Picture this: You’re getting ready for your morning run. You head to your closet and grab one of your favorite workout shirts only to get a big whiff of a musty stench when you put it on. Wait a minute, didn’t you just wash this?
Whether it’s a go-to pair of leggings or muscle tank, or even that workout bench at the gym, we’ve all experienced exercise clothing or equipment that feels not so clean. There’s more to these stinky encounters than just the funky stench, too. In fact, unclean workout gear can transmit bacteria and fungus that can cause acne or athlete’s foot, or even get us sick.
“We come in contact with bacteria all the time and the majority of bacteria doesn’t make us sick, but some people are more sensitive to different bacterias,” says Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center (ESRAC) at the University of Arizona. “The bacteria we’re concerned about here can cause staph infections, especially if you have open wounds from a cut or open hair follicles from shaving, so it’s always a good idea to have a good hygiene practice when working out to reduce exposure.”
Incorporating good hygiene into your exercise routine is easier than you think. Use these five expert-approved tips to properly clean your workout clothes and equipment.
1. Minimize Moisture
If there’s one rule to abide by here, it’s to avoid letting your workout gear and clothing stay wet after using them, according to Reynolds. That means not throwing your sweaty shirts in the hamper (the odors can get trapped and activated after you wash and re-wear them) or rolling up your sweaty yoga mat after exercising.
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“A moist environment plus skin cells and whatnot is an ideal environment for bacteria to grow,” Reynolds says. While you’d ideally wash your clothes right after working out, that’s not always practical, so at least hang them up to dry until you can throw them in the washing machine. “Drying them out alone reduces 90 percent of bacteria,” adds Reynolds.
If you go to the office (or anywhere that’s not home) after the gym, put your used workout clothes in a separate bag, like a grocery bag, to keep the bacteria and odors sealed up. “If you had a particularly sweaty workout and your workout clothes are really saturated, it’s a good idea to give them a little rinse with clean water first to get some sweat out of them,” says trainer Tami Smith, C.P.T., owner of Fit Healthy Momma. “Then, wring them out and place them in your bag to be taken home to clean.”
2. Wipe Equipment Liberally
Most of us know to wipe down public gym equipment after using it, but you should take the time to clean equipment beforehand, too. “We all have our own personal bacteria and there are microbiomes you aren’t used to at the gym that can lead to a higher risk of skin infections and irritations,” says Reynolds.
Before using any equipment, wipe it down thoroughly. Then do so again when you’re finished! If you have an open wound, protect it by putting on some antibiotic ointment and covering it with a bandage before hitting the gym, Reynolds suggests.
3. Wash Workout Clothes With Care
Since workout clothes come in many fabrics, it’s always important to read the tags to see how particular items should be cleaned. Generally, though, Smith likes to wash workout clothes in cold water on a gentle cycle since hot water can break down the fabrics and affect the integrity of the fit. She also turns exercise clothes inside out before washing them so that the areas most affected by your sweat are most exposed to the washing machine. For bonus points, you can even use a detergent specifically formulated for workout clothes to help really break down those odors.
“Although your workout gear is made to hold up and support you through tough workouts, you need to be gentle with the cleaning of them so that they will continue to last for you,” Smith says. “A little extra time and attention to detail will help ensure that they hold up well and that they don’t have trapped odors.”
4. Deep Clean Home Gear Regularly
While wiping down your yoga mat and letting it air dry between uses is good practice in the short-term, consider establishing a monthly deep-cleaning routine for all your workout gear, suggests trainer Reda Elmardi, C.P.T., owner of The Gym Goat.
Use sanitizing wipes or a DIY cleaner of filtered water, refined vinegar, and a few drops of tea tree oil with a microfiber towel to help you wipe down yoga mats, weight machines, free weights, and other surfaces, like yoga blocks, he suggests. You can also add a few drops of dish soap to a spray bottle filled with filtered water. “If your weights have lacquer paint or an elastic covering on them, stay away from alcohol-based cleaners or window cleaners since they can harm that cover,” he says.
Of course, if the equipment you’re cleaning is electronic—like a treadmill—don’t soak it too much or you might compromise the machine.
5. Don’t Re-Wear Workout Clothes Between Washes
While it’s tempting to re-wear workout clothes before washing them if you didn’t have a particularly sweaty gym session, Smith advises against double-dipping on a regular basis. “Even if you don’t feel like you got really sweaty, there’s still bacteria and sweat present that you’ll want to wash off to keep your skin clean and healthy,” she says.
If you really need to wear those leggings again, pop them in the dryer to blast the bacteria with heat, Reynolds suggests. One thing you should never use multiple times before washing it, though: that sweaty workout towel. Just don’t.