How To Keep Dish Rags From Smelling

Put an end to sour kitchen odors with these steps that keep dish rags from smelling.

Closeup of hands using a dishrag to clean a plate

Not everyone has a washer and dryer in their home to help them stay on top of the laundry. Even those fortunate enough to have easy access don’t necessarily have the time to wash and dry a load daily. Sometimes, that leads to nasty dish rags that smell bad even after you’ve washed them.

How To Get Rid of Dish Rag Odors

The steps below will get rid of stubborn odors in your dish rags and keep them smelling fresh, even if you can’t do a load of laundry every day.

Why Dish Rags Smell Bad

That sour smell of a dirty dish rag isn’t just unpleasant — it’s the aroma of bacteria breeding. Dishrags are full of things like food particles, grease, and moisture, which means there’s plenty for bacteria to feed on.

To make matters even more disgusting, that bacteria will get transferred to any surface you wipe with a smelly dishrag: your counters, sink, appliances, even your hands. From there, it’s a short step to food contamination. So, yep, you need to do something about it.

Daily Steps to Control Dish Rag Odors

1. Use thin, loosely woven rags. Although thicker dishrags feel nice when you’re using them, they hold onto more residue and take longer to dry. Save the plush washcloths for the shower. In the kitchen, it’s best to choose thin, lightweight dishrags because they can air-dry quickly. (I use these* microfiber cloths with a waffle weave because they dry super fast.)

2. Hang rags to dry after use. No matter what dish rag you choose, leaving it in a wad on the bottom of the sink will lead to odors. So will leaving it full of greasy food residue. When you’re done washing dishes, work some hot, soapy water through your rag and give it a thorough rinse. Then wring the cloth out well and hang it where it can air dry. The edge of the sink isn’t right for this, but the oven handle or a towel rack next to the sink are good spots because they allow air to circulate.

3. Change your dishrag daily. To reduce mildew smells, let your old rag dry on the hook overnight, then swap it for a fresh one first thing in the morning. And, of course, you should switch to a clean dishcloth any time the one you’re using gets so grimy that you can’t rinse away all the food residue.

Get Rid of Stubborn Dish Rag Odors

If you’ve noticed your dishcloths still smell bad even after laundering, the problem most likely has to do with your hot water setting. Frugal-minded homeowners, laundromats, and landlords typically set water heaters to 120°F (49°C). That’s hot enough to dissolve soap and grease, but it’s not hot enough to kill mold, mildew, and many types of odor-causing bacteria.

So, the first step to getting rid of stubborn dishcloth odors is to boil them to eliminate buildup. Then, follow the laundering instructions to keep the smells out.

  1. Bring 1 gallon of water to boil in a large pot on the stove.
  2. Add 1 cup of distilled white vinegar and your dish rags to the water. Do not add soap or any other product.
  3. Boil the cloths for 15 minutes to kill odors and bacteria, mold, and mildew.
  4. Turn the heat off and let the dishcloths cool to room temperature.
  5. Once cooled, wring the rags out one at a time and hang them to dry in a sunny spot.

How to Wash Smelly Dishrags

Once you’ve dealt with trapped bacteria and lingering odors, follow the steps below to properly launder your dishrags and keep them smelling fresh.

  1. Launder dishcloths and dish towels in a load by themselves to avoid cross-contamination.
  2. Set both the wash and rinse cycle for the hottest possible water temperature and the longest washing cycle. On my machine, that’s “Heavy Duty,” but check your washer’s instructions.
  3. Use your regular laundry detergent, and add 1 cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle. (Optional: Add 1-2 tablespoons of baking soda to the washer with your dishcloths. It’s a deodorizer, and the reaction between the vinegar and baking soda can help dislodge additional grime.)
  4. IMMEDIATELY transfer the dishcloths to the dryer when the wash cycle ends. Dry on HIGH heat for 45 minutes to finish knocking out the smell. Or line-dry them outdoors in bright sunlight, which is a natural disinfectant.

