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Wash or Re-Wear? Rules for Cleaning Your Workout Clothes
Over-washing your workout apparel can shorten its lifespan, but under-washing is bad for your skin. Follow these tips for knowing when it’s time to load the laundry.
Everyone’s been there: Ignoring the overflowing hamper in the corner, doing mental gymnastics to rationalize going one more day without doing laundry. And if that means grabbing a previously worn sports bra from the top of the dirty clothes heap, well, that’s fine, right?
Fine, maybe, depending on how comfortable you are with odor and whether your skin can tolerate dried, day-old sweat being reapplied to your body. Also, a lot depends on how sweaty you get and what kind of workouts you’re doing, says Erum Ilyas, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and fitness enthusiast. If you’re wondering whether that tank top can go another round before the wash, consider these factors first.
Know Your Health Risks
Let’s get gross for a second. Sweaty apparel is full of bacteria and dirt particles, which can transfer to your skin and clog your pores if you re-wear the item. So if you’re prone to breakouts of back acne, the cleaner your clothes, the better your skin.
Also, re-worn workout clothes can cause yeast infections (warning: we’re about to use the word “moist”). Yeast bacteria thrive in moist, humid environments so sweaty clothing is like a Las Vegas pool party for them—crowded and getting wilder by the minute. When you put that damp clothing back on, those elevated levels of yeast transfer to your skin, especially in high-contact areas like your groin and chest, leading to a yeast infection or skin irritation.
Even if you don’t give yourself a yeast infection or acne breakout, previously worn workout clothes can aggravate your skin simply because of the salt content in sweat. While this varies from person to person, everyone’s sweat contains some salt (along with other minerals). When it dries in, say, your sports bra, then is re-applied to your skin during your next workout, it can be a serious irritant, causing a rash.
When Skipping a Wash Is OK
From a health perspective, then, washing your workout clothes after every fitness session is ideal (on the gentle cycle and hung to dry so you don’t destroy the elastic, if you’re really on top of your laundry game). Items like leggings and sports bras, which are super tight to the skin, are more likely to absorb bacteria from sweat than an outer shell or jacket, so will need to be washed more frequently.
But when you’re crushing it in your virtual cardio class five days a week, being able to recycle your outfits can save you serious laundry time. You can probably get away with re-wearing items once—or even twice—if you’re a naturally non-sweaty person who tends to glisten rather than drip when you perspire. In fact, as long as there’s no strong odor coming out of the used workout clothes, light sweaters can probably re-wear sweaty apparel two or three times before a wash, says Dr. Ilyas.
That’s especially true if your workout is the type where you could immediately go to brunch after without stopping to shower. Low-impact activities like mat Pilates, restorative yoga and walking all fall under this category.
The longevity of your workout look is also dependent on the product design and fabric. For tops that last more than one sweat session, consider swapping slim-fitting tanks for a looser fit and trade tights for joggers. Cuts that sit away from your body will absorb less sweat and stink.
When it comes to material, clothes made out of natural fibers (like wool, cotton or bamboo) breathe well and don’t trap as much bacteria, helping them survive several days before washing. Meanwhile, moisture-wicking fabric is clutch for HIIT workouts or runs that leave you drenched in sweat, but bacteria love settling into synthetic fibers and hanging out for a while so you should wash your moisture-wicking tech apparel after every high-sweat workout.
Regardless of fit and fabric, here’s a pro tip: if you are foregoing a wash, do future-you a favor and hang your sweaty clothes or a hook or hanger immediately after your workout. Letting sweaty clothes fully air dry will help limit the growth (and smell) of bacteria.