout clothes extra fresh and clean, but it can actually make your clothes smell worse. “Resist the temptation to add more detergent,” Leverette says. “It will build up on the fibers, creating an environment for breeding bacteria and yeast.”

5. Never Use Liquid Fabric Softener on Activewear

While fabric softener (whether in liquid form or a dryer sheet) is great for keeping fabrics like cotton smooth and wrinkle-free, you should keep it far away from moisture-wicking fabrics like your workout clothes. “This traps odors and can make clothes lose their shape by coating the fibers and breaking down the elastic,” Leverette explains. 

6. Add a Laundry Sanitizer

If you want to get ahead of sweaty smells before they become noticeable, use a laundry sanitizer about once a month when washing your activewear to keep bacteria (the odor-causer) at bay, Leverette says.

7. Always Air-Dry Activewear

Not only is air-drying better for the lifespan of your workout clothes than throwing them in the dryer, but it’s also better for preventing sweaty smells. “Machine drying tends to set the odor into the fibers,” Leverette says.

Leverette shares one important caveat to the air-dry rule: Avoid drying activewear over your radiator or in a sunny window, as high heat can degrade the fibers of your workout clothes.

The Takeaway

No one wants to work out in sweaty-smelling, not fully clean workout clothes, but it’s easy (and understandable) to get a little bit lazy with our laundry routines. Luckily, a few simple steps in your laundry routine, along with some potential skincare additions, can help nip the issue in the bud for good. Soaking your activewear in the water-and-vinegar solutions outlined above before washing them can help fend off a sweat smell that just won’t go away, while taking preventive steps (like shying away from fabric softener and prioritizing air-drys) can help keep your favorite workout clothes in tip-top shape.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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