Keep Rags from Stinking All Week

Just because you have to use a laundromat, or can only do laundry once a week, doesn’t mean you’ve got to put up with smelly dishrags stinking up your home. Here are two ideas to keep dish rags from growing mold or mildew between launderings:

The freezer trick: Stash used, rinsed dishcloths in a plastic bag n a plastic bag in the freezer. The cold temperatures will keep bacteria, mold, and mildew from growing. Then on laundry day, pop them straight out of the freezer into the washing machine, no defrosting required. Just be sure to label the bag clearly, so no one goes poking around hoping to find something good to eat.

The bucket trick: Several readers suggest keeping used dishrags in a plastic bucket of water with either a few spoonfuls of bleach or a cup of white vinegar — but not both. It’s best if the bucket has a tight-fitting lid so the water doesn’t evaporate and neither kids nor pets can get into it. The bucket should also be plastic, not metal, so it doesn’t rust. Change this soaking solution mid-week if needed, and always give the bucket a thorough cleaning while the soaked rags are in the wash.

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43 Comments

  1. 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.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Borax is a wonderful cleaner, isn’t it?

  2. Mariette's Back to Basics says:

    Dearest Katie,
    Great subject! This is exactly the reason why I LOVE my Miele washing machine as I can set the temperature to 170°F for killing all germs and avoiding nasty odors. Sure, they are more expensive to start out with but they do save on water, energy and will keep bacteria better in check for a healthier lifestyle.
    Under point 4 of How To Launder Dish Rags you mention add 1…?
    Thanks for always sharing great and frugal tips. This is even very important for general hygiene purposes.
    Hugs to you and wishing you and yours the very best.
    Mariette

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Oh, I’d love a Miele. We bought a Fisher & Paykel, which also has a soak function, but not a precise temperature setting. With two males in the house, that ‘soak’ button still gets quite a workout. LOL

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

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome, Kristina! Airing on the oven door really has helped with my stinky dish rag situation. They get to dry out, and that seems to help immensely. Nice to “meet” you!

  4. Pamela Anderson says:

    How about keeping a soaking bucket nearby? Sort of like a diaper pail….fill it with water and vinegar and drop your funky dishclothes in it at the end of every day. When it is laundry day just dump the water out and bring the entire bucket to the laundromat. I admit I haven’t tried this method, but I’ve thought about it! Just be sure that the bucket has a tight lid if you have small children or curious pets!

    1. Tonya Bissen says:

      I have a small bucket with a lid that I keep water and bleach in. I drop my wash cloths in there until wash day. Works great.

  5. 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. Katie Berry says:

      Thanks for the great tips, AT! With the “clean or dirty” question, we use a flat magnet on the front of the dishwasher. I’d tried filling the detergent dispenser, but our home has a heating vent that runs right under the machine and sink – it prevents frozen pipes in the winter, but hardens the detergent into a rock if it’s in there too long.

      So I took one of those flat ones our bank sends every year and covered it with Washi tape, then wrote clean on one end and dirty on the other. We flip it based on the status of the dishwasher’s contents. Works so far!

    2. King F. Pedlar says:

      Most all the dish washing liquid soaps have one that’s a blue color, ie, Dawn blue, Pamolive Blue etc. Reading their labels, they have 3X to 4x times the grease cutting abilities. At the end of the day I soak rags in a small pan using hot water and enough liquid blue to feel soapy for about an hour. Then rinse well a few times to get the soap out, Hang dry. All I can say is WOW. Pleasant scent without a trace of fetid musty odors.

    3. Katie Berry says:

      The blue stuff is great.

