How to Remove a Mildew Smell from Towels

There are a few possible reasons your towels might be getting that musty, mildewed smell:

1. Too much detergent. Solution: Check the directions on the detergent bottle and make sure you’re using less than the recommended amount. Too much detergent leaves a residue, especially when you have a high-efficiency washer that uses less water. I never use fabric softener on towels; it coats towels with a residue which makes them less absorbent.

2. Clean towels aren’t completely dry when they’re folded and put away. Solution: make sure they’re totally dry, not just hot.

3. It’s coming from the washing machine. Solution: Leave the washer door open after every load to let it dry. Once every few months run a cleaning cycle on your washer to remove mildew, soap scum, and hard water deposits. To do this, add either a cup of bleach or two cups of white vinegar to the washing machine and run a hot-water wash cycle while it’s empty.

4. The towels aren’t drying quickly enough after using them. This was my problem a few weeks ago. I had towels that every week smelled a little less fresh, and I realized those towels are always hung on hooks. Solution: Hang wet towels on towel bars or spread across two hooks until they’re dry.

So what do you do to remove the mildew smell from towels?

Wash the towels using a regular amount of detergent and add a booster such as non-chlorine bleach, borax, or baking soda. Use hot water. Add one cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle. Dry the towels in the sun (if it’s rainy or the middle of winter, you can use the dryer).

How do you keep your towels smelling nice and clean?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. I use a cup of ammonia and then a little detergent, and it’s kept towels (or in some cases removed) from smelling like B.O. or mildewy.

  2. Hot water and some white vinegar usually does the trick for me.

  3. Yes, hot water and vinegar! Around a cup added in with detergent. Works great!
    Allison´s last post…Kitchen Budget Breakdown

  4. I’ll have to try the vinegar idea! I have dark towels so don’t want to risk any kind of bleach…

  5. We got the Linden Street Quick-Dri towels from Penney’s and I’ve not had a musty/gross smell on my towels since. They dry quickly after baths and they dry quickly in the dryer.

  6. Don’t forget about the sunshine! I think drying them in sunlight will help kill anything lingering in the towels, and you can fluff them in the dryer before putting them away so they’re not crunchy.
    Kacie´s last post…Why I want to homeschool my kids

    • I like to line-dry our towels too – we’ve never had too much of a problem with a mildew smell (perhaps this is worse in Texas and other humid places? I live in Wisconsin, recent transplant from Canada). But even without mildew issues, the smell of a line-dried towel is the best smell!

      Rachel, thanks for the tips about cleaning the washer, too. I tried the vinegar rinse yesterday, and left the door open overnight. The smell is much better.
      Bronwen´s last post…For dinner guests who like maps

  7. We had that problem and figured out it was from hanging them on a hook. We have recently updated our bath and installed towel bars and we no longer have smelly towels even after a few uses. Thanks for the tips!

  8. Dryers bake in smells! My aunt taught me not to dry kitchen linens or towels in the dryer (dryers set stains too). I line dry most of my laundry anyway. We also hang our towels and kitchen towels on bars, not hooks, so they dry quickly enough.
    Margo, Thrift at Home´s last post…Real Sushi for a Birthday

  9. Get them in the dryer as soon as they’re done in the washer, dry them all the way, and don’t store extra clean towels in the bathroom if you don’t have to.

  10. I do a wash cycle with a cup of vinegar, then another cycle with a 1/2 cup of baking soda. Works like a charm – no more smell and the towels are fluffier!

    • Jennifer says:

      Yes, I just read about (and started doing) this a few weeks ago. Vinegar in the wash, baking soda in the rinse cycle. So far it is working very well for us. I only wash my towels in hot water if I have a bunch and am washing the towels by themselves…mine are old and no longer shed lint on the rest of my clothes. I oftentimes do a 2nd rinse cycle as well to make sure there is no detergent residue left and a final extra spin cycle to make sure as much water as possible is removed before I move the clothes & towels to the dryer.

