How to Get a Sweaty Smell Out of Your Clothes

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on April 07, 2022
5 min read

In the U.S., comfort is key. We love activewear, from yoga pants to sweatsuits. Athletic clothing and leisurewear make up a $67 billion industry. 

The materials in the clothes usually are not breathable like traditional cotton. The new materials are mostly synthetic. And the new materials can stink. 

Damp, warm fabrics are houses for fungi and bacteria. It is important that proper care is taken, most importantly washing, to keep your clothes in usable condition for a long time.

Today's leisurewear is made out of synthetic fabrics. While they are good at wicking away moisture from the body, they can also keep sudsy wash water from penetrating through the fabric. This makes it hard to wash away sweat. 

Germs such as bacteria and fungi can then grow in the fabric, causing an odor. This can occur regardless of how clean your body is. This lingering set of germs can also irritate your skin.

Though your clothes may feel dry, this does not mean that they are either dry or clean. When you’re working out, if you wear your clothes for an extended period, this could lead to problems.

Warm, sweaty clothes create the ideal home for fungi and bacteria. With synthetic materials, wearing sweaty clothes too long creates a worse odor than with cotton clothing. Synthetic clothes harbor more sweat and ammonia, and the fibers hold on to micrococcus bacteria. Micrococcus bacteria thrive in synthetic materials. 

Even though your body is drying after you work out, these damp pockets still exist. After you work out, it is important to take off your gym clothes and allow them to dry before tossing them in the hamper. They can dry while you wash and clean your body in the shower. 

Once they have dried, toss them into the hamper. Damp clothes in the hamper can lead to further mildew on your athletic gear and surrounding clothes. Wash your clothes as soon as possible once worn.

Many experts say you should wash athletic gear as soon as possible. Having clothes lie around for days in a hamper makes cleaning them harder. Also, using too much detergent or fabric softener can cause problems. 

These materials coat high-tech synthetic fibers, in turn trapping dirt and odors. Cramming too many clothes into a washing machine also does not allow the clothes to be washed or rinsed sufficiently.

A special detergent is not needed for activewear. Natural solutions and the following tips can help you keep your clothes clean:

  • Wash clothes soon after wearing them. If not possible, allow them to air out before placing them in the hamper.
  • Do not use too much detergent or load an excessive amount of clothes into the washer.
  • Turn clothes inside out before running your load so that the sweaty parts are cleaned more easily.
  • Give clothes a sniff before drying them and, if needed, rewash.

Baking soda is great for cleaning and neutralizing perspiration deep in fabrics. It can be added directly to wash water. For stubborn areas, a paste made with baking soda and water can be rubbed onto problem areas. First, test for colorfastness. The paste should be left in place for at least 15 minutes, but preferably overnight. Then wash as usual.

Another way to get athletic clothing and leisurewear clean is to mix three white aspirins in a cup of warm water. Scrub the underarm area with a toothbrush, and allow the clothes to sit for 20 minutes. Then, wash as usual.

Citric acid is beneficial for cleaning clothes in two ways: It will clean sweat out of clothing, and it will bleach yellow sweat stains. Citric acid is best if used on white laundry:

  • Fill a bowl half full with warm water.
  • Add 4 teaspoons of citric acid per 4 cups of water.
  • Place dirty laundry in the bowl and soak it for an hour.
  • Remove the clothing from the bowl and machine wash as usual.

Unfortunately, after being washed, clothing can still smell. The term has been coined “rebloom,” and it affects 49% of Americans. The odor from sweat and grime that was not properly washed away can begin to stink again when clothes are worn.  

Persistent odor complaints are just as common as complaints about stains, especially when you’re working out. This has led to the production of sports detergents that claim to remove these recurrent odors.

The smell that comes from the area of sweat is caused by bacteria. Vinegar fights bacteria. It can be used to get the smell out of clothes:

  • Fill a bowl half full with warm water.
  • Add a glass of vinegar.
  • Put dirty laundry in the bowl to soak for an hour.
  • Afterward, wash your clothes as usual in the washing machine. 

Though a little strange, a meat tenderizer can also be used to get rid of odors. It works by breaking down chemicals deep in the fabric causing the odor by tenderizing them. Dampen the armpit area of your clothes with water and sprinkle a good amount of meat tenderizer on the area. Rub it in with your fingers and allow it to sit for 20 minutes. Then, wash your clothes as usual. 

Mouthwashes such as Scope or Listerine work well for getting rid of fabric odors under the arm. Pour a few capfuls into the odorous area, wait 30 minutes, and then wash. Since many types of mouthwash are colored, do a spot test on white clothing. 

One of the most important aspects of keeping clothes clean and odor-free is drying them all the way. Make sure the dryer cycle is long enough, or you can line-dry items on a hot, sunny day.

A way to prevent odors in the long run is fabric choice. Synthetic fabrics are less breathable than all-natural fabrics like bamboo, silk, cotton, and wool.

Sweaty gym clothes should never be placed in an enclosed container like a bin, hamper, or drawer. They should be immediately washed or allowed to dry thoroughly before being tossed in a hamper. Wash all clothes regularly.