Overhead view of a person rinsing a smelly dish rag

How I Get the Smell out of Dish Rags and Keep Them Fresh

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Are your dish rags stinking up your kitchen? It’s not just a hard smell to ignore, it’s a dangerous one. Why? Because dish rag odor is a sign of bacteria and the worse the smell, the more there are.

See, after the bacteria feed on food residue and grease clinging to your dish cloth, they breed. And breeding bacteria create an unpleasant stink. Yep, that means exactly what you think: your dish rag smells because of bacteria farts.

Act Fast When Your Dish Rag Smells Bad

All of that breeding bacteria doesn’t just lead to unpleasant odors. It also creates a biofilm. So when you wipe a surface like your dishes or countertop, or even your hands, that bacteria transfers.

Now, you’re looking at not just a stinky rag but E. coli, salmonella or listeria all over the place. Let’s do something about that pronto.

How to Get Rid of Dish Rag Odors

Since bacteria is to blame for your dish rags stinking up the place, it’s important to use cleaning methods that are tough on germs. You know what I’m going to suggest, right? Yep, vinegar!

To eliminate the odor-causing bacteria in your dish rag, boil them in a solution of 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water for 15 minutes. When they’re cool enough to handle, wring them out then immediately immediately launder them in hot water with your usual detergent. Tumble dry for 45 minutes or line-dry them in bright sunlight for added disinfection.

Baking soda alternative

Dissolve 1 cup baking soda in 1 gallon of hot water then add your dish cloths and let them soak for 30 minutes. Then proceed with laundering process. Baking soda weakens the bacterial membrane, and the hot wash and dry finishes them off.

Hydrogen peroxide alternative

Combine equal parts of hydrogen peroxide and warm water in a bowl and soak your dishrags for 30 minutes, then rinse and dry them. Hydrogen peroxide is a natural disinfectant, so it eliminates those smelly bacteria. But since it can lighten some fabrics, it’s best to spot test this method first. first.

Steps to Keep Them From Stinking Again

Okay, you’ve eliminated that stinky, stale smell on your dish rags but the fact that it happened at all is a sign we need to change one or two things. So, let’s look at best practices for laundering and using them, and make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for odors by the types of dish rags your using.

Dish rag fabric impacts

Plush dishcloths are more difficult to rinse, take longer to dry, and trap more food particles. That’s the trifecta for bacterial growth which makes your dish rag smell. So, ditch the heavy duty fabrics for thin, lightweight ones that can air-dry quickly. Think: waffle weave.

Best laundering method

Cold water isn’t going to cut it for getting rid of bacteria in dish rags or kitchen towels, not even if the detergent you’re using is designed for cold water. So, that leaves you to choose from washing them in their own load in hot water or washing them in cold but adding bleach or a laundry disinfectant.

I opt for a hot wash and rinse using the heavy duty setting on my washing machine, then add 1/4 cup of baking soda with them when I fill the machine, and then use vinegar in place of fabric softener. By the time they come out of the dryer, those things are clean, soft, and fresh as can be.

Pro Tip

Skip the fabric softener when you’re laundering dish rags, wash cloths and towels. The surfactants in fabric softener can trap bacteria, so they don’t all get washed away.

Usage tips

Bacteria grow and breed best in a warm, damp environment. So to keep your dish rag safe, be diligent about rinsing with soapy water after every use then wring it out until it’s almost dry. Don’t drape it over the sink divider or, worse yet, leave it in a ball in the sink. Instead, hang it on a hook or over the faucet—somewhere with good air circulation to speed up drying.

Even with repeated rinsing and wringing, good kitchen hygiene involves switching to a fresh dish rag daily, and even sooner if you’ve been cleaning very greasy pots and pans. It may add to the laundry pile, but it will pay off by avoiding a smelly dish cloth stinking up your home.

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14 Comments

  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. 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.

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

  4. 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!!!

  5. 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!

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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

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

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