How to Clean and Care for High-Performance Activewear

Soaking Workout Clothes in Vinegar to Remove Bacteria

A workout top hanging from a white sink

The Spruce / Erica Lang

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 15 mins
  • Total Time: 1 hr
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $10

Activewear wicks away moisture to keep your body dry. However, that sweaty smell can remain in your clothes and even embed itself long-term into polyester fibers. To keep workout clothes from getting smelly, you must wash high-performance activewear after every use to kill the bacteria that cause odors.

Hot water and the dryer's heat kill bacteria and disinfect workout clothes; however, too much heat might be counterintuitive for many stretchy workout clothes. Instead, try everyday household items like white distilled vinegar and baking soda, which are great odor-busters for removing lingering odors and can be added to the wash cycle to freshen any smelly clothes.

For any clean clothes that look faded and grimy, retain a smell, or need extra care, you can "laundry strip" your clothes, which is another type of soak-and-wash process for removing layered-on residue from detergents, fabric softeners, sweat, and more. However, this process requires hot water and is not recommended for workout clothes or items containing elastic, elastane, or stretchy lycra since it can ruin the fibers.

You can't just throw these special workout garments in the washing machine with the rest of your clothing. Proper care—like sorting, washing in cold water, and line drying—is needed to make your investment last. Washing high-performance outerwear before you even wear it is also recommended to eliminate any manufacturing residue that could irritate your skin when you sweat.

Read on for a tried-and-true method for getting your workout clothes their cleanest.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Sink
  • Washing machine
  • Drying rack

Materials

  • White distilled vinegar
  • Delicate or high-performance fabric detergent

Instructions

A workout top near a white sink
The Spruce / Erica Lang
How to Wash High-Performance Activewear
Detergent Mild or high-performance fabric-specific
Water Temperature Cold
Cycle Type Gentle
Drying Cycle Type Low-heat or air-dry
Special Treatments Wash separately
Iron Settings Do not iron
How Often to Wash After every use

Instructions

Workout clothing can harbor unpleasant odors, even after washing. The acids found in white distilled vinegar break the bond between the body soil and fabric to release bacteria and flush away the smell. This inexpensive product won't harm your high-performance activewear, and its smell will be removed after laundering.

  1. Soak and Rinse

    Mix 1 part white distilled vinegar with 4 parts cold water in a sink. Submerge your activewear and let it soak for 15 to 30 minutes before washing. If wash day is several days away, place the clothes in the solution for a 30-minute soak. Then, rinse with plain water and allow your garments to drip dry before tossing them in the hamper.

    Workout clothes soaking in a sink
    ​The Spruce / Erica Lang
  2. Sort and Turn Clothes Inside Out

    Wash your technical workout wear alone, and only with like fabrics and colors. Close the zippers and turn the clothing inside out before placing it in the washing machine, as the bacteria and grime reside on the inside of your activewear.

    Workout clothes turned inside out
    ​The Spruce / Erica Lang 
  3. Add the Correct Detergent

    Add approximately 2 teaspoons of detergent (or the specified amount on the bottle) to your load, no matter how bad your clothes smell. Too much detergent will build up on the clothing fibers, creating an environment for breeding bacteria and yeast. Try a sportswear-specific laundry detergent that’s designed to clean moisture-wicking material, like Hex Performance or Nathan Power Wash.

    Someone holding a capful of detergent
    ​The Spruce / Erica Lang
  4. Set the Washing Machine Cycle

    Wash your high-performance activewear in cold water on the gentle cycle. Hot water and strong agitation can damage the fiber of your workout clothing and shorten its lifespan.

    Someone choosing a washer setting
    ​The Spruce / Erica Lang
  5. Air-Dry, When Possible

    Hang your high-performance workout clothes to air-dry on a drying rack, if possible. If you must put them in the dryer, use the lowest heat setting possible to avoid damaging the fabric.

    Workout clothes on a drying rack
    ​The Spruce / Erica Lang

Tip

For really stinky gear, try adding a laundry sanitizer that is safe for activewear to help kill odor-causing bacteria. Hex Antibacterial Fabric Protector, added to the rinse cycle, kills the bacteria that causes odors and stains and prevents regrowth for up to six weeks.

