How to Remove Stubborn Sweat Stains and Odors

Updated August 4, 2020
Woman holding clothes in hands

Sweat stains can lead to permanently discolored shirts if you can't get the sweat out. Since everyone sweats, it's good to know how to get sweat stains and odor out of your shirts.

How to Remove Sweat Stains and Odors

Sweat stains contain proteins that have had a chemical reaction with the aluminum present in most types of deodorant. Removing sweat stains and odors from your shirts isn't hard if you follow these steps and use the right products to break up the proteins. There are definitely cleaners and methods to avoid, as these can lead to stains that will be almost impossible to remove.

Read the Clothing Label First

Review the labels on your shirts before you do anything. Sweat stain removal techniques can actually do more harm than good on certain fabrics, such as silk or wool. If the label indicates that the piece of clothing should only be dry cleaned, do not attempt to wash it.

Woman hands holding clothes label with cleaning instructions

Deodorant Stain Vs. Sweat Stain

Some deodorant stains may be mistaken for sweat stains. Make sure you are working with sweat first. Luckily, it's easy to tell the difference. Sweat stains will be a green or yellow shade and have a "crunchy" texture. If the stain is white or clear but feels greasy, this is a deodorant stain. Removing deodorant stains can be accomplished using grease stain cleaning techniques.

Avoid Dryers

When washing out tough sweat stains, do not dry the shirt in a dryer until you are sure the stain is gone. Doing so can make the stain even harder to get out. As you try different solutions to wash the stains, always air dry the shirt until you're sure the stain is completely gone.

Do Not Use Bleach

Even if you're cleaning a simple white cotton shirt, do not use bleach to treat sweat stains. Because sweat is filled with proteins, this will cause a chemical reaction that can actually discolor the shirt even more, so bleach is not a yellow stain remover in this instance. For example, a yellow-tinged stain treated with bleach can become a deep mustard in color. There's also a chance you could splash the bleach on what you're wearing. If that happens you'll need to know how to remove bleach stains before they ruin the fabric.

Using Laundry Detergents

Most standard laundry detergents will work on sweat stains. If you have a stubborn sweat stain that won't come out, look for a laundry detergent that is oxygenated or one that is made for heavy protein stains such as grass or food stains. If after your first regular wash, the stains are still present, soak the area in a tub filled with water and the detergent for at least thirty minutes and then wash again in your machine. You can also try homemade and commercial stain removers to pre-treat the stain. Just make sure you're not including too many other clothes in the load. If the detergent can't circulate enough, you could wind up needing to remove laundry detergent stains as well.

Sunshine Cleans Sweat Stains

Another method for hard-to-remove sweat stains is giving them some time in the sun. Wet the stained area with a mixture of water and laundry detergent. Place the wet shirt in an area where it can get ample sunlight, such as laying it out on your deck or hanging on a clothesline. Use a spray bottle to spray the area regularly so it stays damp and keep it out in the sun for a few hours. You can then launder it in your machine and allow it to air dry.

White shirt hanging on line

Use Hydrogen Peroxide Only on White Fabrics

To use hydrogen peroxide, mix a solution at a ratio of 2:1 of hydrogen peroxide and mild dish soap and use a soft brush or old toothbrush to rub it gently into the stain. Hydrogen peroxide will break up the proteins in the sweat stain and help to reduce or completely remove stains. However, it's best to only use it on white shirts. It can permanently discolor any colored fabrics. If you do use it on white fabrics, make sure you fully rinse the shirt, as any hydrogen peroxide residue can turn the fabrics a yellowish shade once you wear it out in the sun.

Ammonia as a Wash Pre-Treatment

Ammonia can help to break up stubborn stains prior to a regular cycle in the washing machine. Mix together a 50/50 solution of water and ammonia and gently rub it on the stain using a soft brush. Then place the clothing into the washing machine and run a regular cycle.

