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How Do I Banish the Foul Smell from My Gym Bag?


I’m a guy whose gym bag always smelled like a musty mix of sweat, chlorine and whatever residue my decaying weight gloves left behind. This is because one of my favorite workouts used to be rowing for 30 minutes, lifting weights for 30 minutes and swimming for 30 minutes. By the time I was done, everything from my swimsuit and deck towel to my training towel and my socks was completely soaked in waters ranging in cleanliness from soapy shower water to fresh-off-the-rowing-machine sweat.

Hideous, I know.

Even worse, I’ve never been to a gym with an on-site laundry room that I was permitted to use, which meant that my chlorine-soaked swimsuit and sweat-drenched workout clothes had no choice but to commingle in my gym bags and saturate the fabric with my foul funk. Understandably, a gym bag can only absorb this sort of bacterial onslaught for so long before it begins to absorb the smell of everything that’s been placed inside of it. Eventually, a Pig-Pen-level death cloud trails behind you every time you walk from the parking lot to the locker room, leaving everyone reeling in your wake.

Your initial temptation may be to toss out your gym bag, purchase a new one and start over from scratch, but what if there was a reliable way to improve the smell of it instead?

Can’t I just toss it in the washing machine the same way I’d wash a pair of jeans?

Yes, you can probably wash your duffel bag in a washing machine, but no, it won’t be quite as effortless as washing a pair of jeans.

If your gym bag is made of similar fabrics to most clothing, like nylon and polyester, you can absolutely launder it in a standard washing machine. The common method for accomplishing this without damaging it is to either turn the bag inside out to prevent any zippers or clasps from snagging on something inside of the washer, or to wash it along with soft objects like towels to prevent it from banging around inside of the washing machine. Afterwards you should reshape your bag and permit it to air dry. (Read: Don’t stick it in the dryer, or it may shrink in a disproportionate way that will leave it permanently disfigured.)

If you’re nervous about washing your duffel bag in a machine, you can also wash it by hand, in a bathtub, by scrubbing it with a mild detergent, rinsing it and then permitting it to air dry.

How do I keep my gym bag clean if I’m not going to give it a full wash?

If you have a bag composed of fabrics that aren’t conducive to ordinary washing tactics, or if you don’t want to risk the structural integrity of your bag in the washing machine, the most frequently suggested remedies recommend that you spray down your bag — especially its interior — with a combination of warm water and white vinegar, with either a little bit of dish soap or baking soda thrown into the mix. Once you spray one of these solutions onto the bag and wipe it down, it should be sufficient to kill whatever odor-causing bacteria is festering inside, thereby eliminating the stench that’s emanating from it.

Of course, there are also dozens of odor-eliminating items that are specifically engineered to be dropped into gym bags solely for the purpose of absorbing and subduing the acrid smells birthed within them.

In any event, in this day and age, there’s no reason to own a gym bag that smells like it’s been used to haul around a pile of old jockstraps, even if that’s precisely what it’s been doing for as long as you can remember. Because there’s now bountiful options that make clearing out that stench no sweat at all.