The Best Detergent for Workout Clothes Is a Century-Old Soap Bar

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When I left for college, there were certain items that my mom decided were absolute essentials. And while I never did use the pop-up hamper, and all the stick-on Command hooks fell down within the first few weeks, the weirdly retro bar of laundry soap called Fels-Naptha did become an important bulwark against the indignities of dorm life. A spilled Solo cup of Merlot? A pant leg covered in bike-chain grease? A spot of olive oil that hadn’t budged in three spin cycles? They all disappeared after a quick scrub in the bathroom sink.

Fels-Naptha is a borderline-miraculous stain pretreatment. Like Coca-Cola, it’s a 19th-century innovation named for an ingredient that turned out to be highly problematic. (In this case, the namesake substance — naphtha — gave you cancer.) Also like Coke, it was reformulated without the bad stuff. It’s just plain old (noncarcinogenic) soap these days. Really strong soap, that is: Besides my mom (and her mom), it’s popular with people who make their own laundry detergent. People who are serious about clean clothes, in other words.

So Fels-Naptha remained a part of my laundry tool kit after graduation, even as recently as this weekend. (Chocolate sauce, white pants; I don’t want to talk about it.) But I only recently figured out my favorite use for it: washing workout gear. I’ve always found myself running out of athletic clothes before it was time to do laundry, and I don’t think it’s just me. (I’ve been told that owning enough sports bras to make it between loads is essentially impossible.) When I started running more seriously a few years ago, this minor annoyance became a bigger problem. The solution? Since Fels-Naptha is just a bar like Irish Spring, I’ve started leaving it in the shower. Once I’m done with my normal post-run rinse-off, I give the clothes a quick scrub with the soap, roll everything around for a few seconds, then hold them up to the shower head to wash the suds out. The whole process takes less than a minute, and the next day, I have dry, sweat-stink-free clothes ready to go. I’ve been able to get rid of all the shorts and tops I sort of hate, and can always run in clean clothes without needing to drop rent-scale money on new gear. Now, I just need to be better about instructing my houseguests on which soap is for people.

Other clothes-cleaning products we love

Writer Carson Griffith swears by the Lestoil her mother introduced her to: “My only hope to remain somewhat presentable between keg parties and study sessions was my mother’s original go-to. Here’s a pro tip: Lestoil works wonders even when you don’t have time to do laundry. Rubbing some of that caramel-colored oil on a stain can get rid of it without a wash.”

Writer Maxine Builder uses Spray ‘n Wash Pre-Treat Stain Stick to clean her clothes: “Immediately after a stain happens, I rub the product onto the spot and the fabric, and let it sit for as long as possible. Before I go to sleep, I’ll wash the product out in the sink with cold water, wring it out, and let it dry. When I wake up, the stain has lifted and the clothing is ready to wear again, with no one the wiser.”

Writer Sadie Stein washes her expensive delicates with this Japanese washbasin: “I like to put my unmentionables to soak with a little Woolite, or Forever New, or if I’m feeling flush, the Le Labo–perfumed Laundress detergent; soak them overnight; and then give them a good swish and rinse. And its washboard, of course, is for cleaning underpants (or as some men like to call them, ‘panties’). I imagine if you were wanting to wash up any evidence of a murder, it would be very useful, too.”

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The Best Detergent for Workout Clothes Is This Soap Bar