Just Ask Jack — Beating the Stink?

Phil sent in the following question:

Could you post an article or question on how to clean polyester bike jerseys? I use bright neon green jerseys from Performance and DeFeet unDshirts (however that’s spelled) and they’re starting to get, um, aromatic – despite regular washing.

Ah, synthetic fibers…the same wonder fibers that help channel sweat away from us while we ride are also notorious for retaining body odors. Under high magnification, you many notice that many of these fibers are hollow or shaped with a lot of surface area, leaving plenty of space for odor-causing bacteria to hide. A well-used jersey or other synthetic-based athletic garment can become pretty ripe, and normal washing sometimes isn’t enough.

So what can we do? While I’ve never had this problem with cycling jerseys, I have experienced it with synthetic backpacking layers (under layers and mid-weight warmth layers). Perhaps hiking far away from showers contributed to the accumulation of “funk”…but I discovered that a good airing out in a sunny location can do a lot to combat these odors.

I asked some of our fellow staff members here if they had particular techniques worth sharing: RL soaks his stinky clothes in a bucket full of water and dishwashing soap for an hour or two prior to the normal washing, and he has had good success with this. Noah offered two techniques. The first is soaking the clothes in a very hot water and baking soda solution (half a cup of baking soda) for 10 to 20 minutes, then a normal wash. Noah suggested not to rinse the baking soda out of the offending clothes prior to washing — extra contact time is probably a good thing. His other technique is normal washing but a trip into the dryer on high heat, preferably in a small load or by itself. I’m a bit skeptical of that method, as some synthetics do not survive well in a high-heat environment.

One thing not to do is to use fabric softener liquids or sheets to make the offending clothes smell better. The oils and perfumes in fabric softeners will clog the moisture-wicking pores of the garment, ruining the effectiveness of that performance fabric.

One other suggestion I got from one of my bike club friends was to “wear wool” — wool is naturally antibacterial and has a pretty amazing ability to ward off four odors, even when worn for a couple days straight without washing. I have a wool jersey and I can proudly say it never stinks…but then again it is more of a cool-weather garment. Wool and 95 degrees plus 80% or more humidity is not a good combination in my book.

There are a variety of specialty fabric washes on the market that claim to eliminate built-up odors, but I’ve never tried any of them. Some of the common brands are ReviveX and “Sink the Stink”.

Bicycling Magazine recently had an article about this very problem…there are a few other tips that may be of use in that article, too. Check it out by clicking here. While you’re over there, check out their featured article titled “Commit to Commute“. You might recognize a few names in there!

If anyone else has tried-and-true tips on beating the stink, we’d love to hear them. Just put them into the comment area below.

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.


  1. Kelly August 20, 2009 11:12 pm 

    I don’t wear synthetic fibers, for a few reasons, and odor is one of them; I also HATE the way it feels on my skin. But I think this is a great article because I’ve often wondered how those who work out or sweat in 100% poly (or something similar) deal!

    I don’t know if this will help or not for synthetic fibers, but: sunlight does amazing work on eliminating odors and stains in cotton. Just wash the garment and put it in the sun instead of drying it. Even a grey day (as long as it’s not raining – and can you tell I live in the PNw?) still has some sun. I used sun as my only “chemical” when cloth diapering, and it completely lifted stains and odors far better than the destructive or expensive chemicals one might use.

    Good article; thanks!

  2. ban guzzi August 21, 2009 4:05 am 

    White vinegar. Soak the article for awhile and toss in the washer as usual. Not perfect but works pretty well in most cases.

  3. Powerful Pete August 21, 2009 4:30 am 

    1. Religiously wash your cycling clothes after each and every ride.
    2. Pre-rinse in hot water and detergent if necessary.
    3. I never use the dryer… always hang dry. As the article states, preferably in the sun…

    Usually does it for me. Then again, I am a sweet smelling guy! 😉

  4. Ghost Rider August 21, 2009 4:35 am 

    Besides the damaging heat, dryers can “bake in” odors and stains, making them next-to-impossible to remove in the future. Sunshine and hang-drying are the name of the game for me, too.

    @Kelly, I hear ya about the feel of synthetics…during the summers here with the high humidity we get, wearing such a jersey and sweating it up is pure torture. Those magic fibers can only transport so much sweat before they’re overwhelmed, and the humidity prevents much evaporation…ultimately, I am left with the feeling of wearing a wet plastic bag. Not pleasant at all.

  5. Iron Man August 21, 2009 6:02 am 

    I just rub the liquid detergent into the stank and let it sit for a short spell in the pre soak cycle. Seems to work well enough for me.

    Wool is surely a wonder fiber, but it also comes with a hefty price tag. I could grab two discounted jerseys and a pair of bibs for the price of one wool jersey…which never seem to go on discount. With two kids and a stay at home wife I gotta stretch my dollar a bit further than the typical wool offering. Plus they are often pretty plain jane for my tastes. Although a retro Eddy Merckx Molteni wool jersey would be nice.

  6. chris August 21, 2009 8:00 am 

    Will synthetic fibers melt if I put them in a loose-lidded Mason jar, in a pressure cooker for one hour at 15 PSI?

