6 Ways to Get the Musty Smell Out of Clothes and Towels

Musty Clothes in the Closet

What should you do when clothes smell musty in the closet ? Sure, you can take out everything and wash it, but if you don’t address the underlying problem, they’ll just get musty again.

First, examine the layout of the closet, and look for mold and mildew. Our homes are being built tighter. Less airflow = increased mold and mildew risk.

Closet corners are notorious for harboring mildew and mold growth, and it can easily go unnoticed. If you find mold or mildew, you can use the all purpose spray cleaner and carpet deodorizer recipes from the DIY natural cleaners post to help clean up.

Note: If the problem is severe, please contact a trained mold remediation team. Mold spores can cause serious health problems. If you have a room or basement that smells musty, check out “Musty Smells in the House – Finding Them and Getting Rid of Them“.

Three DIY steps for when clothes in the closet smell musty:

  1. 1. Open up your closet doors! If possible, keep closet doors open to increase airflow. Louvered doors are better than solid doors, because they allow some airflow even when closed.
  2. 2. Clean your closet! Get rid of unused or rarely used items, and organize what’s left to improve airflow.
  3. When you clean, you may want to consider the old trick of reversing the hangers as you put the clothes back in. When an item is worn, the hanger gets returned to normal. After a given amount of time, anything not worn is removed from the closet and donated.
  4. 3. Consider a small fan at floor level. My in-laws had a basement closet with a chronic musty odor. The finally purchased a couple of tiny fans and put them in the bottom of the closet, directing air in and out. This got rid of the mildew and odor.
  5. You could set these up on a timer if you didn’t want them running 24/7. Get a Holmes mini fan here.

These tips should help you get rid of musty clothes and towels so your laundry smells fresh and clean. For laundry stain removal tips, check out “Do It Yourself Laundry and Household Cleaners“.

How to get musty smells out of towels

Towels aren’t really all that different from clothing, so the tips above will serve you well if you have musty smelling towels. With towels, though, the other absolutely critical thing is to really let them dry after each use. Otherwise, you’ve got a super damp cloth hanging out in your home–and by now, you know what that means.

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Does a musty smell mean I have mold?

Mold is the most common reason for a musty smell in your home. But all homes have some mold and since the mold has a low odor threshold, the musty smell does not mean it is already out of control. What you may be smelling are MVOC’s, or mold volatile organic compounds. These are the chemicals that are released at a certain stage in the life of mold that is volatile enough to evaporate but also have an odor that is strong enough to be noticed in a home. This is often not dangerous and can be easily addressed. 

If the odor persists and is stronger you likely have mold and should look for the source of moisture that is causing it. You may also be experiencing an “old house” smell which is not necessarily a sign of the mold but can be from a number of causes. 

Old house smells can stem from the combination of limited ventilation, high humidity, and darkness. Sunlight and ventilation can often clear this up. The smell may be associated with the carpet, furniture (couch or upholstered chairs,) or drapes. Check them out and have them cleaned if so. Do a deep cleaning and deep declutter and that may solve your problem.

How to get rid of musty smell in carpets?

If the smell is coming from a carpet, address it immediately. The smell comes from excess moisture and the carpet could be harboring mold and mildew. If the carpet was completely soaked you may have to remove it and replace it.

Take these steps to get rid of musty smells from your carpet.

  • Dry out the entire area. If necessary call a water damage remediation specialist.
  • When the carpet is dry, vacuum it thoroughly.
  • Mix one cup of white vinegar to 2 cups of water and add the mixture to a spray bottle. Spray a light mist over the carpet.
  • Add baking soda to the carpet. It won’t harm your carpet or pets!
  • Allow the baking soda and vinegar to sit for a few hours, up to overnight.
  • If the smell persists, repeat with hydrogen peroxide and water. It is one part of hydrogen peroxide to 5 parts of water.
  • An alternative is to use a foam carpet cleaner according to directions.
  • If the odor still persists, it is time to call the mold remediation professionals.

How do you wash towels so they don’t smell?

To prevent your towels from smelling, use vinegar every other time you wash them.

You can add it in right along with your regular detergent.

You may think that fabric softener is necessary for keeping your towels smelling fresh. But the build-up they put on your towels only compounds the stinky towel problem.

Vinegar can actually replace fabric softener, and keep your towels soft and fluffy.

How to get rid of the musty smell from bath towels with vinegar

Washing towels with vinegar to remove the musty smell is a great alternative to harsh chemicals. This product has the power to neutralize bad aromas and fight bacteria. If you want to wash the towels with vinegar and baking soda in a washing machine, follow these steps:

  1. Put the towels affected by the musty smell in the washing machine.
  2. Add a mixture of hot water, baking soda and white vinegar to your washing machine in the section for fabric softener.
  3. You can also wash the clothes first and add the white vinegar mixture first, depending on the type of washing machine you use
  4. Pre-soak the towels in the white vinegar mixture as an alternative.

If you have apple cider vinegar, you can also use it together with your favorite fabric softener to get the best smelling towels. The vinegar will enhance and improve the smell of the fabric softener. If you were wondering how to perfume your towels, this is an easy and effective way.

We also advise you to read this other article on how to clean your washing machine with vinegar. If you use our tips to get rid of musty smells in towels with vinegar, but your washing machine smells bad, it can be counterproductive.

White Vinegar and Baking Soda Method

This double wash method involves white vinegar and baking soda, which are scientifically proven to break down the bonds of buildup inside the towel. Vinegar has acetic acid which is known to dissolve grime, oil and separate mineral deposits from the towel fabric. Baking soda, on the other hand, is very alkaline in its original state. This alkaline status helps to neutralize the smelliness or odor by dissolving any germs, dirt, or grease.