What Is High-Performance Activewear?

Workout clothing is often made of stretchy, high-performance fabric designed to move with you during a workout. It also keeps you cool by wicking sweat away from the body. Activewear fabric is typically made from blended synthetic fibers, including nylon microfibers and elastane. These fibers are highly engineered to breathe, and many brands also claim built-in UV protection. Since the fabric is designed to repel moisture, it's tough to get it clean and smelling fresh.

Treating Stains on High-Performance Activewear

If you see a waxy build-up of deodorant, or yellowing on the underarms, dip a soft toothbrush in detergent, and scrub the area to loosen the soil before you wash your clothes. Other types of stains—like food or oil stains—can be removed by pretreating the fabric with an oxygen-based spray. Make sure to test the fabric in an inconspicuous spot before treating the whole stain.

Other types of stains can be tackled by referring to the stain removal guidelines for the specific type of stain before washing.

Storing High-Performance Activewear

High-performance activewear is best stored folded, as hanging it can stretch elastane fibers and create pucker marks that won't go away. Some people find it helpful to sort and store their workout gear by type—bottoms, tops, and sports bras. Others like to store matching outfits together, so they can easily grab a set of clothing on the go. Regardless, make sure the garments are clean if you're storing them long-term. Bugs and larvae won't eat synthetic fibers, but they'll be attracted to any lingering organic stains.

High-Performance Activewear Care and Repairs

Always turn high-performance activewear inside out before washing. This keeps the colors bright and helps avoid snags during the cycle. It also prevents pilling, which can occur when the shedding fibers of other fabrics adhere to your workout wear.

Most high-performance activewear contains flatlock seams that are made with a special sewing machine. That said, if this seam comes unraveled, you can often repair it by hand with matching thread and a needle. Rips in the body of the garment can be stitched the same way but will leave an obvious scar. High-performance fabrics will not unravel when ripped, but holes may become bigger when the material is stretched.

How Often to Wash High-Performance Activewear

Workout gear requires washing after every use. Allowing sweat-soaked clothes to dry in the bottom of your gym bag, and then wearing them again, only builds up layers of body soil and bacteria. If you can't wash the items that same day, air-dry them before tossing them in a hamper to prevent mildew.

Washing high-performance gear takes extra care. Unlike cotton t-shirts and sweatpants that can tolerate hot washing and machine drying, each piece of activewear requires examination and preparation ahead of time. And be sure to set aside enough time to let the garments air-dry.

Tips for Washing High-Performance Activewear

  • Never add liquid fabric softener to a load of activewear or you'll end up with smelly, baggy clothing. Fabric softeners coat fibers to create a silky touch, thus locking in remaining soil, bacteria, and odor. Fabric softeners also break down stretchy elastic fibers.
  • For extra odor-busting power, add a 1/2 cup baking soda to the washing machine when cleaning your workout clothes.
  • Keep activewear away from heaters or direct sunlight when air drying them. High heat can degrade the fibers.
  • Before placing clothes in the dryer, do a sniff test, and rewash them if the odor remains. Machine drying tends to set the odor into the fibers.
FAQ
  • Can I wash activewear with regular clothing?

    No. Cotton and wool fibers can break down in the water and shed, sticking to synthetic activewear fibers and causing them to pill.

  • Do washing machines have an "activewear" cycle?

    Yes. New washing machine models often come with an "activewear" setting. This setting effectively removes soil, yet uses a delicate action to maintain fabric longevity.

  • Why does my activewear still smell after washing?

    Bacteria, sweat, and body oil can build up inside synthetic fibers, as their wicking nature allows them to absorb oil and hold it in. Traditional detergents may only mask the smell. A vinegar soak or washing them with activewear-specific detergent should help.

  • What temperature kills bacteria in the washing machine?

    A laundry washing temperature of 140 F or hotter is required to kill germs in your washing machine. Other effective methods include drying clothes on high heat for 45 minutes and washing them with bleach. However, none of these methods are recommended for washing workout clothes since heat breaks down their fabric fibers.