  7. Dean Peddle August 21, 2009 9:06 am 

    Ghost, wool is GREAT…even in the heat. I purchased 3 wool swobo t-shirts/polo shirts (half price courtesey of Russ Rocco plug) and they are amazing. Up north here we have humidity well over 90% and I also wore them in July humidity in Myrtle Beach and no shirt has kept me cooler. They are so light and comfortable. I will only buy wool from now on.

  8. Cycle Coaching August 21, 2009 9:27 am 

    Get a hose (jetwash is better) and blast them for about half an hour. Opps I think I just ripped a hole in mine! :-)

  9. JeffS August 21, 2009 9:38 am 

    Merino baby…

    As a commuter site, I’ll recommend passing on the jerseys. Companies like icebreaker make some very unique wool shirts now, with perforations, underarm gussets and different weights for different parts of the shirt.

    I have some Ibex jerseys as well, but I’ve gotten away from wearing them for the ride to work.

    The shirts have proven to be a little cooler, cheaper, more comfortable and as an extra plus, they provide some “genital area” coverage so walking in a store on the way home attracts a little less attention.

  10. Ghost Rider August 21, 2009 10:41 am 

    My experience with Merino wool in the humidity and heat isn’t as great as you others…I have fairly sensitive skin, and when the heat comes on, even the finest Merino makes me itch. I’d rather the “plastic bag effect” than that maddening itch!

    For cooler months (anything below 80 degrees here), though, I think wool is the bee’s knees.

  11. ksteinhoff August 21, 2009 10:51 am 

    Sounds like I wear the same Performance jersey as Phil and I don’t know that I have had any issues with long-term smell.

    I’ll concede that I may be a little gamey at the end of a ride, but I’ve never had the stinks survive a trip through the washer and a wave on the clothesline.

    And, like Ghost Rider, who lives on the other side of the state from me, ANYTHING you can use to get through the FL heat and humidity is a good thing.

  12. Tim August 21, 2009 11:13 am 

    This, as it turns out, is not a problem unique to bike jerseys. We used cloth diapers for our kids, and some of them had fleece linings which would get similarly ripe in spite of repeated washings. The recommendation among the cloth diapering community is to use “sport wash” which is what hunters use to strip the perfumes and other odors out of their hunting clothes. As someone else mentioned above, detergents with fragrances make BO smells worse. Deer and other prey animals have very sensitive smell, so hunters go to great lengths to remove odors from their clothing and so have developed this very refined product.
    So, from hunting to diapering to biking, I give you Sport Wash, available at Academy, Walmart, or wherever your local hunters go for outfitting.

  13. climbinskier August 21, 2009 12:33 pm 

    Awesome comments all around.

    Go for merino wool (as others have said). It’s far better than synthetic fibers, is softer and less itchy than regular wool, it will regulate body temps, even in 95 degree heat with 80% humidity, and it doesn’t hold odors. I personally recommend the backcountry.com branded merino shirts. Same quality as Icebreaker but the price is better.

    For the synthetic shirts, soak them in vinegar and hang up to dry. Vinegar is a natural deodorizer and when it dries the vinegar smell is gone along with the gnarly funk smell. Then just wash as usual.

  14. ryan August 21, 2009 2:51 pm 

    I’m here to 2nd Sport Wash.

  15. Ed W August 21, 2009 5:25 pm 

    The odor comes from a fungus that grows on synthetic fibers. Washing doesn’t remove it and when you put it on again, the heat and moisture feed it. Washing it with borax, however, will retard its growth and inhibit the stink.

  16. Beth August 21, 2009 7:15 pm 

    the best thing for removing funk is a wash used for hunting clothes, you can find it at Walmart, if removes all smells from clothes but protects their UV protection.
    Swear it removes the smelliest smells.

  17. Mike Myers August 22, 2009 11:42 am 

    GR—-I have a bunch of wool jerseys, as you know. I’ve worn mine in the heat of summer, but I always wear a wicking undershirt too. Not so much for the wicking but to keep the merino off my skin. Price Point sells cheap ones that look like wifebeaters.

  18. Geo August 22, 2009 9:00 pm 

    Penguin Sport Wash.

    It’s removed everything from all my performance jerseys, baselayers, wool clothing, socks, gloves, etc.

    Beyond simple, and it WORKS. It’s available from a lot of bike shops now too. (Where I get mine!)

  19. Elisa M August 24, 2009 8:15 am 

    I cycle every day in 90-95 degrees and only wear lightweight merino wool. Anytime I weare anything else, the stink sets in. Icebreakers are my fav, although I do miss the back pockets on a jersey. They have merino wool jerseys, but they are much pricier. Well worth it, I am sure. I put all the crap you normally stuff into those pockets into a seat post bag.

  20. Adam August 24, 2009 8:13 pm 

    Sink The Stink. From Amy scuba or surf shop. It’s enzyme-based, natural and safe.

  21. Mike Myers September 20, 2009 12:12 am 

    I’ve found plenty of wool jerseys really cheap on eBay. Portland Cyclewear sells there.

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