    4. Marlita Charles says:

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

  6. Susan M. Scott says:

    Like my mother before me, I use bleach. Wikipedia says “A Risk Assessment Report (RAR) conducted by the European Union on sodium hypochlorite conducted under Regulation EEC 793/93 concluded that this substance is safe for the environment in all its current, normal uses”, and it’s what we swim in in swimming pools. I put a little bleach in a glass bowl, pour in some boiling water, and put in the dish cloths. Let them sit a few minutes. I use the handle of a wooden spoon to swish them around. The water turns a bit brown – that’s the dead bacteria! Give the cloths a good rinse. Yes, you will smell the bleach, but only for a few minutes – it soon dissipates. Quick and easy!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Bleach certainly works, but some people are highly sensitive to its fumes.

  7. maddie both says:

    In my experience i was never able to figure out why my rags were always smelling so bad, so quickly. I was using the dawn dishsoap and then i switched over to Mrs. Meyer’s clean day dishsoap because i was hearing not such good things about the chemicals in dawn dishsoap, so I decided to go more natural. With doing this, I discovered that there was no more nasty smell on my washcloths for at least 3 days. And when the smell finally started coming, it was very faint. Before the smell, they just smelled like refreshing lavender.

    1. I’ve just heard that about Dawn as well. I use Enjo fibres & my kitchen ones were getting smelly even though I rinse with soap & hot water after every use & hang to dry. Spoke with my consultant & she asked what dishwashing soap I used & when I said Dawn. She filled me in on the fact that people have had the smelly cloth issue with it. She had me scrub the cloths with an old fashioned sunlight bar, then I soaked in hot tap water overnight, laundered, hung to dry & voila, so much better!! Time to replace my Dawn….

  8. This REALLY works:
    1. Rinse the dishcloth well with soapy water. (A little dish detergent will work.)
    2. Wring the rag, leaving it almost dripping wet.
    3. Fold it and put it in your microwave for 30 to 60 seconds on high. (It will FOAM when the water reaches boiling temperature.
    4. Take it out of the microwave CAREFULLY. It will be HOT.
    5. This will kill the mildew and bacteria that cause the smell and SANITIZE the dishcloth.
    6. Repeat as necessary!

  9. 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

  10. Thank you for all of the different solutions…will try the microwave and hope this works

  11. 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!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Sunshine certainly works!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. I have discover why dish rags stink. It all has to do with the dish soap you are using. Period. From my experience, after trying everything above including throwing the stinky cloths away, I have found that there is something “evil” in regular dish soap. The remedy is to buy a natural dish soap such as Watkins, Meyer’s Clean Day Dish Soap or Seventh Generation Dish Soap. Supermarkets carry them and I have seen Watkins at Target too. I haven’t had a problem since using these products. Try it and see for yourself.

  15. I feel compelled to add my two bits worth to this topic. I hope what I have to share will save someone else from my disaster.

    First: I am definitely NOT a fussy housekeeper! I’m right in the middle of normal (sort of). If I know in advance that you are coming over – I will run around like a lunatic making sure the place looks like no one actually lives here. Get the picture??? Of course you do!

    Second: I do not have any issues with my dish cloths or my face cloths, or anything else getting smelly. Well … having said that, my husband is a gym rat, and his workout gear really should be burned after every wearing! That laundry challenge is a topic for another day. I don’t want to confuse the issue we are discussing here.

    Third: I am a face cloth hoarder. Do not EVER touch my face cloths! They are ONLY for ME and MY FACE! I use one in the morning … and a fresh one at night. When I’m finished with one, I rinse it, wring it out and let it continue to dry on the edge of the hamper and add to my next white wash. They are tiny. It’s no extra effort on my part.

    You want to know where I got that idea? Are you old enough to remember Elizabeth Taylor? Probably not. Well … some time in the 50’s I read an article in a movie magazine that said, “Elizabeth Taylor only uses white face cloths and never uses a face cloth twice.” I never forgot that.

    I used to buy those big fat stacks of white face cloths at Costco. Well, you all know what mascara etc., eventually does to white or pastel face cloths. I learned that lesson slow. Those stacks of dingy grey — but definitely clean cloths — are hidden away in my closet where company can’t see them and I use them in the shower … with the door locked.

