dirty laundry stacked at machines

Do you ever dread group rides because you know at least one person is going to stink? Or worse – do you ever dread putting on your own cycling kit because it stinks so bad?

Those situations happen to everyone. In just about any sport, in any group, someone is going to stink. But the person might be fresh and clean!

This one guy I rode with always smelled bad, and he smelled the same all the time. Even at the very beginning of a ride. But if we weren’t riding, he smelled fine. Eventually I figured it out – it is the clothing that stinks!

I’m not going to talk about stinky people (that’s more of a “you need to take a bath” issue), but I will talk about stinky clothes – and what you can do to get and keep them smelling fresh.

Why Do Your Workout Clothes Stink?

Why do your workout clothes stink? Well, let’s look at where odor comes from in the first place.

Whether you’re talking foul-smelling clothing or bad breath, the culprit is the same – bacteria. I can’t explain the biology, but the people that can (like the authors this study titled “Microbial Odor Profile of Polyester and Cotton Clothes after a Fitness Session”), say this bacteria causes odor.

Bacteria breeds and thrives in certain conditions. The bacteria responsible for bad breath is usually located on the back of your tongue, an area that’s hard to reach to keep clean. The bacteria responsible for your clothing’s odor is found in the garment itself, in between all the little fibers (another hard-to-reach area).

So you can put part of the blame on the synthetic clothing. All these high-tech, sweat-wicking garments you wear to stay comfy and dry, just love to hold onto odors.

These technical fabrics have very tightly woven fibers (great for stretchiness, light weight, and durability), but there are millions of tiny little spaces that bacteria can hide out and grow. It takes some serious cleaning to get to it.

To fix it, you have to kill the existing bacteria and prevent it from coming back. Or, even better, prevent it from building up in the first place.

Here’s what you need to do…

How to Keep Your Gear Smelling Fresh

Now that you know the key to fresh smelling gear is preventing and killing bacteria, you can more easily keep your gear fresh.

Here are some tips to get the job done:

1. Let everything dry out!

The easiest and most effective strategy is to make sure your gear always dries out after use. Never leave wet gear in your bag or rolled up on the floor!

As soon as you take your gear off, hang it out to air dry. You could hang it on a towel rack inside or put it outside on a drying rack or clothes line.

Once your stuff is dry, you can put it in the hamper or back in your gear bag.

2. Wash with hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide is great for killing bacteria. People used to use it to clean out cuts, and some people use it as a mouthwash.

You can put a small amount of hydrogen peroxide in the wash, along with your regular laundry detergent. This provides extra germ killing strength that should kill most of the bacteria harbored inside your clothes.

3. Try some fancy laundry detergent.

If your clothes are really stinky already, and the hydrogen peroxide idea isn’t cutting it, you gotta call in the big guns. Try a fancy laundry detergent specifically made for sports clothing, such as:

These three seem to be regarded as the best at getting in there and killing all that odor-causing bacteria, whether it’s your cycling apparel or your dog’s bed.

OxiClean is a good one, too!

If you need to go online to order, you can find No Sweat at Amazon.com along with WIN Sports Detergent. They sell Defunkify, too.

While you’re at it, pick up a bottle of Nikwax Tech Wash – you should use this when washing any waterproof garments.


Get in the habit of keeping your gear dry and ventilated so bacteria can’t grow. When necessary, use a bacteria-killing laundry detergent to kill any bacteria that did grow.


Laundry 101: How to Wash and Dry Your Gear

In case you are new to this whole “laundry” idea, here is a quick guide to washing your cycling clothing.

1. Prep your clothes by zipping up zippers and turning any screen printing and graphics inside out before washing.

2. Wash your clothes in cold water, on the delicate cycle.

3. Use the most basic laundry detergent you can find. You don’t want something that will leave any residue on the fabric.

4. Do not use fabric softener. The chemicals in it can damage technical fabrics. They can leave a silicone residue on your clothing, trapping the stink, and rendering the wicking properties ineffective.

5. Tumble dry in the dryer or line dry. Never put it in the dryer on a high heat setting.

Do not use dryer sheets, for the same reasons you do not use fabric softener in the wash.

I have quit using fabric softener altogether. Instead, I use wool dryer balls (the Smart Sheep XL balls are by far the best) to speed drying and eliminate static cling in a completely natural way.

6. Wash your shorts, socks, and undershirts after each ride. (Sometimes my jerseys go a couple rides between washes if they aren’t dirty or stinky. My gloves, helmet, etc. are washed less frequently, but I make sure they air dry after use.)


Or, Buy Stink-Proof Clothing!

These days, you can just buy your way out of the smell! Yep, you can purchase garments designed to be anti-microbial. There are two main choices:

1. Anti-microbial garments

Look for items with silver fibers woven in. Silver is a natural antibiotic, and with enough woven into the fabric, it can inhibit bacterial growth.

Brands offering this type of clothing include Pearl Izumi, SilverSport, and others.

2. Wool

I love wool. Aside from being warm and comfortable, wool has other cool features.

First, the cell structure of the fabric traps odor (meaning you don’t smell it), then releases it during washing. It’s the complete opposite of most synthetic fabrics!

Second, the lanolin (sheep oil) in the fibers is naturally hydrophobic (repels water) and acidic, two properties which inhibit bacterial growth.

Brands of cycling-specific wool clothing include Ibex, Icebreaker, Rapha, and Smartwool.

Show References

Now go smell your cycling gear and see what needs washed!

Photo Credit: Paula Gimeno

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  1. Even more than peroxide, try regularly adding vinegar to the water, add it where you’d normally add bleach (don’t mix the two). Vinegar will go a long way towards getting rid of the odor.

  2. @Kurt

    Yeah, I like to use distilled white vinegar for cleaning stuff. I think it’s better for regular use (like you said) than as a last resort to cure stinky clothing, but it’s always worth a shot.

    What I’d do is pre-soak the extra-stinky clothes in a mix of warm water and vinegar for an hour before the wash load.

  3. When you add your laundry detergent add Baking Soda. Another option is air out on clothes line, sun kills bacteria and fresh air will freshen your garments.

  4. @Brian

    Yeah I like to get my stuff out to dry in the sun whenever possible. And I’ll go chamois-side-out to get the sunlight in there.

    And yes, I like OxiClean, baking soda, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide as my additives of choice.

  5. Ditto on vinegar. Not only does it eliminate odors, it prevents static cling, so you don’t even need dryer sheets. It’s an all-natural softener that leaves no residue.

  6. Thanks for this article. There’s not much on the web that I could find explaining what causes clothes to smell bad. A couple of corrections, however–or efforts at being more precise, that is.

    “The bacteria responsible for bad breath is usually located on the back of your tongue, an area that’s hard to reach to keep clean.”

    There are actually several reasons why people can have bad breath; it can also come from bacteria along the gum line, or from the lungs, among other sources.

    About wool: “the cell structure of the fabric traps odor (meaning you don’t smell it,) then releases it during washing. […] the lanolin (sheep oil) in the fibers is naturally hydrophobic (repels water) and acidic, two properties which inhibit bacterial growth.

    Wikipedia: Lanolin’s waterproofing property aids sheep in shedding water from their coats. [… However,] wool can absorb almost one-third of its own weight in water. […] Wool fiber exteriors are hydrophobic (repel water) and the interior of the wool fiber is hygroscopic (attracts water).

    Maybe you might have read somewhere that wool can trap an odor and then release it. I assume that supposition is based on the fact that parts of wool can repel water and other parts attract water but I could not find any substantiation of the claim that it somehow retains and then releases odors.

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