  11. Yes! But how do you keep them soft without softener? And drying them outside makes them crunchy and not inviting.
    Debra Bell´s last post…Beyond sex and devotions to Intimacy

    • Debra – Don’t use fabric softener and dry your towels in the dryer. It works well. I haven’t used softener for a long time.

    • I don’t use softener on anything, actually, and my towels feel soft when they come out of the dryer. If drying them on the line outside makes them too stiff, running them in the dryer for 10 minutes before hanging them up on the line to dry completely will solve that. But even when I didn’t have a dryer, I would just shake out the towel after it dried and it would soften up. Not fabric-softener soft, but soft enough.

      • dryer sheets, neither? How do you get the clothes to smell fresh – I suppose I’ve been bitten by the commercialization bug!

        • Jennifer says:

          I have never used fabric softener in the washing machine and I haven’t used dryer sheets in several years. I have no trouble with my clothes smelling fresh as long as I wash them regularly with a good quality detergent. I found that when I was buying the really cheap stuff trying to save a buck, I got what I paid for and my clothes were not really getting clean.

          • What kind of detergent do you like to use? Country Save is my favorite but I can’t always find it in local stores.

        • I have a preference for fragrance-free, so my clothes don’t have the normal laundry scent, but to me that means they’re clean.

          • Jennifer says:

            Right now I am using Purex Baby. It is less expensive than most name brands, but still works very well me. i like that it is lightly scented but not over-powering. I have not tried their fragrance-free detergent, but my MIL has and she likes it.

        • The chemicals in dryer sheets are known to cause lung irritation……especially true for the littlest family members. A cup of vinegar in the rinse water will help freshen and soften, and hanging synthetic fabrics to dry will eliminate static cling.

    • My textiles prof in college said never to use fabric softener on towels — it makes the fibers hold in moisture (much like conventional hair conditioners). Vinegar is nice — you can add some essential oil to your vinegar bottle if you like fragrance, or a damp rag to the dryer with some e.o. drops on it.

  12. For once I am on the same page as you. WooHoo! I also use detergent, vinegar, hot water and no fabric softener.

  13. Thank you!! My kids have been complaining about this recently and I was looking for a easy, chemical-free way to fix it. Your timing is perfect :)
    Leslie A´s last post…Weight Matters…or does it?

    • What a weirdly random post to be perfect timing, but it is for me too! Mine have been coming out of the washer and they still stink. Can’t wait to try the vinegar and baking soda method. BTW, it doesn’t help to leave them in the washing machine too long before drying them! Learned this the hard way!
      Catherine´s last post…In defense of magic

  14. Years ago i switched to all white towels for my family of 6. It just made sense to me to be able to add a little bleach to the washer to combat the nasty towel situation of kids putting them into the hampers damp…I also hung some command hooks up so that each kid could hang up their own towel. But, really, the bleach works like magic (:

    • Jennifer says:

      I have been wanting to do that (switch to all white towels), I just haven’t wanted to spend the money. Maybe I will do it this year as a birthday present to myself :)

    • This is a good idea.

    • I like all-white towels too, and since we used to move so frequently, my towels would always look good in the bathroom.

      • Ever since we moved to Florida, I have used only white towels because I can bleach them. To keep things smelling and feeling fresh, I use Oxy-Clean (one scoop in with the hot water wash and the bleach). Then, outside they go, onto my rack on my screened in porch. (wish we didn’t live in an apartment so I could have a clothes line, but it is what it is). Lots of sunshine in the morning on our side, so I do my laundry EARLY. The towels smell GREAT after drying out there.

    • I like white too, although they are NOT good for drying off puppy paws :-D we had to invest in a few blue ones.

  15. We are a scent free household due to severe seizure-inducing allergies and you notice the musty smell even more when you have laundry detergent that is scent-free (the fragrance just covers up the smell with a stronger scent, it doesn’t actually remove the mustiness).

    I wash on the sanitization cycle, rinsing with vinegar, and dry immediately on the antibacterial cycle of my dryer. It makes a huge difference. I wish I could line dry here during the warmer months, but it’s not possible where we are now.

