How To Keep Dish Rags From Smelling

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Closeup of hands using a dishrag to clean a plate

Are your dish rags stinking up your kitchen? That’s a sign of bacterial growth which can lead to cross-contamination and illness. In this article, we’ll explore the cause of the odor, steps to get rid of it, and tips to keep your dishcloths from smelling bad in the future.

Why Dish Rags Smell Bad

When you notice a sour smell coming from your dishrag, it’s not just unpleasant, it’s a sign of bacterial growth. As you use a dishrag to wipe away food particles and grease, these — along with moisture — create a breeding ground for bacteria. As the bacteria break down these substances, they emit an unpleasant stink that can linger. This means exactly what you think: your dishrag smells because of bacterial farts. 

Health Hazards

Using a smelly dish rag can spread harmful bacteria and germs to other surfaces and food, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. Bacteria can also create a biofilm that gets transferred to any surface you wipe, including counters, sink, appliances, and even your hands. This can lead to cross-contamination and cause food poisoning and other infections. So, it’s important to deal with dish rag odors when you first notice them.

How to Clean Dishcloths with Vinegar

Common white vinegar is an effective laundry aid for eliminating dishcloth odors and bacteria because it has antimicrobial properties and an acidic nature that dissolves organic matter, grime, and dirt buildup.

One effective method to eliminate odors in dish rags is to boil them in a vinegar solution. To do this, you will need a pot large enough to hold your dish cloths and vinegar without boiling over. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring it to a boil on the stove. 
  2. Add 2 cups of distilled white vinegar and your stinky dishcloths to the boiling water. Do not add any soap or other products. 
  3. Let the rags boil for 15 minutes to kill odors and bacteria, mold, and mildew. Then turn off the heat and let them cool until you can handle them safely.
  4. Wring out the rags by hand one at a time to squeeze out excess moisture.
  5. Immediately launder them in hot water with your usual detergent and 1 cup vinegar in the rinse cycle. Do not use fabric softener.
  6. Tumble dry for 45 minutes at high heat or line dry in direct sunlight.

Other Methods to Eliminate Dish Rag Odors

If you do not have vinegar available or dislike using it, here are two other methods you can use to deodorize dishcloths and eliminate the smell:

  • Soak in baking soda: Dissolve 1/2 cup of baking soda (bicarbonate) in a sink of hot water, add your dishcloths, and let them soak for at least 30 minutes. Then, rinse the rags thoroughly and tumble or line-dry them.
  • Soak in hydrogen peroxide: Combine equal parts of hydrogen peroxide and warm water in a bowl and soak your dishrags for 30 minutes, then rinse and dry them. Note this may cause fading for some fabrics, so it’s best to spot test first.

How to Wash Dish Rags properly

Laundering dish cloths and kitchen towels in their own load and at the correct temperature is vital to getting rid of odors and preventing cross-contamination from lingering bacteria. Here are the steps to properly wash dish rags:

  1. Separate your dishrags and kitchen towels from other laundry items to prevent cross-contamination.
  2. Use the hottest setting and longest wash cycle on your machine. This ensures the heat has enough time to eliminate bacteria and dissolve dish soap residue.
  3. Add 2-4 tablespoons of baking soda to the washer with your dishcloths. Baking soda is a natural deodorizer.
  4. Use your regular laundry detergent and add 1 cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle in place of fabric softener. The vinegar will react with the baking soda to dislodge additional grime.
  5. Use the high heat setting on your dryer to tumble dry dishcloths, or line dry them outdoors in direct, bright sunlight. Sunlight is a natural disinfectant which can eliminate bacteria and their odors.

Tips to Keep Dishcloths from Smelling

Check your water temperature. The EPA recommends laundering in 140°F (60°C) to kill bacteria in laundry. If you do not wish to turn up your water heater or you use shared laundry facilities, add a laundry sanitizer to the load when washing dishcloths.

Do not use fabric softener. Fabric softener can leave a residue on fabrics which traps odors and bacteria. Fabric softener also slows the air-drying process, so the material stays wet longer. This creates an ideal environment for bacterial growth that causes odors.  

Use thin, loosely woven dishcloths. Plush dishcloths are more difficult to rinse, take longer to dry and trap more food particles, which makes them prone to bacterial growth. Choose thin, lightweight dishcloths that can air-dry quickly. I use these which feature a waffle weave so they dry rapidly. 

