How to Fix Musty Closet Odors

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Learn what’s causing those musty closet odors and the steps that get rid of them.

Crowded, dark closet full of clothes and a dresser

The smell of a musty closet can make your clothes stink, too. Don’t just reach for a can of air freshener when your closet starts to smell stale — these steps treat the cause to eliminate odors in your closet and keep it smelling fresh.

Why Closets Smell Musty

Damp conditions and poor air circulation are the main reasons for musty closet odors. Several things can contribute to these. If ignored long enough, the problem can go from a merely unpleasant smell in your closet to mildew and mold that grows on clothing, and from there, it can spread throughout your home.

  • Overcrowded clothing: Air cannot circulate properly in cramped closets.
  • Damp clothes: Wet towels and damp clothes develop mildew and add to musty closet odors.
  • Smelly shoes: Sweaty shoes breed bacteria, which can make your closet stink.
  • Pests: Crowded closets attract pests that seek undisturbed spots to nest and breed.
  • Pets: Very young and very old pets often eliminate in neglected closets because they feel safe.
  • Poor ventilation: Keeping closet doors shut prevents air exchange.
  • Excess humidity: Weather conditions, damp clothing, inadequate insulation, and plumbing leaks can all make your closet musty.

Steps to Fix Closet Odors

When you’re ready to do more than sprinkle baking soda inside your closet or mask musty closet odors with essential oils or fragrances, you’ll need to set aside an afternoon to do it right.

Step 1. Empty Your Closet

You can’t look for the cause of musty smells in a crowded closet, so the first step in dealing with the odor is pulling everything out of it. If you’re dealing with a musty clothes closet, this is an excellent time to purge your wardrobe by setting aside items for donation and discarding things too worn out to wear or give away.

Step 2. Inspect It

Check items as you remove them. If you find signs of pet urine, mouse droppings, or silverfish nests, you’ll need to stop and disinfect items with hard surfaces by cleaning each with a soapy rag and then a fresh disinfecting wipe. Launder fabric items in the hottest water permitted on the fabric care label. Then dry it in direct sunlight for added disinfection or tumble dry it on the hottest setting the label allows. Inspect the empty closet for plumbing leaks and remove mold on the walls before proceeding.

Step 3. Clean It

Dust can contribute to the musty smell in your closet. Get rid of dust by wiping your closet’s light fixtures, ceiling, walls, door, and baseboards with a clean, damp microfiber cloth. Then, wipe the walls, clothes rods, and shelves with a deodorizing solution of 1 part white vinegar to 3 parts water in a spray bottle. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oils. (Lavender is pet-safe and deters household pests, too.) While your shelves dry, vacuum and mop the floor.

Step 4. Wait to Put Things Away

Wait until every surface in your closet is completely dry before you put things back — you can aim a fan at it to speed up the process if needed. In the future, make sure all clothing is completely dry before you fold or hang it. Damp clothes will develop mildew and make your closet smell musty.

Step 5. Avoid Overcrowding

Don’t crowd a closet floor to ceiling with stored items. When hanging clothes, leave a finger’s width of space room between hangers so air can circulate, and put longer clothes toward the sides of your closet to avoid impeding airflow. Store out-of-season clothing in containers on your shelves, leaving space between and above them for air circulation.

Step 5. Keep Out Shoe Odors

Sweaty, smelly shoes are a common cause of closet odors. Use homemade powders or sprays to deodorize shoes, and wash your shoes when those methods alone aren’t enough to control the smell. You might even consider using a separate shoe storage closet altogether.

Step 6. Absorb Moisture

In large closets with electrical outlets, a dehumidifier can keep dampness in check and prevent musty odors. For smaller closets, you can put an open bowl of clean crystal cat litter on the shelf — it’s silicon dioxide, which is the same moisture-absorbing stuff that’s in the silica packets you find in packaging. Or make homemade closet deodorizers by combining dried herbs and silica gel beads in cloth bags. Hang these to absorb moisture, and their scent will help make your closet smell good, too.

Step 7. Improve Air Flow

The best way to reduce musty odors in your closet is by improving airflow. Make sure your clothes and stored items aren’t blocking existing vents, then leave your closet door open if possible. Alternatively, you could swap to a louvered or barn door or a beaded curtain to promote good airflow. In basement closets, add a two-way vent to the wall above closet doors to improve circulation.

More Closet Deodorizing Tricks

Once you’ve ruled out plumbing, pest, or pet damage as the cause of your closet’s musty smell, here are some other ways to make your closet smell better.

  • Clip a dryer sheet to your closet rod or install it over an air vent to release the fragrance.
  • Keep a bowl of activated charcoal on a high shelf to act as a natural deodorizer.
  • Hang a muslin bag filled with potpourri and change it monthly. Using herbs like rosemary and bay leaf will also deter moths.
  • Use cedar hangers for heavier items like coats. The smell of cedar repels pests and adds a clean scent to your closet.
  • Vacuum your closet floor every time you clean your room, and if you have carpeting, consider replacing it with hard flooring, which collects less condensation.

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