Why Do My Running Socks Smell So Bad? (6 Proven Cleaning Methods)

Smelly running socks are the bane of every runner’s existence. Unfortunately, it’s part of the running experience. Considering this, you may be wondering why your running socks smell so bad and how to clean them. 

Sweaty running socks invite all kinds of bacteria, especially when left in the hamper. Sweat and body oils get trapped in synthetic fabrics meaning the odor may remain even after washing. To eliminate the stink in your socks, pre-soak them in a white vinegar and baking soda solution or a sports detergent, then wash them inside-out with like fabrics.

Keep reading to learn more about why running socks stink so badly and how to get the smell out in the wash. 

Why your running socks smell so bad even after washing

You may be wondering what it is about socks and foot sweat that causes such an odor. The answer lies in the feet themselves. Excessive build-up of sweat in the feet or foot area can lead to the growth of certain bacteria on the skin of the foot. 

These bacteria put off noxious odors that cause the feet to smell. Chronically smelly feet are usually classified by medical professionals as victims of a foot condition called bromodosis, which occurs when the bacteria grow to a critical mass and can’t be sufficiently treated by traditional methods such as bathing.

some running socks smell, even after washing

When someone suffers from this condition, the odors can be absorbed into the socks he is wearing. Depending on the material used to make the socks, this odor can be easily eliminated by washing with hot water and detergent. However, some materials will present a more difficult challenge. 

Specifically, synthetic fabrics tend to absorb and hold odors better – or worse – than more natural fabrics like cotton and wool.

Synthetic fabrics

Synthetic fabrics are amazing for running clothes because of their sweat-wicking properties. However, there are also some downsides.

Synthetic fabrics are one of the largest culprits of persistent odors when it comes to smelly athletic wear. This can be problematic, however, because the same qualities that make these fabrics great for your run also make them terrible for your olfactory senses.

These oils, unlike sweat, become trapped in the fabric and can be difficult to remove, even after washing. 

Cotton fabrics

Cotton fabrics are popular for their breathability. While it can help you stay cool and dry during your workout, all bets are off once your feet get sweaty.

Once the moisture and bacteria are transferred from your feet to your socks, the fabric allows the bacteria to thrive if not washed properly.

Left untreated, your running socks can become home to staphylococcus epidermidis (commonly known as a staph infection), MRSA, and E. coli.

Wool fabrics

Wool is surprisingly one of the most odor-resistant fabrics out there.

Wool tends to lock odorous substances inside, keeping the smell from permeating from the fabric. The environment wool creates for bacteria is not one in which it readily thrives. The bacteria is easily released in the wash.

Wool running socks can be a great option for cold-weather running. If your wool socks still smell bad after washing, try washing them a second time. If that doesn’t work, you may have to try some of the methods below. 

Washing machine

It may sound counter-intuitive – and a little unfair! – but the machines we use to clean things need to be cleaned occasionally themselves.

Odors get trapped in the drum of the washing machine because of the accumulation of soap scum. Using too much detergent or fabric softener can cause excess scum to build up around the drum of the wash, which then congeals and becomes a trap for bacteria and other odorous substances. 

It’s recommended that you clean your washer at least once a month.

How to clean stinky running socks – 6 methods

Below you will find a list of methods to eliminate odors by cleaning running-specific socks used for exercise or competition. This list is arranged from the least difficult/expensive to the most involved and expensive methods.

To clean your stinking running socks, you should:

  1. Wash inside-out
  2. Wash alone with like fabrics
  3. Use less detergent
  4. Pre-soak in white vinegar & baking soda
  5. Use sport detergent
  6. Buttermilk soak

If you follow these steps, you should be able to tackle odor problems as they arise.

Wash inside out

The simplest, cheapest, and easiest way to get the smell out of your running socks is to turn them inside out when you take them off (or at least before you throw them in the wash).

The cause of the odors and smells originate from contact with the inside of your socks, not the outside. Make sure to turn them inside-out to eliminate the smelliest odors in the wash.

Basically, this gives the washer and detergent more opportunity to remove the oils and any bacteria from your sweaty socks.

Supplies needed

This one is fairly straightforward. 

Washing your smelly socks inside out requires the same supplies as simply washing them normally:

  • Washing machine
  • Laundry detergent

Turn socks inside out

Turn your socks inside out before placing them in the wash. 


Run the wash cycle as normal.

Wash alone or with like fabrics

When you wash with other, heavier fabrics, it can be difficult for the detergent to get through to the articles of clothing you’re trying to deodorize.

Washing your smelly running socks alone or with like fabrics can isolate the putrid culprit from other items.