Wring and hang dishrags after use. Leaving a damp dishrag in a wad on the bottom of the sink leads to odors. After each use, run soapy water through the rag and rinse it well, then wring it out. Hang it on a hook, over the faucet, or in some spot where there is good airflow, so it fully dries.

Change dishcloths daily. To reduce odors, let your used dishrag dry overnight and swap it for a clean one in the morning. Never add a damp rag to your laundry hamper, or it will cause mildew smells

Tips for Laundromat Users

Not everyone has access to laundry machines in their home. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to put up with the lingering smell of stinky dishcloths. Here are two ideas to keep dish rags from growing mold or mildew between laundering:

Freeze them: Stash used rinsed dishcloths in a resealable plastic bag in the freezer. The cold temperatures will keep bacteria, mold, and mildew from growing. On laundry day, pop them straight out of the freezer into the washing machine.

A bucket soak: Soak used dishrags in a plastic bucket of water with either a few spoonfuls of chlorine bleach or a cup of white vinegar, but not both. Choose a bucket with a tight-fitting lid so the water doesn’t evaporate, and neither kids nor pets can get into it. 


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  1. Susan Stemper says:

    There seems to be a discrepancy in your post. You recommend washing dishcloths in very hot water and drying at high heat. But the dishcloths that you are recommending say they should be washed in cold water and tumble dried on a low setting.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Susan, I can see how that might seem confusing but the discrepancy is due to the manufacturer and I having different aims. The dishcloth manufacturer recommends washing in cold to avoid shrinkage and fading. My recommendations are targeted at eliminating the bacteria and odors, not keeping the cloth in like-new condition. Washing any dishcloth in cold will not eliminate the bacteria that causes odors.

      That said, I’ve been washing mine in hot water for years and, although they shrink a bit, it doesn’t ruin them. You’ll find most sheets and towels these days also recommend cold water, even though that does nothing to eliminate dust mites, pollen, mold, or mildew. The washing labels are about how to keep the fabric in peak condition, not hygiene.

      I hope that helps clear things up!

  2. Melanie Marjoram says:

    I boiled my next to dish rags in water and vinegar as suggested and then line dried them. Once they get wet again, the smell is still very much present. I boiled a second time to no avail.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m sorry to hear that, Melanie. I have no idea why that would happen, since boiling kills all bacteria that could produce odors and the acetic acid in vinegar deodorizes fabrics with or without boiling. Was it a damp or humid day when you line-dried them?

  3. Denise M Smith says:

    I rinse out my dishcloth and throw it in the microwave for about 45 seconds after each use. I can use it for weeks if needed.

  4. I put my dishrag in the dishwasher at the end of each day and run it through with everything else – just wrap it twice on the outside edge of the upper rack – or put it in the cutlery rack, or just flat in the upper rack, if you have the room. I still swap them out regularly and put them through a good ol’ fashion laundry wash, but the smell is kept well at bay. Learned this when working as a server – restaurants and cafes always run their rags through the dishwasher at the end of the day. Total disinfectant.

  5. After washing and drying. I use a hot iron on the rags. Keeps the smell out of my dish cloths.

  6. Wow!! Finally a great and easy solution to smelly dishcloths and hand towels. I followed your exact directions for some dishcloths and towels that I was ready to throw out because I just could not get the stench out and they are like new now. Boiling+vinegar+sun=magic! Thank you!!!

  7. Mary Frances says:

    Hi! I would just like to say that the boiling method really works and you don’t have to do it that often. I did all of my dishcloths one day last summer and I am just now to the point where I need to do it again. Thanks for the great tip. I think it will be warm enough this weekend that I can hang the boiled cloths out in the sun and they won’t freeze LOL!

  8. I soak my dishcloths in very hot water with a little bit of dish detergent and a splash of bleach in the kitchen sink for about 15 or 20 minutes then I wring them out thoroughly rinse them wring them out again and let them air dry

  9. I use 20-mule team on a regular basis but it has not helped much for dish rags. I will try the white or even apple vinegar. Thanks for the boiling idea! Also it is a RULE in my house that dish rags are used for one day only! They are line dried after use and put in a special container for the kitchen laundry–dish towels and cloths and pot holders. They are washed in their own load of laundry.
    I am off grid. That means doing a mechanical “bucket wash” in a home-made washer and line drying. I can use whatever temperature water that suits me so very hot is good! As for drying in a dryer or microwave, I don’t own either (by choice) so will line dry. In the winter the “dryer” is a line strung high up over a wood stove and in the summer it is outside in the yard. Either way it is less heat than you are recommending, but maybe the air in either situation will be enough after the boiling part.