    I got smart. I went to the dollar store and bought a dozen thin, super CHEAP face cloths in dark colours. THEY ARE MINE! My husband’s face cloths are more costly and thick … and all a lovely caramel colour and always folded neatly in their little pile at the edge of the tub. Unlike me, he would use the same face cloth until he died if I did not monitor the situation and rotate them.

    I have recently had two eye surgeries for cataract removal. Needless to say, the post op drops four times a day and incessant care are extremely important to avoid any chance of infection. You will think immediately that this post op care would be right up my alley, with my face cloth obsession wouldn’t you? Yes, I would have thought so too 🙁 … well, guess who wasn’t paying attention ONE night and stupidly used the morning face cloth that had been inadvertently left at the sink! Yep. Me. 🙁

    My post surgery had been going along swimmingly… and BOOM! That next morning both of my eyes were an inflamed, gooey mess! Instant infection! My fault!

    I am sharing this with you only to give a first hand example of how rapidly bacteria grows on things like face cloths and dish cloths … and bathroom sinks!

    There’s a ton of good info on the internet. My preference right now is boiling my face cloths as well as laundering normally until I am fully out of the woods with my eyes and back to “normal.” Believe me, I am anxious! The boiling for 15 – 20 minutes will kill pretty much 99% of the baddies.

    If you can do something as simple as buying a dozen dirt cheap little dollar store face cloths … and just use them once … hang to dry over the hamper and launder later … go for it! They don’t ever smell! They don’t take up any room in your washing machine … neither do little cheap cotton dish cloths! Use for one day … let it dry and add to your white wash!

    As far as using a sponge in my kitchen: Are you kidding me??!!!! Never happen!

  16. 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.

  17. I find that Milton baby equipment sterilising fluid makes me happy about my dishcloth: I know germs will be killed if I soak the cloth/sponge in the liquid after having rinsed it normally first and the things won’t smell.

  18. 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

  19. Did anyone mention Norwex? They have a variety of cloths that have their Baclock tecnology to kill bacteria and therefore no odor! So you can avoid all these steps.

    1. My Norwex cloths started to smell after a while. Probably for the same reasons as the others. I hoped it would be a fix but alas it’ll be boling, and laundering smarter for me.

  20. Great post! I’ve always used cloth for dish rags. However, recently I learned that my sister in law does too. But to keep away the stench, she leaves it in a bowl of water for days on end (weeks?..). The water gets changed daily and its really enough to keep the rag covered. What are your thoughts on this? She claims it keeps the smell away, but Im leery of it because of the prolonged chance for bacteria to build on it.

  21. 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!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m loving the warmer days, too, Mary!

  22. My dishcloths are NEW…waffle cotton….never used. When wet, they smell. What is the best way to remove this smell ?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Gladys,
      How frustrating that new dishcloths stink! I’d give them a quick boil then toss them in the dryer. That should help the fabric release anything causing the smell.

  23. 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!!!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      So happy to have helped, Erin!

  24. Sue Lehman says:

    I have RED everything in my kitchen…will the bleach “bleach” the color out?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, if they aren’t bleach-safe towels, then bleach will lighten them.

  25. Happy home says:

    I was coming to terms with having g to replace ALL my microfibre cloths, including my expensive Norwex ones, because they got horrendously stinky after a terrible 2 months without hot water and a faulting washing machine! even after washing when it was fixed, the smell lingered. Excitedly today with my toddlers gathered round, we jokingly made cloth broth on the stove and then washed them according to your advice…. then all of our noses could not believe the beautiful clean smell that came from each cloth. I bet all of us smelled each cloth :^) then my toddlers learnt how to fold dishcloths and we sorted them by their rainbow of colours and now they are beautifully stacked in my cupboard. Cannot wait to be use them! (Well, I am excited but maybe I exaggerated a tiny bit on the last statement. But only the last statement!)

    Thanks so much! :^)

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

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