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The Right Way to Wash Your Workout Clothes

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You’ve got the whole lights/darks thing down. And you’ve learned your lesson when it comes to wool sweaters. But workout clothes? Though they take a beating from your body, they need more care in the wash than your socks and tees.

“You’re sweating in them, and they’re also absorbing all the dead skin cells and oils that slough off your body when you exercise,” says Jolie Kerr, a cleaning expert and author of the (hilariously instructive) cleaning book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag.

But while your workout duds dirty more than your normal clothing, they’re also more delicate, Kerr says. In particular, she says the expensive fabrics used to make your gear stretchy and supportive react poorly to two things: detergent and fabric softener. (These 10 Fitness Fabrics Explained may help you decide which one is best for you.)

Detergent Dangers
“Some people add extra detergent to their smelly gym clothes,” Kerr says. “But more is actually worse.” Why? Your washing machine has a standard cycle that’s set to handle a certain amount of detergent, Kerr says. Any excess doesn’t get washed out. It just builds up on your clothing, trapping dead skin and creating an ideal environment for fungus, she explains.

“If you notice a funky smell, that’s probably mildew,” she adds. “It feeds off soap as well as dead skin debris.” Gross.

Scary Softeners
The real villain—so far as your workout clothes are concerned—is fabric softener. “It damages anything that stretches,” Kerr warns. She says fabric softener also leaves behind a coating that will trap smells, and can become difficult to clean away.

“A lot of times gym clothes come out of the wash and you get a whiff of something that doesn’t smell clean,” she says. “That’s because fabric softener is locking in odors.”

To repel this smell, she advises adding half a cup of white vinegar to your wash cycle. “It acts as both a fabric softener and an odor killer,” she says. Bonus: it’s extremely cheap, has virtually no environmental impact, and, Kerr jokes, “You can use it to make salad dressing!” (And here's the breakdown on how to Extend the Lifespan of Each Piece Of Your Fitness Gear.)

Your Step-by-Step Guide
Here’s how Kerr washes her own activewear to keep them clean, intact, and aroma-free:

  • Turn everything inside-out to safeguard colors. Also, most of the gross stuff tends to accumulate inside your gym clothes, not outside.
  • Before washing, soak your gear in a mixture of cold water and half a cup of white vinegar for 15 to 30 minutes. This helps eliminate odors while breaking down any gunk that might have built up during and after your workout.
  • Use a small amount of detergent—a little less than whatever the bottle recommends for your load size.
  • Wash your clothes in cold water. (Hot water can break down textiles and leads to shrinkage.)
  • If you’re serious about blocking odors, add another half-cup of white vinegar to your wash’s rinse cycle.
  • Air dry your clothes, or use the lowest heat setting on your dryer. (Again, high heat can cause damage or shrinkage.)

Want to try something else? Kerr says you could also seek out a detergent made for gym clothes if you're sweating up a storm. Hex Performance is detergent designed specifically for high performance gear. “I think the specially formulated detergents work and they’re good,” Kerr says.

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