How To Keep Dish Rags From Smelling

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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

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 food particles, grease, and moisture which bacteria feed on. That bacteria gets transferred to any surface you wipe with a smelly dishrag: counters, sink, appliances, even your hands. From there, it’s a short step to food contamination.

How to Clean Dish Cloths with Vinegar

The first step to getting rid of stubborn dishcloth odors is eliminating buildup. To do this, fill a large pot halfway with water and bring it to a boil on your stove. Add 2 cups of distilled white vinegar and your stinky dishcloths. Do not add any soap or other products. Let the rags boil for 15 minutes to kill odors and bacteria, mold, and mildew. Turn off the heat and let the dishcloths cool until you can handle them safely. Wring the rags out one at a time, and hang them to dry in a sunny spot. You do not need to launder them again before use.

How to Wash Smelly Dishrags

Once you’ve removed the buildup, be sure to launder your dish rags and towels in their own load to prevent cross-contamination. Use the hottest setting and the longest wash cycle on your machine, so the heat has time to eliminate bacteria and soap residue. Along with your regular laundry detergent, add 1 cup of white vinegar in place of fabric softener. Use the high heat setting on your dryer for at least 45 minutes or line-dry them outdoors in bright sunlight, which is a natural disinfectant.

Optional: Add 1-2 tablespoons of baking soda to the washer with your dishcloths. It’s a deodorizer, and the vinegar and baking soda reaction will dislodge additional grime.

Tips to Keep Dish Cloths from Smelling

Once you’ve removed the odors from your dishcloths, a few changes to your routine can keep them from smelling bad again.

Check your water temperature.

If you’ve your dishcloths 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.

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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. Damp dishcloths are an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and germs, so they quickly stink up a room. 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.

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, squeeze some dish soap and hot water through your rag and rinse it well. 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 if they offer good airflow.

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.

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 launderings:

The freezer trick: Stash used, rinsed dishcloths in a 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.

The bucket trick: Several readers suggest keeping 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. 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.

Have any tips of your own to keep dishcloths from smelling bad? Share them in the comments!

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  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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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!

  11. 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!!!

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.