Using these two powerful ingredients back-to-back as directed above is the ultimate way to eliminate sources of smell causing bacteria and any buildup as effectively as possible.

These three steps are enough to keep the towel smelling fresh and odor-free. If the towel still smells bad, redoing the steps again will definitely take care of the smelly-towel problem. However, bear in mind that this cleaning method is applicable for an occasional washing treatment only and is not a replacement for a regular cleaning method.

How to Get Rid of Damp Smell From Towels

The obvious first solution would be to not let towels stay wet after they are used. Drying them properly immediately after use can help to avoid some of these odors. This can be done either by hanging them up to dry in a place with plenty of ventilation, such as outdoors on a clothes line or by washing and drying them properly with the next load of laundry.

As mentioned before, hanging towels up to dry can still pose a problem if you are hanging them back up in the bathroom where there is not enough ventilation. The condensation from the shower running, combined with the fan being turned off and windows closed, can make for a warm and humid environment — perfect for those towels to start smelling of mildew within hours. Also, in homes where there are little ones or those of us who are a little forgetful, we may intend to start the good habit of hanging our towels up right away, but may quickly fall back to the bad habit of leaving it on the bathroom floor or on the floors of our room.

Just like leaving towels wet too long after a shower can pose problems, so can leaving them in the washing machine too long after a wash cycle. In fact, that could be an even worse situation — the enclosed washing machine makes it even warmer, like an incubator for mold to start growing. It is important to put laundry loads in the dryer as soon as possible once the wash cycle ends. That way, there is no time for unwanted mildew to make its way onto towels and linens.

The Reason Why Towels Can Smell Bad

We’re sure you’ll agree that drying off with a smelly towel is an unpleasant experience. Mildew smells tend to intensify in warm, moist environments, so a bunched-up, wet towel left in the washing machine drum or at the bottom of your laundry basket provides just the right circumstances for that mildew smell to develop.

Additionally, body soils left on your towels either from the use or from poor-performing detergents will break down over time to release a sour, musty smell. In the end, you’re left with towels full of a stink that’s difficult to get rid of. But all hope isn’t lost if you know these smart, deep-cleaning techniques.

Are musty smells dangerous?

Musty smells are often the result of mold or mildew. We hear you, that doesn’t sound particularly great. But oftentimes, the source of the problem is relatively contained and all you need is to open up some windows, do a deep clean, and/or give the laundry another 15 minutes in the dryer.

That being said, you definitely shouldn’t ignore it. If your mustiness is, in fact, the result of household allergens like mold and mildew, then depending on the specific type of allergen and the person being exposed, these allergens can cause irritation (think congestion, fatigue, coughing, headache, or itchy eyes). And while less common than other types of mold, black mold can be downright dangerous. (Seriously, if you suspect you have black mold, consider calling in an expert–you do not want to mess around with that stuff.) Another thing to keep in mind: mold and mildew, if left unchecked for long periods of time, can also wreak havoc on your home’s structure.

Basically, if you have a persistent, musty smell, it’s time to figure it out.

Keep it fresh: banishing musty odors for good

Your home and your clothes are natural magnets for a musty smell. To keep them fresh and in good condition, you may want to take preventive measures. Preventing mold and mildew is always easier than cleaning it up. Eliminating musty smells for good also means you will be improving your home’s indoor air quality — it is a win-win!

  • Use a dehumidifier — Keeping your home at an ideal humidity level (between 40-50%) will go a long way in preventing mold and mildew and, of course, that musty smell.
  • Keep all surfaces dry — Your bathroom and kitchen, especially, should be kept as dry as possible. Taking a few minutes to wipe down hard surfaces after a shower or after cooking will help keep mold and mildew from forming. Do not forget to wipe away condensation that forms on your windows and leave your washing machine open between uses so it can air out!
  • Change your air filters regularly — Your HVAC filters can easily become filled with mold. By changing them often, you can avoid this and make sure your home’s air quality stays high.
  • Inspect for mold often — Mold happens. The earlier you catch it, the easier it will be to treat.
  • Do maintenance as needed — Water leaks can be prevented by performing (or hiring a contractor to do) regular maintenance in your home. This can include roof and plumbing inspections, as well as HVAC inspections.
  • Keep your home ventilated — Fresh air from the outside can help keep mold at bay. When air gets stagnant, humidity levels rise and mold thrives. Getting the air flowing in and through your home will help reduce condensation and will improve your air quality.

How to Get The Mildew Smell Out Of Smelly Towels

2 cups of Borax 2 cups vinegar

I soak the towels overnight in the washing machine in warm water with vinegar and borax. In the morning, run them through the wash cycle. Wash the towels again with borax and detergent and dry as usual.

Using this process, the towels come out great and fresh!! When I first tried this in Kansas, after battling smelling towels for months, a week later I still had no mildew smell.

Prior to using this process, my towels would start stinking after a day or two and I was constantly washing smelly towels!! After discovering this method, we were able to go back to washing towels every week instead of every couple of days.

I’m glad I got that irritating problem solved! I hope you find this super helpful! 🙂

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Parenting is not easy, but it is so important. My goal is to help inspire and equip parents in a more intentional, creative and enjoyable parenting experience.

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More About Jodi Jodi has a degree in education and is now a stay-at-home mom of three. She has used her experiences as a teacher, private tutor, camp counselor and youth worker and applied it to her parenting experiences. The classes she has taken in psychology, teaching kids, parenting, art and marriage all contribute to her parenting style and philosophy. She is a constant student of this thing called motherhood. Meaningful Mama embraces her passions for Jesus, motherhood, entertaining, creativity, and the culinary arts.

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