Sweaty clothes stink, but sweaty workout clothes stink worst of all. Like those synthetic-fibre leggings, those sweat-wicking socks, those “technical” tees? Phew. These fabrics are especially prone to harbouring the smelliest bacteria.
Photo: The Last Stitch
You see, our sweat doesn't stink on its own; bacteria that live on our skin digest our sweat and oils, and they're the ones stinking up the place.
Polyester clothing provides an especially good home to Micrococcus bacteria after a sweaty workout, according to a 2014 study published in Applied Environmental Microbiology. The authors note that airy mesh and wicking fabrics also help the bacteria get plenty of oxygen, and that once the clothing is off our skin, our immune systems don't keep their numbers in check.
Cotton doesn't grow bacteria as well, and it also tends to trap some of the stink inside its fibres, where we can't smell it. Another bonus for cotton: Detergents work pretty well to remove the stink, the sweat and the bacteria responsible. Synthetic fibres, on the other hand, are smooth and slightly oily. Detergents have a hard time getting the bacteria off.
So what can you do? Based on the science and my personal experience, I can recommend two things:
- Wear cotton. It may feel sweatier when you're wearing it, but if you don't mind (and aren't doing winter workouts in a situation where hypothermia is an issue), it will de-stink in the laundry just fine.
- Rinse your workout gear right away. I toss any synthetic clothes onto the floor of my shower before I hop in. Either before or after I wash myself, I rinse my clothes and squeeze them out. This removes a lot of the sweat and bacteria before they can combine to cause a big stink.
I find that after prompt rinsing, I can hang my gear up in the shower (I have hooks in there for exactly this reason) and it's stink-free once it's dry. Every couple of wearings, I rinse it and then toss it in the regular laundry. But if you want to be really thorough, consider washing your stuff with detergent immediately after your workout.