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I was in the midst of a lunge series in a reformer Pilates class when it hit me: The funk emanating from the crotch area of leggings. It wasn’t an issue with hygiene — they were just washed and I showered earlier that morning.
But the smell was strong and I was horrified.
I made it through the class hoping (praying) that no one else could smell it, too — and then I hightailed it home to look for the best detergent for smelly workout clothes.
Turns out I knew nothing about properly caring for the sweaty clothes I work out in.
“If you notice a funky smell [in your gym clothes and gym bag], that’s probably mildew,” cleaning expert Jolie Kerr told Shape. “It feeds off soap as well as dead skin debris.”
So, how do can you get the smell out without pitching your expensive Lululemon gear or even your cheaper Lululemon dupes and Gymshark dupes? It all boils down to finding the best detergent for smelly workout clothes — and there are only a few good options.
What Causes the Stank in Your Workout Clothes
It comes down to four things: sweat, dead skin, oil, and bacteria.
We all have bacteria on our skin that help break down sweat, body oils, and dead skin. Once these mix, they create volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that make you stink — and that stink then gets transferred onto your clothing, where it gets trapped.
Most of us try to combat the funk by adding lots of detergent to the wash, but that only causes more odors. “Some people add extra detergent to their smelly gym clothes,” Kerr added, but adding extra suds makes things worse.
The reason: It builds up on your clothing, trapping dead skin cells, and making it a welcoming environment for fungus. Fabric softener used during the rinse cycle also makes things worse.
“It damages anything that stretches,” Kerr said.
“A lot of times gym clothes come out of the wash and you get a whiff of something that doesn’t smell clean. That’s because fabric softener is locking in odors.”
How to Find the Best Detergent For Smelly Workout Clothes
Getting rid of the smell in your workout clothes comes down to one thing: Get rid of the trapped bacteria and nastiness that’s inserted itself into the threads.
Washing your clothes in hot water is one surefire way to kill the odor-causing bacteria, but it can damage or fade some fabrics if done consistently. It might be worth doing once to blast the real baked-in smell in the armpit and crotch areas of your clothes, but most washings should be in cold water with the detergent.
And as for how you find that detergent? Look for formulas specially designed to tackle the odors in synthetic fabrics like lycra.
Most laundry detergents are made to tackle stains and odors on natural fibers like cotton, but the Spandex, polyester, and other blends used in workout gear are man-made.
The Best Detergent For Smelly Workout Clothes: 8 Brands to Try
There are more options than ever when you’re looking for the best detergent for smelly workout clothes, thanks to the continued popularity of athleisure. We’ve compiled the 10 best options, based on personal experience and overall Amazon reviews.
HEX Performance Advanced Laundry Detergent
HEX Performance Advanced Laundry Detergent is often cited in fitness circles as the best detergent for smelly workout clothes, thanks to its ability to deep clean without damaging the fabric. It’s also designed to be hypoallergenic with no dyes, perfumes, fillers, or brighteners, making it a good choice for those with sensitive skin.
“I tried the baking soda, vinegar, all the tricks to refresh my towels, and this detergent was the only one that has worked long term,” Mary Jane wrote on Amazon.
The downside, according to Mary Jane is that the bottle is “pricey for the # of loads you get. I follow the directions for filling the soap cup and I could go through 2 of these packages a month.”
Nathan Power Wash
Another favorite, Nathan Power Wash is 100 percent non-toxic, biodegradable, and eco-friendly ingredients that are pH balanced, scent-free, and bleach-free.
It’s designed to get the funk out of synthetic fabrics, but can also remove stains and odors from natural materials, like cotton towels, and other sports equipment (gloves, pads, braces, and more).
The biggest downside to Nathan Power Wash is that instructions on the amount of detergent to use aren’t immediately clear.
“The only complaints we have are that the cap does not drain back into the bottle, and the instructions did not clearly specify how much detergent to use (until we noticed the label peeled away to reveal more instructions),” one reviewer wrote.
Roux Maison Sport Laundry Detergent
Roux Maison Sport Laundry Detergent is made with “sport ingredients” designed to get rid of odor, bacteria, and dirt while keeping the moisture-wicking properties of your workout clothes intact.
