How to get the smell out of sweaty workout gear

Those unwelcome odours from your sweaty clothes after exercise can be hard to budge – even after washing. We ask the experts how to eliminate those rank smells once and for all.

If you work out, no doubt you’ve noticed the odour that seems to cling to your sweaty clothes – even after washing.

One of the world’s leading experts on body odour, Belgian microbiologist Dr Chris Callewaert says it’s not your imagination – smelly workout clothes are a real issue and are caused by bacteria that feed off our bodily fluids.

“If there are no microbes, there is – in theory – no odour,” Dr Callewaert says.

“Sterile sweat is, in fact, odourless and does not smell bad at all.

“It’s the bacteria that converts it into volatiles that have a bad smell.

“Over time, particular bacteria make themselves at home in those shirts, and they will start to reek the moment they get ‘food’, which is the sweat that we produce during workout,” he says.

How to keep your workout clothes fresh

Most of us only have a few exercise outfits, which we don’t want to throw out after a couple of wears just because they smell.

So, we asked the experts how to tackle this smelly issue.

1. Don’t rewear sweaty clothes

It can be tempting to reuse workout clothes multiple times without washing, but this can lead to bacteria build-up.

“It’s a good idea to wash them every time you use them if they’re sweaty and smelly,” Australian National University microbiologist Professor Peter Collignon says.

“It’s the basics of cleaning; if you put them in a washing machine, you’re not going to have as many bugs there.”

Dr Callewaert says regular washing will reduce bacteria, but a normal wash won’t get rid of the problem entirely.

“What is left is a removal of odour and a little reduction of bacteria, but the same bacteria are still present and will cause problems after reusing,” he says.

2. Use hot water to wash sweaty clothes

“Cold water or warm water is usually enough, but if you’re particularly concerned about it, wash in water above 60 degrees,” Prof Collignon says.

“That will kill most bacteria.”

Heat from the dryer can also help, he adds.

3. Wear natural materials 

Bacteria thrives in synthetic fabric, so natural materials are a good option.

Research shows cotton tends to smell better than polyester after washing.

“Other good options are natural fibres that also possess slight antibacterial properties, such as bamboo,” Dr Callewaert says.

4. Clean sweaty clothes with disinfectant

Blasting bacteria with chemicals is another option.

“Reducing the odour can be done through pre-soaking the textiles prior to washing, and adding an antibacterial,” Dr Callewaert says.

5. Use sunlight to dry workout clothes

Prof Collignon says ultraviolet light is exceptionally good at killing bacteria and viruses.

So, it might help to dry your outfit in direct sunlight “to finish the bacteria off”, he says.

Written by Alex White.