A hand reaching into an open washing machine full of wet clothes

Adventures in Laundry Land: Getting Mildew Smells out of Clothes

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Ever opened your washing machine or closet to a stale whiff of mustiness? That funky mildew smell can sneak up on you. Once it’s in your clothes it’s not going anywhere until you do something about it.

Sure, you can try dousing your mildewed shirt with a fabric spray, but wearing it only reactivates the smell. Surprised? Then stick around to learn the true source of that obnoxious odor, then choose your adventure to get the mildew smell out of your clothes and keep it from setting back in.

What IS That Smell?

Mildew is mold’s moody cousin that thrives on moisture and neglect. Once disturbed, this fungi sends spores traveling through the air in search of a suitable environment—generally a warm, damp spot with a food source. 

And mildew spores aren’t picky eaters. They’ll feast on everything from soap residue in your washing machine to sweat and body oils on workout clothes left forgotten in a gym bag. That musty closet smell? It’s mildew chomping on dust.

When the spores multiply in their new place, they release gasses called microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs). And, like any type of living thing’s gas, it stinks. So, unless you want to walk around sporting eau de fungi, don’t let it linger.

Ways to Get Mildew Smells Out of Clothes

Removing mildew smells from clothing is like one of those “Choose Your Adventure” books where your first option is whether to wash clothes in hot water or cold? Spoiler alert: either path can still take you to the homemade anti-fungal fabric softener rinse.

Using Heat to Remove Mildew

Mildew spores can’t survive wash temperatures over 140°F (60° C). So, I wash anything with that unpleasant pong in hot water with detergent and sometimes vinegar, both of which eliminate the organic matter that mildew feeds on.

To remove mildew in your washing machine, use the heavy duty cycle, hot water and your usual detergent. Although optional, 2 cups of vinegar is a great backup in case your water doesn’t reach the 140°F required to kill the spores.

Pro Tip

For non-washable clothes and delicate fabrics, use the freezer overnight. This won’t kill the mildew, but it’s a great way to get rid of that smell temporarily. 

Using Anti-fungal Laundry Additives 

If you choose a cold water wash, you’ll need another way to target fungus. Here, your adventure choices expand a bit.

Enzyme-based detergents

Some laundry detergents contain enzymes which target the organic matter that mildew feeds on. On their own, these detergents can reduce mildew but won’t entirely eliminate it. For that, you’ll need to add something else.

Bleach alternatives 

Chlorine bleach kills mildew but it’s only suitable for white clothing and can weaken or damage many fabrics. Non-chlorine alternatives like Oxiclean or homemade oxygen bleach liquid contain fungus-fighting hydrogen peroxide and deodorizing ingredients. Add them to your normal laundry routine to eliminate mildew. 

Homemade anti-fungal fabric softener

This recipe combines the anti-fungal properties of vinegar and tea tree oils, the deodorizing and fabric softening effects of baking soda, and the pleasant fragrance of lemon and lavender oils. Plus, it fights static to stop the cling. That makes it the hero of our little adventure!

Ingredients

  • ½ cup baking soda
  • 1 cup distilled or boiled and cooled water
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 10 drops tea tree oil
  • 10 drops lavender oil
  • 5 drops lemon oil

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, mix the baking soda with the water until it’s completely dissolved.
  2. Slowly add the white vinegar. Let it finish fizzing.
  3. Stir in the essential oils.
  4. Transfer to a clean container.
  5. To use, add ¼ to ½ cup to the rinse cycle of your laundry.

Pro Tip

In this anti-fungal rinse, only some of the baking soda and vinegar neutralize each other, producing water and carbon dioxide. The remaining vinegar, not neutralized by the reaction, provides anti-fungal, static-fighting and fabric softening properties. Go science!

Tips to Prevent Mildew Smells

The obvious way to keep your clothes from smelling like mildew is to switch them from the washer to the dryer right away. Are you done laughing yet? Yeah, I forget all the time, too. So, let’s look at some other things that can help.

Avoid using too much detergent

It may seem smart to add more detergent for heavily soiled clothing, but too much turns into a residue that mildew thrive on. Stick to the usual amount of detergent, but choose a longer wash cycle to loosen more of the soil. Add a second rinse for extra cleaning power.

Skip the thick liquid fabric softener

Fabric softener leaves a thin coating on fabric fibers to make them feel smooth. That layer also traps body oils, odors, and mildew spores. Replace it with vinegar in the rinse cycle, or use my homemade fabric softener above.

Did You Know?

Line-drying clothing in bright sunlight for a few hours exposes your clothes to the sun’s UV rays which kills mildew. Plus, you can’t beat that line-dried smell!

Let clothes fully dry

Even a little damp can fill your closet or dresser with that musty mildew smell. To prevent this, make sure clothes are completely dry before folding, so you don’t trap damp inside.

And if mildew continues to be a problem, tuck an open bowl of crystal kitty litter on your closet shelf to absorb moisture. Clean litter only, please, and replace it monthly.

Keep your washer clean

Since mildew thrives on soap and body oil residue, especially dark damp places, your washing machine is an ideal spot for it. Keep your washer from turning into a singles bar for spores by wiping the inside with a disinfecting cloth weekly, or running a cleaning cycle after your last load.

Then deep-clean it monthly to remove hidden buildup and keep your clothes from picking up mildew smells in the wash.

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6 Comments

  1. Kristi Martinez says:

    Will the baking soda bleach the coloured clothes?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Baking soda doesn’t bleach.

  2. Darlene Jalbert says:

    what if you have a front loader, and you can’t open it or let it pause the cycle. Once it starts it goes to the end. So how do how do you do the wash then, just pour the vinegar in and let it wash? dOES ANYONE HAVE THE ANSWER FOR THIS?

    1. I’ve had 4 different front loaders over the years and on all of them, the start button was also a pause button. It’s the same button you push to unlock the door so you can toss in something you forgot at the beginning of the cycle.

      I’ve owned a frigiaire, GE, Samsung, and LG.

  3. Christine Ritter says:

    What do you do if the load in the washer can’t be washed on hot because you don’t want the clothes to shrink?

  4. Also, I have found that using powdered detergent instead of liquid has reduced sour laundry issues significantly.

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