Like I do every year as summer ends, I’ve been mulling the question of stinky bicycle jerseys. How do you remove the stink? Why do my jerseys and shirts come out of the wash smelling clean, but then after I start wearing it the funk is quickly reactivated?
Bike Commuters recently addressed this question and suggested pre-soaks, baking soda and wool. Another suggestion is Sink the Stink, a kind of pre-emptive strike against stink that uses bacteria to digest and eliminate the filth that leads to funk. Other good suggestions are made — vinegar, borax, and Sport Wash, a laundry soap used by hunters to eliminate body odor.
What causes the stink?
Sweat is mostly odorless, but bacteria that colonize in the sweat glands such as Staphylococcus epidermidis and Propionobacteria spp ferment the bacteria to create various malodorous fumes. Some of these bacteria are also responsible for the smell in the stronger smelling cheeses we like to eat.
Underarm hair, incidentally, works to wick sweat away from the skin and help prevent underarm odor, and hair is naturally resistant to sweat bacteria. This is part of the reason wool doesn’t stink — it’s naturally designed to fight sweat stink.
How does the stink return?
Several people (including me) have pulled a jersey out of the wash, smelled the pits, and called it good. After wearing it for an hour or so, though, the smell comes back and with a vengeance. There are a couple of reasons this happens.
1. The wash might have eliminated or weakened the odor causing bacteria but the food wasn’t removed. As soon as you put that jersey on, you’ve restored perfect conditions for that bacteria to thrive and ferment some more.
2. The sweat wicking and water resistant properties of many high tech fabrics also keeps wash water from getting all the way into the fabric and washing the dirt away — the water and detergent can’t get to the fibers, so it never really gets clean. Besides the naturally odor-fighting properties of wool, wool also washes much easier than synthetic fibers.
How do I remove the stink?
The best solution is to ensure your clothes are completely clean. Here are the various solutions I’ve heard of and tried.
1. Borax. Ed first suggested this one to me a while back and it’s been a part of my standard bike clothing cleaning for a couple of years now. I don’t know if it kills the bacteria or makes the cleaning more effective, but it works reasonably well on my clothing.
2. Baking soda. I’ve tried this too. It probably works by deodorizing the stink instead of eliminating it. It doesn’t seem to work too well for me.
3. Hot water pre-rinse. Don’t do this — a hot water pre-rinse seems to make the stink problem worse, not better. The same goes for drying in a hot dryer — that seems to lock in the smell for time activated release in the future.
4. Vinegar. I first heard about vinegar a few weeks ago. Some people say it makes the stink worse, but for me it works better than anything else I’ve tried. It probably depends on the local water chemistry (I have very hard water – Langelier Saturation Index greater than +0.5 and water hardness near 300 ppm) and probably works by making the laundry detergent more effective.
5. Special cleaners. I haven’t tried the specialty cleaners like Sink the Stink or Sport Wash. Stink the Sink is designed for wetsuits, and I know those get very funky — divers and surfers use the bathroom while wearing them, after all. Sport Wash and similar products are used by hunters to get their hunting gear extra clean and eliminate any human odor that might spook their prey. I plan to give both of these a try and I’ll report back.
6. Deoderizers. By ‘deoderizers’ I mean perfumes to mask the smell. Dryer sheets and heavily perfumed laundry detergents seem to add to the funk, IMO. YMMV. I’ve even tried eucalyptus and other plant based extracts — those result in exciting new and different combination of funk.
There are many other good comments and suggestions at Bike Commuters. What works for you?