I have a laundry problem. Specifically, I have a stinky workout clothing laundry problem.
I'm not typically a smelly person (…pretty sure), but recently I noticed that even after washing, my workout clothes were a little, well, funky. Or they would smell fine right out of the wash, but as soon as I put them on and started sweating again, things got a little ripe. Ick.
Things got even worse when I started getting into hot yoga. When you wear a tank top, sports bra, and leggings for an hour-long workout in a 95-degree room, then shove those soaking-wet clothes in a plastic bag in the bottom of your desk drawer for the rest of the workday, you've got a recipe for serious stench. No amount of washing with regular detergent would get the smell out. (When I complained to our fitness editor, Roz, she said grimly, "Oh yeah, everyone says that hot yoga smell is the worst.")
"Odor in workout clothing is most commonly caused by a buildup of sweat and bacteria from your body," explained Mary Zeitler, lead consumer scientist at the Whirlpool Corporation Institute of Home Science. "How you store your workout clothes can also lead to additional odors—for example, leaving sweaty clothes in a closed up gym bag, locker, or hamper." (Um, guilty.)
In addition, the very qualities that keep high-performance fabrics comfortable during a workout—their ability to push water out of their fibers rather than retaining it, so you stay drier—make it harder for sudsy water in your washing machine to penetrate the fabric and pull the sweat and bacteria out.
I had to get rid of the stink, so I embarked on a months-long quest to find the absolute best way to get workout clothes odor-free. First, some general tips from Zeitler and my own trial-and-error:
- Turn clothes inside out before washing (since the sweat, oils, and bacteria from your body accumulate on the inside of the clothes).
- "Always use the sniff test before putting the garment into the dryer," Zeitler said. (You don't want to "cook" the smells in.)
- Wash clothes as soon as possible after wearing.
- If possible, let sweaty clothes air out immediately rather than stuffing them into a plastic bag or hamper.
- Don't use more detergent than recommended or overstuff the machine, both of which make it harder for clothes to rinse clean. (In my tests, every single method did worse if I crammed too many items into one load.)
I ended up testing three different all-natural methods and four different specialized "sport" detergents, and crowning a winner and runner-up in each category. How I did it: I tried each method or specialty detergent at least two times (most of them four or five times), always washing in warm water and hanging dry. Each load had at least one super stinky hot yoga item in it. I sniffed everything right out of the wash and after drying, and also noted if clothes smelled worse when worn. I paired the natural methods with my usual laundry detergent, Seventh Generation Free & Clear. For the specialty detergents, I focused on brands that offered a fragrance-free version, since I'm sensitive to fragrances in laundry products.
Best natural method: Baking soda
Baking soda is a known deodorizer, so it's not surprising that this worked so well. I just added a cup of it to the washer as it filled, along with detergent.
This method got all the smell out of my hot yoga clothes, except for a little sweaty odor still left in the crotches of my leggings (hey, I'm just here to tell the truth), and reduced the baked-in smell on my favorite running hoodie. And weirdly enough, the next time I wore one of the tank tops I'd washed with baking soda, it didn't seem to get as smelly as usual. Cost per load: About $0.64 (plus the cost of your usual detergent)
To buy: $18; amazon.com
Runner-up natural method: Pre-soak with vinegar
I pre-soaked the entire load of clothes in my top-loading washing machine by running one delicate cycle (on my machine, that's basically a short soak and a spin dry) with cold water, adding a cup of vinegar as it filled. Then I washed the load as usual with warm water and regular detergent.
Though it wasn't as effective as the baking soda, it still got most of the odor out of my clothes. If you buy white vinegar by the gallon for other cleaning uses like I do, it's a super cheap and handy method. It was also way easier to do than sitting around waiting to add vinegar to the rinse cycle (the other vinegar-related trick I tried), and didn't leave any lingering vinegar smell. Cost per load: About $0.64 (plus the cost of your usual detergent)
To buy: $11; amazon.com
Best specialty detergent: Nathan Sport-Wash
To be honest, every sport detergent I tried worked fairly well. But Nathan Sport-Wash was the only one that removed absolutely every odor and didn't require any fiddling to figure out the ideal amount or an elaborate pre-wash ritual. (Sport Suds, for example, is so powerful that it supposedly dissolves the buildup on the inside of your washing machine. That means you have to pre-clean your machine to avoid getting all that smelly gunk re-deposited on your clothes—making it not ideal for anyone using a shared machine.)
The first time I tried Nathan Sport-Wash, I tossed in three sets of rancid hot yoga clothes (including one outfit that another method had failed to get clean) and two sets of running clothes. Everything came out absolutely odor free, including those hard-to-destink leggings crotches. It even eradicated the baked-in stink on my running hoodie, which I thought was permanent. Cost per load: $0.60
To buy: $25; amazon.com
Runner-up specialty detergent: Win Green
In a rare exception to the "use less detergent" rule, Win Green didn't pass muster when I used only one capful as recommended for "regular" loads. But when I used two capfuls (recommended for large loads), it did a fantastic job. Win also comes in a scented version, which some reviewers on Amazon claim works better than the fragrance-free. Cost per load: $0.68
To buy: $11; amazon.com