If you're having trouble getting the smell out of your running socks, try doing a load of athletic apparel or just a load of socks.

If you’re having an issue with stinky running socks, try doing a load of laundry specifically for activewear. 

Supplies needed

Similar to the previous cleaning method, the supplies needed here are very simple.

To wash the bad smell out of your running socks by laundering them with other activewear, you’ll need:

  • Washing machine
  • Laundry detergent
  • A load of activewear

Load washer with activewear

Load your machine with your stinky running socks and other forms of athletic apparel. 

Add detergent

Pour in your detergent.


Run a normal cycle.

Consult the care tags for your clothing for the washer settings. Most activewear should be washed in cold water on a gentle cycle in order to extend its lifespan.

Use less detergent

Washing with too much detergent can lead to the build-up of soap scum on your clothes and on the inside of the drum, which can trap odors and provide ground for bacteria to thrive.

Ensuring you use only the recommended amount of laundry detergent when washing your clothing will help reduce build-up on both your clothing and the inside of the washer itself. This means that your socks will be less likely to retain odor, and the washer will be able to better fulfill its function.

Depending on your washing machine type, you may also want to check that you’re using the appropriate detergent. For example, if you have a High Efficiency (HE) machine, you’ll need to use an HE detergent.

Supplies needed

In this case, you’ll likely be using the same supplies as you do during your regular laundry routine.

To wash your running socks to reduce the lingering bad smell, you’ll need:

  • Washing machine
  • Laundry detergent

Of course, if it turns out you’ve been using a laundry soap that isn’t appropriate for your machine, you’ll want to purchase the correct detergent.

Load the washer

Load your machine with your stinky running shorts.

Add detergent

Add the recommended amount of the appropriate laundry detergent – or even slightly less.


Wash the load as normal.

Pre-soak in white vinegar & baking soda

Before washing, the pre-soak method involves soaking your dirty socks in cold water with white vinegar and baking soda. 

Pre-soaking your smelly socks can remove the odor as baking soda neutralizes the pH in the acids that produce bad smells in your clothing. White vinegar focuses on stain removal, as it is excellent at removing grease and oils, which may also cause some odors. 

As long as you wash your socks properly after soaking, you don’t need to worry about your clean socks smelling like vinegar.

Supplies needed

Chances are you already have everything you need to pre-soak your smelly socks, although you may never have considered using them for your laundry.

To pre-soak your stinky shorts, you’ll need:

  • White vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • One-gallon tub (or large sink)
  • Cold water
  • Washing machine
  • Laundry detergent

Prepare the tub

Fill a one-gallon tub with cold water.

If you don’t have a standalone tub, fill a clean sink with cold water.

Make the pre-soak solution

Add 1 cup of white vinegar and 1 cup of baking soda to the water.

Pre-soak socks

Submerge your smelly socks for at least 30 minutes. 


Throw your pre-soaked clothes into a normal wash cycle. 

Use sport detergent

Some detergents are made for hardier jobs.

Sport detergents or laundry boosters can eliminate odors in otherwise hopeless laundry conundrums. If the stink in your running socks is unusually persistent, you may need to up your detergent game.

While there are lots of sports-oriented detergents available, I personally use this one from Rockin’ Green.

Supplies needed

If the previous steps haven’t had an effect on the unpleasant odor emanating from your running socks, you may need to purchase a detergent developed specifically to remove tough stains and odors.

For this method, you’ll need:

  • Washing machine
  • Sport detergent
  • Sport pre-soak (optional)

Prepare the tub

Fill a one-gallon tub with cold water.

If you don’t have a standalone tub, fill a clean sink with cold water.

Make the pre-soak solution

Depending on the sport laundry detergent you have, you may be able to use the same detergent as the pre-soak or it may be offered as a separate purchase.

Make the pre-soak based on the manufacturer’s directions.


Wash the pre-soaked shorts using the sports detergent based on the manufacturer’s directions.

Buttermilk soak

Similar to the white vinegar and baking soda method, the buttermilk soak method involves soaking your mildewy running shorts in buttermilk before placing them in the wash.

An overnight soak using this method can remove the odor from clothes that have been trapped at the bottom of your gym bag or the laundry hamper for long periods of time. Do this the night before washing for the best results. 

This method is for particularly pervasive smells.

Supplies needed

If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t have at least a gallon of spare buttermilk in the fridge, but it might be worth picking some up if the alternative is needing to replace your pricey running shorts.

To use a buttermilk soak to remove the stink from your running socks, you’ll need:

  • Buttermilk
  • One-gallon tub (or large sink)
  • Laundry detergent

The amount of buttermilk you’ll need depends entirely on how many pairs of smelly socks you’ll be soaking.