  16. Hm, I’ve tried adding a splash of vinegar – but maybe I need to use more vinegar! Also, I think part of the problem is often I shower at night, and my hubby showers in the am…so our bathroom is steamy a lot. Maybe we need to coordinate our showers better so that there’s time for the towels to fully dry in between.
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…Vlog: Bedroom Book Tour

  17. Debra Kasel says:

    We wash and air dry our large bathtowels once weekly, with no mustiness–we use trouser clips hung on an over-door hanger for each. Each hangs from its hem and is bone dry after an hour. There are no folds to hold moisture. It’s also no big deal to use them longer than a week. There is no time in one’s life when one is cleaner and fresher than coming directly from the shower–I’ve never understood how people need to wash the towels after one use.
    I make my own detergent from my own soap, with vinegar in the compartment for the fabric softener. We airdry everything.
    Pillowcases are another matter–7 hours a night having my hair products and moisturizer rubbed into them means I like to keep those in rotation frequently. I find that hot washing and ironing with lavender linen spray helps keep them sweet-smelling.

  18. I’m going to have to give this a try. It might save me from having to go out and buy all new towels.
    Heidi @Adventures of a Thrifty Mom´s last post…A Heartbreaking Question

  19. Half a cup of vinegar, warm water, no softener – works every time. Also works on what I will affectionately call “teenage boy smell.”

  20. oh the power of vinegar and sunshine! Back in the days that I used detergent and dryer sheets I had problems with my towels smelling, but since switching to home made washing powder, baking soda, vinegar and line drying (for the most part), I have not had the problem. I LOVE a towel warm from the sun and smelling like outside!
    Diane @ The Stripper Project´s last post…Blog barf.

  21. We have a heated towel rail (which we run on a timer so it’s on only a short time a day) thus the towels dry properly. They are very common in New Zealand and Australia.

  22. I reduce the detergent. I’d used much.

  23. Wow. A lot of great ideas. I don’t have this problem as much with bathroom towels as I do with kitchen towels. Our kitchen towels smell terrible after just a few uses. I’ll have to try some of these preventative measures. And you always have the best commenters who share all their wisdom. I love this site! Thanks, everyone!
    Jennie´s last post…Where Your Treasure Is

  24. k8y8yk8y says:

    I am a die hard Tide user- powder. I find that unscented or lemon seem to leave things fresher and the floral scents in any laundry products smell pretty, but not clean, if that makes any sense! Just a personal preference.
    Recently learned that the newer FRONT LOAD machines sometimes retain some of the water and get kind of contaminated. There are products online that will cure your sewing machine of it.
    IMHO it seems illogical for products that have the febreeze, style or other softener built into the detergent to work properly. Detergent cleans and needs to do it by itself. Febreeze and softeners essentially coat and mask. I think they need to be separate products to do the job.
    I notice too that sometimes things just need an extra rinse. Younger mothers may not know that if a child wet the bed it is easier to get the urine smell out if the sheet is first rinsed of the urine (either by hand or in a rinse alone cycle), then washed in a completely separate cycle. Night time urine is very strong and will linger otherwise.

  25. 1/2 cup Borax in every load (takes care of stinky boy clothes and stinky towels), don’t over fill the washer, and completely dry all loads. If a load gets left in the washer too long, DRY it before rewashing it. I don’t know why that has to happen- but it does.

    Those are my tried and true tips after several years of using a front loader!

  26. Eucalyptus oil!
    Amanda@EasyPeasyOrganic´s last post…A Little Advice for Potatoes … and Life

  27. Oh so timely!! I just shifted the horrible smell of mildew from my favourite pair of jeans the other night – with my ‘toilet cleaner’ (50:50 vinegar, water + few drops of tea tree oil). lol it really worked too. Sprayed it on, let it sit for half an hour and then washed it with the other washing (with my homemade laundry powder), and voila, no more smell! I use a few tablespoons of vinegar in the rinse cycle to keep towels soft, never softener or sheets. Seems to work for me :o)

  28. I love, love, love, using Vinegar for musty mildewy smelly towels..Works like a charm every time. Never had the problem with my towels before until I moved to the Gulf Coast. I put the vinegar in the fabric softener container in the washer and let it works its magic. Use the same amount of vinegar that you would normally use of your fabric softener. I also make my own laundry soap and found it to be helpful and very inexpensive.