The downside is that it’s a bit expensive at $19.95 for a 16-ounce bottle — and you have to use two capfuls per load to get the full power. But Roux Maison makes it to the list of best detergents for smelly workout clothes because it’s a cruelty-free brand that never tests on animals and is made in the United States.
Persil ProClean Powder-Liquid Laundry Detergent
My personal trainer actually swears by Persil ProClean Powder-Liquid Laundry Detergent and recently revealed to me that he wears the same uniform t-shirt every day of the week — and doesn’t wash it. He probably smells pretty funky, right?
Besides his good personal hygiene, he uses Persil to keep his work uniform — which is basically the same as workout clothes — fresh and clean.
And maybe TMI, but I’ve done the sniff test on him and it’s legit.
Persil ProClean Powder-Liquid Laundry Detergent uses “proprietary formulas” of enzymes to fight stains and odors, giving it the brand’s 10 Dimensions of Clean. It can be used in high-efficiency washing machines and also comes in a pod-type “cap” that can be popped into the washer.
Defunkify Active Wash Laundry Detergent
Defunkify Active Wash Laundry Detergent gets marks for being the best detergent for smelly workout clothes because it’s a power that not only removes baked-in odors but is also made with “green chemistry” that uses sustainable enzymes, minerals, and plant-based ingredients listed in the EPA’s Safer Choice Chemical Ingredient List.
Another bonus: It doesn’t take much to clean clothes, so your investment lasts longer.
The biggest downside to Defunkify Active Wash Laundry Detergent seems to be the smell. Some people love it, but others say it’s too overpowering.
Win High-Performance Sports Detergent
Like Roux Maison Sport Laundry Detergent, Win Sports Detergent gets a nod as the best detergent for smelly workout clothes because it’s a cruelty-free and made-in-the-USA product that “breaks the bond” between oil and synthetic fabric to get the nasty smells from athletic gear and kill bacteria.
One thing to note: Some reviewers wrote about the strong smell of Win Sports Detergent, both as a good thing and a bad thing.
If scents aren’t your cup of tea (or you’re sensitive), there is also a Win High-Performance Sports Detergent in a green bottle, meaning it’s scent-free and dye-free.
Atsco Sport Wash Laundry Detergent
Have a lot of laundry to do? In that case, the best detergent for smelly workout clothes is Atsco Sport Wash Laundry Detergent.
The reason: It comes in a more economical 64-ounce bottle that can clean 64 loads. Biodegradable and phosphate-free, the detergent is made to wash out thoroughly, leaving no dirt, smell, or soap behind.
Rockin’ Green Platinum Series Active Wear Laundry Detergent
Rockin’ Green Platinum Series Active Wear Laundry Detergent gets a mark as the best detergent for smelly workout clothes because it’s made with all-natural ingredients and scented with a hint of tea tree oil.
It’s gluten-free, vegan, and free of bleach, brighteners, and phosphates. It’s also a cruelty-free detergent that isn’t tested on animals.
The biggest thing you’ll notice when you use it? Just how dirty your “clean” workout clothes actually are.
How to Wash Your Workout Clothes the Right Way
Investing in the best detergent for smelly workout clothes is one thing, but you also need to know how to wash them correctly.
- Turn clothes inside out before washing. Most of the odor-causing bacteria, oils, and skin cells get trapped on the inside of your workout clothes since that’s what is exposed to your body. Washing your workout clothes inside out gives the water and detergent better access to clean them.
- Use less detergent than you think you need. As we said before: More isn’t more. Follow the directions on the bottle to determine the right amount of detergent you need.
- Forget about fabric softener. Fabric softener might make your clothes smell great on the surface, but it builds up and traps in more odors.
But what if the best detergent for smelly workout clothes doesn’t end up working? It might not be your clothes, but your washing machine.
Mildew can grow inside a washer and then get transferred to clothing during the wash. If you suspect that’s the case, run a hot water cycle with bleach. Then, run another hot wash cycle with nothing in the machine. Repeat with a cup of white vinegar and hot water, then a color wash rinse. This should take care of the problem.
Meagan Morris is the editor in chief of Celebribody. She's veteran health and wellness editor with over 15 years of experience. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yahoo Health, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Women's Health, among others. She spends most of her time writing, but her favorite part of the day is spent under a barbell doing squats.