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Browse online, and you'll find a dizzying array of laundry products. There are products that will promise to keep colors from running, clean your clothes without destroying the Earth, or even fold your laundry for you. However, the one category that struck me as the oddest were the detergents designed for your sportswear. Surely, the only thing different about these "sports detergents" were their marketing and packaging. Right?
The more I looked, the more different kinds I found. Some of these detergents have over six hundred five-star reviews on Amazon, so there had to be something to them, but what?
Then it dawned on me: I work in a laundry testing lab. So I got five of the top-selling brands to put to the test.
I designed a set of experiments to determine which sports detergents are worth your money. And I vowed not to stop until I got the answers I craved.
Win was the only contender to have a blueing agent to help counteract yellowing. It costs around 34 cents per small load.
Fels-Naptha is an additive used to boost the cleaning performance of regular detergent. Coming in the form of a soap bar, you have to grate it (yes, really) into your laundry load. It cost around 27 cents per load, plus the cost of detergent.
The Laundress Sport Detergent
The Laundress Sport Detergent was the most expensive at 80 cents per load in a high-efficiency machine (and double that for non-HE). However, it was also the most pleasant smelling.
Hex Performance Laundry Detergent
Hex comes in unique packaging for a liquid detergent, with a dispenser nozzle. Its claims focus on killing bacteria. It costs 38 cents a load.
Nathan Sport Power Wash
Nathan Sport Power Wash was the most economical, costing around 20 cents per small HE load.
For consistency's sake, I decided to create fake sweat, rather than ask family and co-workers for their sweaty workout clothes. A quick gander around the Internet, and the general consensus is that sweat is about 98 percent water, 1 percent sodium, with trace amounts of magnesium, calcium, and urea. Based on that formula I ended up using 11 pounds of water, with 50 grams of salt, and 2 grams of Magnesium. For color, odor and a dirt analog, I also stirred in 10 grams of coffee grounds. I also chose coffee because it has a similar pH to urea, the chemical that causes sweat to stain yellow. Obviously, this isn't the perfect representation of real sweat, but it's pretty close. The end result looked like this:
I soaked t-shirts in the "sweat" for four hours each.
When they dried they looked pretty gnarly.
The t-shirts would give me some clue about how well each detergent worked based on how much I could still see the stain or smell the coffee. However, I needed something more scientific, so I also used the same stain strips we use for washing machine testing. Each strip runs the gamut of common household stains, including red wine and oil. After a wash, we used a photospectrometer (a color reader) to measure how much of each stain has been removed.
To keep it quick and realistic, I tossed each t-shirt and stain strip, with the recommended amount of detergent, into the Samsung FlexWash's quick cycle set to cold.
So what did we learn from all this washing? Well, sports detergents are better at removing odors than they are at general stain removal. For day-to-day cleaning, you're going to want to stick to a more mainstream detergent.
Does that mean these sport-specific detergents are a waste of money? No, but only if you have sensitive skin. Of all the sports detergents I tested, Hex and The Laundress Sport Detergent have this angle covered the best.
Both Hex and the Laundress are made from plant-based, non-toxic ingredients. Since neither contain dyes or SLS, they're way less likely to irritate sensitive skin. Even if you aren't normally allergic to regular detergent, the combination of sweat and movement means you're more likely to have a reaction in your workout clothes.
Between the two winners, I'd recommend Hex and The Laundress to two very different consumers. Hex left our testing t-shirt with a neutral smell. The Laundress Sport Detergent is sort of the opposite. It has a very complex scent made up of oranges, roses, eucalyptus, and jasmine. It's also about double the cost of Hex per load. However, its shampoo-like bottle means it can easily travel with you. It is safe for hand washing (and cheaper at 40 cents per "load," as you need half as much in the sink), so instead of paying for a hotel laundry service, in the sink your socks go, which might end up saving you money.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.