Try Vinegar and Water

A water and vinegar solution can work very well for sweat stains on white and colored fabrics. The solution should be a mix of one tablespoon of white vinegar per cup of cold water. Soak the affected area in the solution for about 30 minutes and then launder as normal in your washing machine. Air dry the clothes and avoid using the dryer until you are sure the stain is removed.

Baking Soda for Odors

Baking soda is particularly effective for removing stubborn odors from shirts. It's also good for getting chemical smells out of clothes.

  • You can simply add a ¼ to a ½ cup to your laundry in the machine to help reduce odors.

  • For stronger odor problems, mix one cup of baking soda and a gallon of tepid or cold water and soak the clothing. Depending on the severity of the odor, you can soak for as little as half an hour up to several hours or overnight.

  • Baking soda can also be very effective at removing sweat stains by making a paste of a quarter cup of water and four tablespoons of soda. Rub the mixture onto the stain gently with a toothbrush or allow it to sit for an hour or two first. Then, work on the stain with a toothbrush and place the shirt into the washing machine.

    Shirt In Water With Soap

DIY Home Solutions for Sweat Stain Removals

There are many tried-and-true recipes for removing sweat stains that most people can make from items already in your pantry. Some commonly used solutions are:

  • Mix 50% fresh lemon juice and 50% cold water and treat the stain for 10 to 15 minutes prior to laundering. Lemon juice is safe for both colored and white clothes.

  • Mix equal amounts of cold water, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide into a paste and treat the stained areas prior to washing with a soft brush or toothbrush. You can add some regular table salt to this mixture as well for an extra stain remover boost. Hydrogen peroxide should only be used on white or light clothing.

  • Meat tenderizer can actually break down the proteins in sweat stains well. All you need to do is dampen the stained area with cold water and put some tenderizer on it. Then, proceed with using the washing machine.

  • Like meat tenderizer, sprinkling salt on a stain can help break the proteins down and remove it. Just sprinkle it on and gently rub with a toothbrush or mix together one liter of warm water and four tablespoons of salt and use it as a cleaning solution on the area with a brush prior to washing.

  • Aspirin is also an effective sweat stain remover. Take two aspirin, preferably uncoated, and crush using a mortar and pestle or a heavy spoon in a bowl. Mix in about a half cup of warm, not hot, water and make a paste. If the paste is too thick, add a bit more water or add more soda if it's too watery. Put the paste onto the stained area and rub with a brush gently. Allow it to sit for 30 to 60 minutes prior to washing in the machine.

  • If you have some vodka in your house, you'll be surprised to know it works as a pre-treatment for sweat stains. Mix a 50/50 solution of vodka and lukewarm or cold water into a spray bottle and moisten the area with the stain. Then, place it in the washing machine and wash as usual.

  • Another unusual stain remover is mouthwash such as Listerine. Just pour it on the stained area and allow it to sit for a half hour before washing in the machine.

    Natural cleaners

Use a Commercial Stain Remover

If you don't want to mix your own solution, there are pre-mixed stain removers available for purchase that are designed for tough sweat stains and odors. Look for one that is oxygenated, such as OxiClean Max Force Laundry Stain Remover Spray. You can use these to pre-treat the area prior to placing in the washing machine. For lighter stains, let them sit for about five minutes before washing. Heavier stains should sit for longer with the pre-treatment. You may have to test how long based on the progress after each wash in the machine.

Dealing With Tough Sweat Odor and Stains

One of the best ways to remove stubborn sweat odor and stains is to rinse your clothes as soon as you take them off. If you come in from a hot day or a hard workout, take your clothes into the shower or laundry room and rinse them in cool water immediately rather than throwing them in your hamper. If they're particularly bad, consider throwing them in a bucket, sink, or tub of cold water and letting them soak for an hour. You can also add some white vinegar or baking soda to the soak. Don't forget to always read your labels first to make sure you are safe washing your sweat-stained clothes and avoid using your drying machine until the stains are completely gone.

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How to Remove Stubborn Sweat Stains and Odors