If you've got musty and smelly towels here's how to remove the stinky odor so you can enjoy them again.
I got this question from a reader recently, and I know it's a really common problem:
I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but my towels begin over time to get a musty odor, even though I wash them frequently. How can I remove that smell?
First off, before we discuss the cause of these towel odors, you've got to know what it is you're smelling. Get ready -- it's mildew, mold and bacteria. Yuck.
You may not be able to see it, but it's there, buried within your absorbent towel fibers, and once it begins to grow it is difficult, but definitely not impossible, to remove.
There are several possible reasons your towels are beginnning to get a funky odor, and so to fix the problem you've got to identify which it is, and address the issues causing the problem. I've identified the three most common causes below.
The most common culprit often is that towels were washed and then were left to sit in the washer (happens to the best of us, I promise!) or left on the floor of the bathroom after use instead of hung up to let dry.
In either instance, when your towels are left in the warm, humid environment mildew grows fast.
Obviously, it's best to get the towels out of the washer as quickly as possible to either line dry, or to get dried in the dryer.
In addition, encouraging family members to hang their towel up after use, and not just leave them on the floor, or throw them while wet into a hamper is key. You need to let them dry thoroughly between uses.
Another common cause of smelly towels is the build up of detergent and fabric softener in the towel fibers.
Detergent, while obviously needed for cleaning, if not properly rinsed out, will actually attract dirt (since that is what soaps and detergents do) and can cause the build up of odors.
That's one of the reasons it is important to only use the amount of soap needed to wash fabrics. A lot of laundry soap isn't always best, especially if it means it doesn't all get completely rinsed out.
Similarly, I don't actually encourage anyone to use fabric softener on their towels, because it lessens their absorbency. (Here's my article about fabric softener that explains exactly why.)
However, if you do use fabric softener the oils within the softener, which make the towel fibers feel so soft, also trap in dirt, detergent residue, and also those mold and mildew spores that grow in the fibers when you've left the towels wet too long.
I know many people actually begin to add softener to their towels in an attempt to hide or get rid of the musty towels smell, but actually this is rather counterproductive.
You can follow all the rules above, having everyone keep towels hung up after each use, quickly removing them from your washer after washing, and using only the proper amount of detergent and no fabric softener, and you can still get stinky towels.
Why? Well, if your washing machine smells or has mold and mildew build up it will transfer to your clothing and towels as well each time you put in a load.
Both regular and HE washing machines need to be cleaned frequently, and you've got to be even more vigilant about this problem if you've got an HE machine. You can read my article on cleaning your washing machine here for comprehensive instructions on how to get rid of bacteria, mold and mildew from inside your machine, and get rid of any lingering odors.
Now that you know the causes of this problem, and how to prevent it in the future, you've got actually get the mildew, mold and bacteria, and its odor, out of your towel fibers now.
To do this, first make sure you're working with a clean washing machine, otherwise these steps won't work.
The idea with these steps is to kill and remove the bacteria and fungal spores causing the odor from your towels' fibers, so I'm going to suggest some pretty harsh washing that isn't necessarily always needed each time for them.
I don't care that you normally use warm or cold water to wash fabrics. When you're dealing with stink, hot water is key.
Hot water does two things -- it kills some bacteria and mildew, all by itself, just from the heat, and also lets your detergent and bleaches that I'm suggesting below work better.
You will need to use detergent, I suggest about half as much as you normally use, because you may be suffering from an excess of detergent residue in your towels.
(A simple way to see if this is a problem is to wash your towels without any detergent and if you see an excess of suds you've got detergent residue.)
But along with your detergent you definitely want to add some type of bleach when trying to kill off this odor.
Chlorine bleach actually works well to kill bacteria, mold and mildew, and so you can definitely use it for white towels that have developed a funk. (Read my article at the link all about chlorine bleach, for more directions.)
However, many people don't just have white towels, and although chlorine bleach can be used on some colored towels as well oxygen bleach also works to help remove these odors and you don't have to worry as much about excessive fading when you use it. Plus, many people just prefer using oxygen bleach to chlorine bleach anyway.
Read the directions on the back of the package for the oxygen bleach you've chosen to know how much to add to your load, since it varies between brands.
If possible, use either the soak feature on your washing machine, or stop the machine once you've added the towels, detergent and bleach and let everything soak for an extra 15-30 minutes before restarting your machine to let it finish washing. (This is easy to do on a top loader, not easy with many front loaders. The soaking step isn't necessary, just helpful.)
I've already explained, above, why you don't want to add fabric softener in general to your towels, but you definitely don't want to add it when trying to fix your smelly towels problem. It just keeps the bacteria and mildew spores trapped inside the towel fibers and will totally sabotage your efforts to cure your issue.
On the other hand, I do want you to add something to your rinse in place of fabric softener. One half cup of distilled white vinegar.
Vinegar provides an extra shock to mildew and bacteria to help cut odor, and also helps all the detergent rinse completely away. Both of these things help cure the stinky and musty towel odor you've developed.
In fact, many people swear that once they started using vinegar as their fabric softener of choice that the stinky towel issues they'd had in the past were gone.
You can read more about using vinegar as a fabric softener here (the article also discusses using baking soda, which also works well as a fabric softener, but in this instance, when dealing with this musty odor, vinegar is better to use).
Because I suggest adding vinegar to your rinse this is another reason you may want to use oxygen bleach, not chlorine bleach, during this process. If you use chlorine bleach, do NOT use a vinegar rinse, since you should not mix chlorine bleach and vinegar (similar to the reasons you shouldn't mix ammonia and chlorine bleach).
The hot water, detergent, bleach, and vinegar rinse will do a lot toward removing the odors from your towels. But it may not work completely in one washing.
Those odors can be persistent, especially if they've been dried into your towels over and over again.
Therefore, you may need to wash the towels using these harsher techniques 2-3 times. So each time after they've finished washing give them the sniff test.
Putting towels with a residual stink into the dryer actually exacerbates the problem, so go ahead and wash multiple times now to solve it.
Finally, once you don't smell anything stinky on the wet towels, go ahead and dry them as the final step in the process.
Ideally you can line dry your towels in the sun. Sunlight is germicidal, which means that it will kill some (but not all, it isn't a disinfectant) of the bacteria and mildew, and thus also remove odors.
However, I know this isn't practical all the time. So what else kills bacteria and mildew? Heat. So if you can't line dry, go ahead and dry your towels on the highest heat setting.
And in this instance dry them thoroughly. Don't pull them out when damp, which could mean they stay slightly damp and rebreed mildew spores. Instead, dry them completely in your dryer before taking them out.
When they're dry go ahead and enjoy your again nice smelling, soft, fluffy towels!
What other methods have you used to get the musty smell out of towels? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks below!
Hi, I'm Taylor, a busy mom with 3 kids, so I have lots of hands on experience with house cleaning, laundry and my fair share of spots, spills and other messy catastrophes. Thanks for visiting my site.
I update the website all the time with tips, tutorials, cleaning recipes, reviews of products from readers like you, and tests I've done on various cleaners, removers and laundry supplies.
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CAUTION: This website is provided for informational purposes only. It is provided as is, without warranties or guarantees. Some stains and messes just won't come out, and are permanent. Further, some cleaning methods can harm your item, so if what you want to clean or launder is sentimental or expensive call a professional. See disclaimer of liability for more information.
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