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Get the Funk Out: How to Get Body Odors Out of Clothing

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Ever put a shirt on and notice a few minutes later that it smells like you’ve just walked out of the gym? That happens when your skin temperature reactivates bacteria trapped in the fabric. Getting body odor out of clothing can seem challenging, but it’s as easy as reaching for a few items in your pantry.

Why Clothes Smell Like Body Odor

Have you ever wondered what makes sweat smell? It’s the product of bacteria that live on our skin which feed on the water and oils in our sweat. As they eat, they produce gasses which stink. Depending on your body’s particular bacteria, your sweat may smell of cumin or onions — even goat.

How to Get Body Odors Out of Clothing

To get the smell of sweat and body odor out of clothes, you need to eliminate that bacteria, then make sure your laundry routine isn’t letting them stick around. Choosing breathable fabrics helps in both regards.

Pretreat sweaty areas

Size of loadMethodSuitable for
One or two itemsBaking soda pasteNatural and synthetic washable fabrics (not wool or silk)
Diluted lemon juiceSturdy light-colored cottons
Multiple itemsVinegar soakWashable fabrics (not delicates)
Enzyme-based detergentsMost fabrics, including delicates (not wool or silk)
Pretreatments to get body odors out of clothing

Baking soda paste: Applying a paste of water and baking soda to sweaty underarm areas works great on washable natural and synthetic fabrics. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes before laundering. (More on that below.)

Lemon juice solution: Diluting lemon juice with an equal amount of water creates a bacteria-eliminating soak that can get body odor out of sturdy light-colored cotton fabrics — like the armpits on t-shirts or tank tops. Drench the area and launder after 15 minutes.

Vinegar soak: Soaking in equal parts water and white vinegar is effective to eliminate body odor-causing bacteria in most washable fabrics, but avoid it with delicates. Wash as usual after 15-30 minutes.

Enzyme-based cleaners: Some detergents contain enzymes that “eat’ the bacteria that cause clothes to smell like body odor. Add the detergent to your washing machine and choose the pretreat or soaking option.

Pro Tip

Avoid using enzyme products on wool or silk, since they also break down the proteins that make up these fabrics.

Wash clothes properly to get rid of body odors

Once you pretreat to eliminate the bacteria that cause the smell, changing your washing routine can keep body odors from sticking around on your clothes. 

Hot water washing: Things like socks and underwear require hot water washing to get rid of all sorts of bacteria, not just the ones that make things smell bad. For very smelly clothes, like those left unwashed in a gym bag, choose the longest, hottest cycle recommended by the care instructions on the label.

Avoid overload: A good rule of thumb is not to fill the drum more than three-fourths of the way, whether it’s a top-load or front-loading washer. Fabrics need room to swirl so the water and detergents can loosen body oils to get fabrics clean.

Odor-eliminating laundry detergents: If you’d rather stick with cold water washing, use a detergent that contains enzymes or baking soda to get body odors out of clothing. (Again, avoid using enzyme detergents with wool or silk items.)

Skip the fabric softener: Liquid fabric softeners make clothes feel soft by thinly coating the fibers so they’re smooth. But this layer can trap bacteria, especially in synthetic fabrics, which causes clothes to smell like body odor shortly after you put them on. Skip it and try using vinegar to soften clothes instead.

Drying and storage tips

Air-drying is the best method to get rid of sweat smells in clothes since sunlight kills bacteria and is a natural odor neutralizer. Bright sunlight can fade some fabrics, though, but line-drying in shade works just as well.

A trip through your tumble dryer can work, too, but it requires the high heat cycle for at least 30 minutes, which isn’t suitable for many fabrics.

Make sure clothes are completely dry before you put them away in closets or dressers. Any remaining moisture keeps odor-causing bacteria active and can attract mildew, too.

Why This Works

Pre-treating and washing fabrics in hot water dissolves the bonds between sweat proteins and fabric fibers, so the bacteria literally goes down the drain.

Detergents that neutralize odors tackle the problem from a different angle by killing the bacteria. Either way, you’re left with fresh, clean clothes that don’t smell of body odor minutes after you put them on.

Maintenance and Prevention

Besides pre-treating sweaty clothes promptly and using the right laundry techniques, you can also keep clothing from developing body odors by choosing the right fabrics and rotating your outfits.

Choose fabrics that don’t absorb body odors

Natural fabrics like cotton, linen, bamboo and wool let air circulate around your skin, so you sweat less. They’re also less likely than synthetics to trap the bacteria that cause odors.

And, except for wool, natural fabrics hold up well to warm or hot water, so it’s easier to get rid of any sweat they do collect.

Rotate your clothes

The longer clothes sit in drawers or closets, the more musty they’ll smell. Bacteria keep breeding the entire time, too.

Then you’ll get a double whammy of staleness and body odor smells. By rotating what you wear, you’ll eliminate this problem and keep your clothes smelling fresh. 

Now that you know how to get body odors out of clothes, check out my tips to get mildew out of clothes, too.

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2 Comments

  1. I first have to give credit for this – I saw on the NHK show GATTEN! that washing your clothes inside out helps. Made a big difference for me. I wash all of our workout wear on my washer’s sportswear setting, highest level of soil, with oxiclean, and I toss on an extra rinse just to be sure. Takes about a hour. I hang clothes out any time of the year as long as it’s not rainy. If sunny but humid out I will just toss in dryer for a few minutes to get that humidity out. The thinking is the seams on the inside of your clothing rub against your skin rubbing off & trapping skin cells that then feed the bacteria.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Makes sense why that would help. Thanks for sharing!

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