Ask an Expert: How Can I Clean Workout Clothes that Stink?

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One of the best things about the co-op is the thriving community of gearheads, dirtbags, bird nerds, thru-hikers, peak-baggers, storytellers and more who work in our stores and headquarters, guide our trips and teach our classes. In this monthly series, we’ll tap into that expert knowledge to answer some of your burning questions about terrain, gear, safety, etiquette—anything! The co-op has your back.

This week’s question “How can I clean sweat and dirt from sport clothes?” was submitted by Sarah Alford, REI member since 2011.

The clothes that we wear adventuring—I’m looking at you, polyester tech tees—tend to hold on to some funk. According to microbiologists, odor-causing bacteria prefer poly over cotton, and they can stick to clothes even after going through the washing machine. If it seems like you can never quite get the stink out of your favorite bike shirt, you’re probably right.

I turned to Chuck Stark, a senior instructor at the REI Outdoor School in Chicago, to help answer this question. The first thing we needed to do was to establish a clothing-funkiness baseline, so I asked Chuck how funky his clothes get, on a scale of 1 to 10.

“Let’s just say it’s a spectrum, but they can get up to eight,” Chuck said. “They get to the point where I notice it when I move. If you’re within a 2-foot radius of me, you would smell it as well.”

Like most of us, Chuck has noticed that his shirts tend to get a bit ripe after he’s worked up a good sweat, especially after wintertime activities like snowshoeing or skiing, when “body moisture builds up in the base layers.”

woman standing on a mountain looking over a snowy mountainous landscape

Moisture is the main culprit. Microbes thrive in wet environments, which is why they love to hang out in the human armpit, eating compounds found in sweat and generating odors. The best way to avoid the funk caused by bacteria is to choose base layers that are less hospitable to them.

In general, synthetic fabrics, merino wool and silk are recommended for outdoor activity because of their moisture-wicking properties. In terms of the funk factor, merino wool is the favorite because it’s naturally antibacterial and breathable, so you can wear it for days without causing people to edge away from you.

Learn: How to Choose a Baselayer

Chuck divulged that his favorite instructor T-shirt is the biggest culprit behind his No. 8 rating on the funk scale. “That thing holds onto whatever bacteria there is. It holds onto it and really rocks it.”

That must be fun for his students. But what if you’re particularly attached to your instructor T-shirt, even though it attracts a whole colony of microbes to the verdant rainforest of your armpit? How can you wear that shirt with pride, without causing people to back up the requisite 2 feet?

“Don’t crinkle up that shirt and throw it in the hamper at the end of the day,” Chuck said. It won’t air out, and it’ll hold on to that funk—maybe for all eternity. Instead, hang it up until it’s nice and dry. Then you can wash it—or not. I mean, we all like to save water.

Chuck commutes to work by bike, and he’s found a sweet spot using a method he swears by. “When I get to work, I take off my shirt and hang it on a hanger,” he said. “Then at the end of the day, I’ll ride home in that shirt, then hang it up again. I can wear it four days before it’s time to wash it.”

I wondered if there’s a particular method he uses to fight the funk on laundry day. “Not really,” Chuck said. “I just put them in the washing machine, and I use a powder detergent.”

Interesting. There are lots of tips out there for how to de-stink gym clothes, like using a vinegar pre-wash, adding baking soda to the wash cycle, or even freezing the clothes, all of which do sound promising. But according to the Chuck Stark theory, it doesn’t really matter how you wash your clothes—only how you treat them when they’re still dirty: Air them out!

clothes drying out on a line at a campground under a tarp.

When he’s on a backpacking trip, for instance, he wears one shirt for hiking, and then changes into a “camp shirt” that’s just for kicking back. He hangs up his sweaty shirt on a branch or drapes it on a rock. “When the sun shines and I set out my layers, I have this visual in my head that the UV light is just burning away any bacteria buildup,” Chuck said, then laughed. “Whether that’s happening or not, I don’t know, but it doesn’t hurt to visualize it that way.”

Ah, there’s the voodoo to balance out all this science. You just have to believe. “Exactly!” Chuck said. But also, for good measure, he likes to use Crystal deodorant, the natural mineral salt that deters the odor-causing bacteria in his pits, and to dust his sweaty shirt with Gold Bond powder before letting the sun do its thing.

There was one more thing I had to know. Did Chuck ever have a piece of clothing that he just could not de-funk, so he had to toss it, maybe even in a dumpster behind a gas station in another part of town, because he was afraid the neighbors would judge him?

“Come to think of it, no, I don’t think I’ve had that experience,” Chuck said.

I told him that was pretty good, especially for a guy who doesn’t wash his bike shirts for four days at a time. “It is!” he said. “How ’bout that.”

Meet the Expert

Chuck Stark has been a senior instructor with the REI Outdoor School in Chicago since 2012. He teaches Kayaking, How to Ride a Bike, Hiking, Backpacking, Camping, Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing. His favorite classes are the ones where beginners leave feeling empowered and ready to get out there on their own.  

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