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 - 1 hr
  • Total Time: 2 hrs - 1 day
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $0 to $10

High-performance activewear wicks away moisture to keep your body dry during workouts, but this also causes it to retain sweaty smells—so washing it properly is important to maintain your best items. Natural odors can become embedded in polyester fibers long-term. To prevent this, bacteria must be removed from activewear after every use.

Hot water and heat in the dryer can kill bacteria and disinfect workout clothes; however, too much heat can cause your workout clothes to shrink, stretch, or lose their shape. Instead, try everyday household items like distilled white vinegar and baking soda combined with the right laundry detergent. These odor-busting cleaners can remove lingering bacteria during the wash cycle to easily freshen your clothing without damage.

Never place 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 activewear before you wear it for the first time 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 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.


For any clean clothes that look faded and grimy, retain a smell, or need extra care, you can laundry strip your clothes (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.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Sink
  • Washing machine
  • Drying rack


  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Delicate or high-performance fabric detergent


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

How to Wash High-Performance Activewear

Workout clothing can harbor unpleasant odors, even after washing. The acids found in distilled white vinegar break the bond between the 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 distilled white vinegar with 4 parts cold water in a sink or plastic container. 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 them with plain water. 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 high-performance activewear alone or 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.


    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.

    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

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, then scrub the area to loosen the soil before washing the garment. 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.

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 flat-lock 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.

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.

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. Be sure to set aside enough time to let the garments air-dry completely before wearing them again.

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 1/2 cup of 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, then rewash them if the odor remains. Machine drying tends to set the odor into the fibers.
  • 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?

    New washing machine models often come with an "activewear" setting. This setting effectively removes soil, yet uses a delicate action to maintain fabric longevity. Older models don't typically have this setting, so use the delicate cycle with cold water if an activewear setting is not available.

  • 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. Instead, opt for natural (but powerful) cleaners like vinegar and baking soda.