How To Get Rid of Mildew Smells in the Laundry

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Quick fixes that remove mildew smells from clothing and some simple steps to keep those musty odors away for good.

A pile of towels on a counter after they dried in the washer and now smell like mildew

Forgetting about a load in the washing machine isn’t the only reason your laundry can start to smell, but it’s probably the most common. Depending on where you live, that odor can develop in a few hours, especially in a dirty washing machine or if you aren’t laundering things properly. So, let’s talk about quick fixes for that musty odor and a few simple steps you can take to keep your laundry from stinking like mildew again.

How to Get Mildew Smells Out of Clothes

Here are three easy ways to remove mildew smells and mustiness from towels, clothing, and other fabrics.

  1. White vinegar

    Leave the mildewed laundry in the washer and run the machine on the hottest setting to fill the tub. Do not add detergent or fabric softener. Instead, add 2 cups of white vinegar and pause the cycle to let the smelly laundry soak. After an hour, let the machine proceed through the rest of the cycle.

  2. Baking soda

    Baking soda (bicarbonate) is an excellent odor-neutralizer. It targets a different type of mold and mildew than vinegar does. So, if your laundry still has a musty smell after using the vinegar method, repeat the steps above but use 1 cup of baking soda in place of the vinegar.

  3. A hot wash with bleach (chlorine or oxygen)

    Hot water and bleach kill mildew and bacteria, but chlorine bleach is only suitable for white fabrics. Add 1 cup of powdered Oxiclean and your usual amount of laundry detergent for other fabrics, then use the hottest wash cycle the material can handle. You can even make your own oxygen bleach.

After removing the mildew smell from your clothing, consider line-drying if possible. Fresh air and sunlight are natural disinfectants that can eliminate lingering spores and odors in garments.

How to Keep Laundry from Mildewing

Once you’ve removed the mildew smells from your laundry, you can keep it from coming back with a few simple steps.

Let Clothes Dry Fully

Folding and putting away damp clothes can lead to mildew in your closet or dresser drawers. Whether you line-dry or use a dryer, make sure your clothes are entirely free of moisture before you put them away. If mustiness is an ongoing problem in your wardrobe, leave your closet doors open to improve ventilation and airflow.

Avoid Excess Detergent

It may seem like increasing the amount of detergent you use in a load of laundry could knock out mildew smells, but that approach can make the problem worse. Too much detergent leaves a residue on clothes that traps bacteria and mildew, so be sure to match the amount of detergent with the size of the load.

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Soften Hard Water

Hard water leads to mineral buildup in your washer and your clothes. Installing a water softener will reduce mildew smells and end hard water spots on faucets and glass shower doors. If a water softener is not in the budget, add 1/2 cup of washing soda or borax to each load to get clothes cleaner and prevent mildew.

Skip the Fabric Softener

Fabric softener coats clothing fibers with surfactants and is designed to leave a faint residue to prevent static electricity. That residue can also trap odors like sweat and mildew. If your freshly laundered clothes still smell like body odor or mildew, rewash them with an enzyme odor remover but don’t use any fabric softener. You may even want to replace fabric softener with vinegar in your detergent dispenser.

Clean Your Washer

Make a point to wipe the inside of your washing machine’s drum with a disinfecting cloth at least once a week to kill mold and mildew spores. When not in use, leave your washer door or top loader’s lid open so it can fully dry out, too. Then, run a cleaning cycle or manually deep-clean your washer to kill any fungus in the gaskets and internal lines once a month.


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20 Comments

  1. Can I use apple cider vinegar instead?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You should be able to use ACV just fine, Bailey.

  2. Betty Odom says:

    I have used this method several times but my towels still have a musty smell. My towels are old (about 8 years). Do I just need to replace them?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It’s hard to say. Have you tried hanging them to dry in the sun? That often gets rid of the smell completely. Also, if your linen closet is musty your towels will smell musty, too. Try stashing an open box of chalk in there to absorb any moisture and replace that monthly.

  3. When do I stop the cycle to let it soak? Just after the machine has filled with water?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes.

  4. My hub complained when I used vinegar. He has a labor intense job. He said in the heat, the vinegar started mixing with his sweat. I rinsed twice, but ultimately had to stop using it. I’m not someone who sweats very much. I didn’t have a problem. Do you use vinegar alone, then start the load again with regular detergent? Thanks!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I don’t, but no one in my family is that sensitive to vinegar. Since your husband is, you might want to use the baking soda method.

  5. Kristi Martinez says:

    Will the baking soda bleach the coloured clothes?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Baking soda doesn’t bleach.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Christine,
      Just wash it in the hottest setting it can handle. If you need to use cold water to avoid shrinking, that’s fine but consider line-drying in the sun to help kill any remaining mildew spores.

  8. Hello I’ve been washing my clothes and everyone I was there’s a musty smell when my husbands sweats it’s starts to stink and I’ve tried borax vinigar and I’ve cleaned the washer .but every time my husband puts his shirt on it still smells help me what can I do

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Kelli,

      If you’re noticing sweat smells returning in clothes, make sure you’re washing with the hottest temperature permitted on the fabric care label. Using borax and vinegar as you’ve mentioned will help, but be sure to pause the cycle to let the load soak for 20 minutes or so, too. These things need time to do their job before they’re rinsed away.

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

  10. All of my clothes smell ever since buying a front load washer and I’m finding out it’s a common problem. Any way to clean the washing machine to rid the smells once and for all?

  11. I also use hydrogen peroxide added to laundry. Makes clothes brighter and whiter and gets rid of all kinds of smells. I buy the quart bottles and that lasts for several loads. Remember non-chlorine bleach? It doesn’t exist any more, but the main ingredient was hydrogen peroxide. Works great on lighter colors too. I haven’t tried it on black or very dark clothes, but it does not bleach. All the benefits of bleach.