Smelly gray or white spots on clothing are most likely mildew. Here’s how to get it off of your clothes and keep it from coming back.
Finding mildew stains on clothes does not mean you’ve got to throw them out. You can safely eliminate those mildew spots and smell from fabric using common household ingredients. If it’s a frequent problem, there are also simple steps you can take to keep your clothes from mildewing in the future.
Steps to Remove Mildew Stains from Clothing
Mildew is a form of fungus which FEMA describes as early-stage mold. Since mildew can be white, yellow, or any shade of gray, people often confuse it for mold and sometimes even for black mold. One way to tell them apart is by texture: mildew is powdery and flat, while mold is fuzzy or slimy. The methods below will remove both.
Step 1. Mix a Pre-Treatment
For white fabrics, a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 3 parts water is the fastest way to eliminate mildew or mold spores on fabric, but it is not the only way. The instructions below work for all clothing, including white materials.
- Vinegar: Combine equal parts white vinegar and water.
- Borax: Dissolve 2 tablespoons of borax in 2 cups of water.
- Oxygen bleach: Make a paste from equal parts oxygen bleach and water.
- Lemon juice and salt: Combine equal parts of lemon juice and table salt to make a paste, or dip a cut lemon into salt directly.
Step 2. Soak
Never brush or shake mildewed or moldy clothing, or you’ll spread the spores. Instead, lay it flat in a sink or basin and apply your chosen pre-treatment. Let the garment soak 10 minutes for chlorine bleach and 20 minutes for the other methods, then gently scrub the stain with an old toothbrush. Repeat soaking and scrubbing until the stain is gone.
Step 3. Launder with Heat
Removing the mildew stain and odor requires hot water — a cold water wash will not do it. Check the care label and use the hottest temperature permitted. Add your regular laundry detergent to the washer, but avoid fabric softener since it can keep mildew odors and spores from rinsing away fully.
Step 4. Dry
Once the wash cycle ends, check the garment before putting it in the dryer. If any spots remain, repeat steps 1-3. Do not dry the item until the stain is gone, or you may cause the discoloration to permanently bond with the fabric fibers. When you’ve eliminated the mildew stain, tumble dry the item or hang it to line dry in direct sunlight to finish eliminating mildew odors.
Removing Mildew on Dry Clean-Only Clothes
There’s no easy way to remove mold or mildew at home from wool, silk, leather, or other dry clean-only fabrics without damaging them. Instead, seal the garment in a plastic bag to keep the spores from spreading and then take it to a local dry cleaner for handling. Professional services have special solvents that can kill mildew and eliminate the stain without damaging your dry clean-only items.
Forgetting about a load of laundry in the washing machine is the most common cause of mildew or mold stains on clothing, but not the only reason. To protect your clothes from developing mildew in the future, make a point to store them in dry conditions with good air circulation.
- Make sure clothes are completely dry before you store them in closets or drawers.
- Don’t leave piles of damp clothing or towels on the floor.
- Air-dry sweaty or greasy clothes before you add them to your laundry basket. Body oils and grease can trap moisture and promote the growth of mildew.
- Use fans to dry damp shoes or clothing that can’t be placed in the dryer.
- Sunlight is a mild disinfectant, so line-dry clothing when possible to kill mold and mildew spores.
- Treat musty odors in closets and dressers promptly to avoid the spread of mold and mildew in your home.