  29. Store the towels in some place other than the bathroom. The bathroom is humid and hot.

  30. What do yall think of using vinegar and/or baking soda with clothes? Same effect or too strong?
    Catherine´s last post…In defense of magic

  31. We ditched the colored towels and now have white ones, which can be bleached. I’m not a big fan of bleach smell (smells like a pool to me) but it is better than that which I referred to as “balls.”

  32. My friend had very smelly gym clothes. I suggested he add baking soda to the wash cycle and then add vinegar to the rinse cycle. That completely took out all of the smell. The baking soda boosts the cleaning action of the detergent and the vinegar helps remove traces of detergent.

  33. I have a new front loading washer and was so disappointed to notice a musty smell developing in my towels after a short time. And what was worse, I started noticing the odor in my clothing as well. I tried everything I could think of to clean out the machine…vinegar, bleach, commercial washer cleaner. I would snatch the door open as soon as the buzzer sounded so nothing sat wet in the tub. I dutifully dried the machine after every washing and left the door open every night. Nothing made any difference, until…
    I switched detergent! I had been using a liquid “he” detergent as required for front loaders, when I was shopping at a warehouse club and noticed a powder “he” detergent that was less expensive. I was thrilled that after just a couple of loads, the smell was GONE! I suspect that the liquid left sort of a slimy residue that was hard to eradicate since I continued to use the liquid even though I was cleaning the machine. The powder never leaves a slime. Laundry smells fresh-towels soft!

    • good to know!

    • Deborah says:

      Kelli,
      I have a front load washer too. Where did you get a powder detergent that works? If it’s not liquid… how does the powder flow down into the washer. I know .. maybe a dumb question but never tried it.

  34. How do you keep from having static in your clothes? I make my own detergent but I still use dryer sheets.

    • I’ve learned by experience that clothes made from synthetics such as polyester and acrylic will build up static, and most of my clothes are made from cotton, which doesn’t.

  35. I’ve never really noticed a problem with my towels, but that’s probably because my parent’s towels ALWAYS have that mildewy smell to me, and they never smell it. So I make sure the towels are always really really dry before folding and I usually spread them across a bar to dry in between showers. It’s a gross feeling coming out of the shower clean and smelling that horrid smell when you go to dry your face and hair!
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  36. Janet Martin says:

    I agree with the baking soda/vinegar/dry-in-the-sunshine advice–and we (just 2 empty-nesters) like that slightly rough feeling from air-dried towels! (Maybe old skin just needs more rubbing.)

  37. I’m convinced that washing them in cold water also contributes to a lasting mildewy smell. I wash towels in hot or warm. Anyone else agree? No one else has mentioned it thus far, am I crazy?

  38. buy new towels? LOL, that’s what we did, but as much because we moved and had been putting it off until then as anything else. DH’s usually got it first and his was hung on a hook to dry while mine went on a bar.

    I had read at another blog NOT to run the washing machine empty, but I had an appliance repair man here to work in dishwaher and asked him and he says he does it to diagnose problems and has never heard not to. I’m going to do that now too.

  39. I like to add a few drops of lavender or eucalyptus essential oil along with half a cup of water to the fabric softener dispenser, which leaves our towels smelling fresh, as well as being a good disinfectant.

  40. I just bought a box of Borax to keep the roaches out (it’s going to be a buggy summer since we had such a hot winter!) and didn’t know how to use it for laundry. (I realize it’s a “laundry booster” but what does that mean???) Glad to know that it helps to get rid of that mildew smell, which I CAN NOT STAND.

  41. The only luck I’ve had is to wash them in the sanitizing cycle on my machine, but it’s nearly two hours long!

  42. A half cup of vinegar in the wash always helps take away a mildewy smell. Like when I leave the clothes in the washer too long!
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