Fill tub with buttermilk

Fill a large tub with buttermilk (enough to cover your stinky socks and any other smelly athletic attire).

Pre-soak shorts

Add smelly running socks (and other sweaty athletic gear) to the buttermilk soak. Ensure that the clothing is completely submerged.

Allow to soak overnight.


Remove clothes from the buttermilk, then soak and rinse with cold water.


Place clothes in the wash and run a normal cycle.

How to prevent running socks from smelling so bad

So you’ve learned how to eliminate odors in your smelly running socks, but how do you go about preventing this phenomenon in the first place?

To keep your running sock from starting to smell, to begin with, you should:

  • Wash shoes
  • Wash immediately after wearing
  • No fabric softener
  • Put them in the freezer
  • Air dry before washing
  • Air dry after washing
  • Treat foot bacteria
  • Purchase more breathable shoes
  • Purchase socks with different fabric

Implement these techniques to avoid having to deal with the hassle of the cleaning methods mentioned above. 


Wash shoes

If you want to prevent foul odors from developing in your running socks, it’s best to start by washing your shoes.

Running shoes can also trap bad smells in their fabric over time. When you run and sweat, this bacteria mixes with the odorous substances secreting from your body and creates a stinky environment. Your running socks can absorb stench from your feet and from your shoes. 

Make sure you don’t simply wash your shoes in a machine.

Running shoes require a specific cleaning method.

Wash directly after use

Make sure not to leave your running socks to sour in the hamper.

Wash your sweaty socks immediately after running, or at least as soon after allowing them to air dry.

If you leave your sweaty, wet running socks in the hamper for long periods, they will develop bacteria and mildew that will produce disgusting odors over time. If you don’t like science experiments, you’ll make sure to wash your running socks directly after use!

No fabric softeners

Fabric softeners can actually produce bad odors in clothes, as they tend to congeal and leave a film on your clothing that traps in odors.

If you want to prevent your running socks from smelling bad post-wash, then try washing them without fabric softeners. 

Air dry before washing

Hanging your wet running socks up to air dry after a run can prevent bad odors from forming at the bottom of a laundry hamper.

If you air dry your socks outside, the sun can evaporate some of the sweat and body oils that cause bad smells in the first place. If you have time, go ahead and air your socks out before deciding to wash them. 

Even if you can’t air dry your socks in the sun, allowing them to dry before washing can help release some moisture.

Air dry after washing

Air drying your socks after a wash can also prevent odors from staying around in your running socks.

Machine drying can often produce extreme temperatures that end up baking smells into your clothes. Letting them dry in fresh air is a much safer way of preventing bad smells in your running socks and apparel. 

Air dry your socks after washing to help prevent persistent smells. Air drying in the sun can help kill lingering bacteria and even whiten your laundry.

Just like air drying before the wash, allowing your socks to air dry in the sun can help kill the bacteria that might remain after washing.

Treat foot bacteria

If you are diagnosed with bromodosis, you must treat the underlying cause of your smelling socks rather than simply continue to wash it away.

Lingering bacteria will transfer to your socks. The best thing you can do is tackle the issue at its source (your feet).

Stinky feet make stinky socks. If you have a bacterial infection, you will need to treat the underlying cause of your smelly socks.

Make sure you consult with your doctor regarding this issue, as there are a number of treatments, but one simple way to begin is by scrubbing your feet with a scrub brush and mild soap, clipping your nails, and providing general hygiene for your feet.

Purchase more breathable shoes

Some shoes offer more breathability for your feet during runs than others.

Allowing your feet to breathe during a run can air out the stinky, damp environment inside the shoe. This can lead to a reduction in the buildup of smelly bacteria on your feet by allowing sweat to more readily evaporate. 

Look for a shoe with natural leather or mesh upper, as synthetic uppers will trap moisture in the shoe, leading to sweaty feet and bacterial growth.

Purchase socks with a different fabric

If you notice one pair of running socks is always smellier than others, you may want to try a different fabric.

Wool could be a good option for running in cooler weather. It is the most resistant to odorous substances and can usually lose its odor with one wash cycle. 

Socks made with bamboo are also a good choice since bamboo is both sweat-wicking and antibacterial.

Best socks for sweaty feet

The following list includes some recommendations from our staff regarding the best running socks for heavy foot sweaters currently on the market. Peruse this list of anti-odor socks and give a couple of these options a try if your running socks smell! Purchasing quality brands like Balega running socks or Feetures Elites will give you a better chance of avoiding foot stench.

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