  10. If you are able, hanging your laundry to dry outside on a clothesline works wonders for smells. I notice the smell on towels during the winter when I use my dryer. One of my neighbors uses her clothesline even during the cold Minnesota winters but I am not that brave.

  11. Nanc from MN says:

    could I use apple cider vinegar instead of other types? (Other types are made using corn and/or sugar – I am allergic to both). In the meantime, I will stick with corn free baking soda (yes, baking soda sometimes has cornstarch in it).

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You absolutely can! It will probably smell better, too. 😉 I had no idea that baking soda sometimes contains cornstarch. How awful for your allergies. That must have been a difficult trial-and-error learning process. I just learned the other day that Febreze is corn-based, so that’s another one to add to your list if you haven’t already.

  12. In Florida we use Sunshine :D. I remember my granny hanging her clothes out and the fresh, crisp clothes were warm when I would help bring them inside to fold. Funny thing, even though I do not use the same detergents, my towels and rags smell just like granny’s! Of course, not everyone has the option to hang dry laundry. But if you do…it is fun!

  13. The absolute easiest way I’ve found to keep them from stinking is… after all the hot soapy rinses, etc, just rinse one more time in cold water… I know, I know, but give it a shot and I hope it works as well for you as it does for me! Stinky cloths and sponges make me gag for real LOL

  14. Don’t know if anyone’s still interested in this topic, but for what it’s worth I hang my dish rag in the dishwasher in between uses. This way, it’s out of sight, it gets to air dry, and it’s right next to the sink so it’s handy every time I need to use it. I also put my dish ‘scrubbers’ (the kind that have handles you fill with dish soap & then have either a sponge or brush tip) in the silverware compartment of my dishwasher in between uses for the same reasons. Sometimes I leave the dishwasher door ajar to let air circulate. In my mind, that’s easier to look at than my yuckie dish rag & scrubbers! 🙂 I would be lost without my dishwasher, & most of the time it’s my large, built-in drying rack!
    One more tip on dishwashers, & I’m out of here – years ago, we hit on a method that solved the ‘Are these clean or dirty?’ mystery that has worked well for us. When the washer has been emptied, we fill the detergent dispenser with soap. As more & more dishes accumulate, & you’re tempted to ask ‘are these clean or dirty?’ one quick glance at the soap dispenser answers the question before it’s even asked! If the dispenser is closed (full) they’re dirty & have not been washed. So whoever empties the machine, fills the dispenser.
    Thanks for your website! If I can get even a Little bit more organized in 2014 it will be a great year! 🙂

    1. Marlita Charles says:

      Using the soap container as the signal for “dirty or clean” is a wonderful idea! Thank you.

    2. Leslie Bailey says:

      I do not know when this was written, but I’m responding on 2/19/23. I ABSOLUTELY fill my dish dispenser after unloading it so I’ll know the dishes in there are dirty! I’ve been doing this for a few years now! GREAT MINDS think alike!

      Also, there’s nothing worse in the kitchen than a stinky dishcloth. I usually fill the sink a bit with soapy water and Clorox and soak the cloth for a few hours; usually overnight. Vinegar, also, is great for practically every household need! 🙂 Lately, I’ve been squirting a bit of lemon juice and dish soap on the cloth and sitting it in the microwave for a minute. All my methods work, but it’s a constant battle. Nothing works forever. But the vinegar helps a lot.

  15. Thank you! This was excellent! I’m going to try airing mine out on the oven door, rather than the sink. makes sense!

  16. Borax. Remember 20 Mule Team Borax? It’s still out there and it works wonders on getting smells out of towels of all kinds. Get a box and add a scoop to your towels, rags, or whatever else smells.

    I have a washer/dryer at home so it’s been a while since I’ve had to worry about dragging everything to the laundromat. I have not tried soaking my dishrags with it. I would bet if you put it in the soak water (way less than a scoop – think small with smaller amounts of water) make sure you use warm enough water to dissolve it along with whatever detergent – woolite or whatever – that would work too. Let it sit for a while, rinse and hang to dry.

    If you can’t find it in the stores, check Amazon, they carry it.