After a day of thrift store shopping, I came home and dumped my bag of newfound treasure onto the couch to show my boyfriend, Mike.
Let me tell you something about Mike: The guy has owned the same pair of jeans since 2014 and has a pair of Crocs for each season (his winter pair has a fuzzy lining, and I walk a steady 15 paces behind him when he wears those behemoths in public). And while he clearly isn’t a fashionista, every time I go thrift shopping, he is usually excited and intrigued by my finds.
After showing him my vintage Levi’s and Vince sweater, both of which elicited an enthusiastic thumbs up, I held up my most precious find of the day, a mint pair of Girlfriend Collective leggings. “Workout pants? Burn those,” he said with more concern in his voice than snark.
Before you go all Team Mike on me, hear me out:
Working out is inherently expensive when you start adding up the prices of the boutique classes, outfits, gym bags, grippy socks, and extra gear like yoga mats and cute water bottles.
Call me crazy, but I would rather spend my money on trying new fitness classes than on new sports bras. That being said, I also appreciate the quality and longevity of higher-priced athleisure brands—when I buy lower-quality pieces, I find they lack support, ride down, lose elasticity in the wash, and when I bend over—well, you know. If I end up hating them and not wearing them more than twice, their “cost per wear” ends up being much higher than the Lululemon and Outdoor Voices clothing I’ve purchased secondhand.
With that mentality, I’ve confidently bought and sold used workout clothes many times without any qualms. That was, until Mike suggested I set my new pants aflame.
Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure: Are used workout clothes gross? Am I gross?
I spoke to friends who I’ve personally witnessed sprinting into vintage flea markets like cheetahs after antelopes to buy 80s jeans and pill-laden wool sweaters. To my surprise, these same women told me that they would never buy used athletic clothes.
While I can understand the potential for grossness (I draw the line at bathing suits. I’m not that wild!), much of the activewear and—here comes the buzzword—athleisure you’ll find on the market is previously unworn. Poshmark and ThredUp, both of which are platforms for buying and selling used clothes, have categories devoted entirely to clothing that is NWT (“New With Tags”). A quick search on ThredUp yields more than 9,000 pieces of new activewear, many of which are discounted more than 50 percent.
If you’re shopping in secondhand stores like Goodwill or Buffalo Exchange, it’s likely that the workout clothes you find will be (at least) gently used. While sweat is made up primarily of water and is not particularly “germy,” I get it—it can still feel super weird to try on leggings that you know another woman has squatted in while heavily perspiring.
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But Eric Leland D.O., of Summa Akron City Hospital, says, “The only thing you might be concerned about transmitting is fungus and yeast, and as long as the clothes are washed at a high enough temperature, any bacteria will die and you’ll be fine.” After all—the risk of buying used workout clothes is no greater than the risk of buying any type of secondhand clothes, and if you really stop to think about it, anything you try on new in a store has been tried on before by countless others.
Like any used item, give them a good once-over.
If you’re in an actual store, look at the most vulnerable areas of the piece (for leggings, think inner thighs, crotch) to make sure the fabric hasn’t worn thin. Check for pilling and make sure the waist or the band of the bra isn’t stretched out by gently pulling it to see if it snaps back into place.
Per the doctor’s orders, you want to make sure that your clothes reach a temperature of at least 150 degrees before wearing, which will kill any bacteria, germs, or bed bugs (sorry, we had to go there.) The majority of activewear is made of synthetic fabric (polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, and acetate), which won’t shrink from high heat and can even be boiled before washing. For extra odor removal, sprinkle baking soda on the clothes and let them sit for an hour or so before washing.
Because it’s a known disinfectant, you can also attack potential bacteria by adding a half cup of distilled white vinegar into the washing machine, which will help remove any lingering funky smells and soften clothes. Don’t panic: The smell of vinegar dissipates quickly so you won’t go to Spin class smelling like salt and vinegar chips (delicious, but not a good way to make workout friends). Always dry the clothes on the dryer’s hottest setting.
Aside from the obvious financial perks, buying used activewear is also a way to nudge the world in a slightly more sustainable direction.
Not to toot my own horn, but I bought leggings made from recycled materials secondhand, which is about as environmentally friendly as you can get without constructing them out of composted banana peels. (Wait… am I on to something?)
And some businesses are jumping on the reuse/recycle bandwagon: Patagonia offers a program called “Worn Wear,” where you can buy deeply discounted and lightly worn Patagonia gear or you can donate your old Patagonia clothes and in return receive a store credit that can be used toward new gear. The North Face has a similar program called “Clothes the Loop,” where you can donate any unwanted clothing or footwear (it can be of any brand), and The North Face will send the clothes to its nonprofit partner, Soles4Souls, and give you $10 off any purchase greater than $100.
But hey, if buying used clothes isn’t for you, that’s OK!
After all, there are plenty of organizations and people like me out there who will happily take them off your hands. If you’re starting to think running a mile in someone else’s leggings isn’t gross, check it out for yourself! You might save a pretty penny on some quality gear and help our planet at the same time. As for me, Mike and I agreed that I’ll stop buying used workout clothes when he retires his Crocs. Which is to say never.
Grace Gallagher is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. She’s a lover of coffee, thrift store shopping, salt, poetry, watching cooking competitions on TV, and workouts that incorporate lying down. You can see more of her work at www.gracelgallagher.com.