Ok… we all read the article about millennials opting out of wearing deodorant and we can assume one thing; millennials are minimalists when it comes to a lot of things. But what about doing laundry?
Most people own just a few sports bras, a couple of pairs of workout appropriate shorts, a few pairs of leggings and we can agree that most people only opt to do laundry when deemed absolutely necessary. Hence the question, do I toss my workout wear in the hamper or hang it up?
Most people we asked this question opt to re-wear. Yep, it sounds gross. That being said, here is a bit about the science of sweat and the health risks of re-wearing the same workout gear multiple times between washes.
Bacteria coats all surfaces of the body. That may sound off-putting, but this plethora of bacteria known as natural flora is totally normal and helps fight off potentially harmful bacteria outside. When your body temperature rises, your sweat glands release sweat onto the skin so that it can evaporate and cool you down. But first, that sweat mixes with the bacteria that naturally reside on the skin’s surface. That bacteria feeds on moisture, which causes the bacteria to multiply. Some of these bacteria, not all of it produces an odor as it grows. This is typically referred to as body odor. Because these bacteria naturally make up your microbiome, they don’t pose a health risk. The odor just isn’t very pleasant and can be transferred to your clothing.
So, is it ok to re-wear sweaty clothes? The perfect and politically correct answer would be to wash your clothes between every use, but that’s not really practical for most. There are a lot of valid reasons why you shouldn’t re-wear workout clothes, and in some cases where you definitely shouldn’t, but for most healthy people there aren’t any major health risks from re-exposing ourselves to bacteria that originated from our own bodies.
If you are a re-wearer, it is important to hang up your clothes to dry between uses. This will limit the growth of bacteria. “Drying alone can reduce up to 90% of the bacterial population that sets up shop in your clothes,” says Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., professor, and chair of community, environment, and policy at the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health. Still, that means that 10% or more can remain, and because of how quickly bacteria can grow, “the higher baseline you start with, the quicker it can ramp up to really high populations that could be a health risk.”
What could go wrong?
Re-wearing dirty workout gear isn’t 100% risk-free for everyone. Though most of the bacteria on our skin is pretty harmless, certain types of germs including staphylococcus bacteria (think Staph infections and MRSA) can be introduced to the body. Don’t worry, staphylococcus typically isn’t a concern for the general population, it is actually common to find on the skin of healthy folks. “However, some people for various reasons are prone to developing infections and if you know that you are prone, then be ultra-vigilant about reducing exposure,” says Reynolds.
Also, if you are prone to inflammatory skin conditions, like acne re-wearing the same gym clothes could increase your risk of an outbreak. That’s because these conditions often start with a pore getting clogged or obstructed by dead cells, dirt, or debris. When you re-wear sweaty clothing, the bacteria and particles of dirt can rub onto your skin and trigger an inflammatory response. Yeast infections are also a risk. “Naturally, we have yeast that lives on our skin and yeast thrives in moist, warm, humid environments,” explains doctor Jeremy Fenton, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at Mt. Sinai Hospital. “So, if you wear clothing and sweat in it and that clothing sits wet for a period of time, more yeast is going to thrive on that clothing.” These higher levels of yeast can lead to skin irritation and various yeast-based conditions.
Another area for concern is if you have a bruise, cut, or break in the skin. Any type of opening provides a “major entry point into the bloodstream,” says Reynolds, and harmful bacteria can enter the body. Any break in the skin should be treated and bandaged. If it’s not bandaged then you definitely shouldn’t wear dirty clothes.
Also, if something smells like B.O. after you worked out in it once, it is likely to still smell like B.O. until it’s washed. So be kind to your fellow gym goers and don’t re-wear something that smells.
If you are still on the fence of re-wearing your workout gear, then ask yourself a few final questions:
Is this totally dry?
In high-humidity environments like Florida and Texas, clothes will take much longer to dry than arid places like Colorado. Remember, more moisture equals more bacteria.
What material is this?
The type of material matters. If you have clothing made with wicking, breathable material your clothing will be less likely to harbor and incubate a lot of bacteria.
Did I sweat a lot in this?
If you perspired profusely in this item of clothing, it’s a good idea to wash versus re-wear.
Seriously, does it smell?
Use your nose and make the call. “Once you can smell bacteria, you’ve got a lot of bacteria there, says Reynolds. It takes a large population of bacteria before your nose will pick up on it. If you notice a stench after two re-wears, don’t do it again and wash it after the first.
Am I going to put myself at risk?
If you have any health issues that impact your immune system, it’s best to wash your clothes after every use to avoid triggering a health scare. If you are unsure what’s safe for you, talk with your physician or health practitioner for advice.