And they smell awful. So bad you think you might need to throw them away.
But don’t worry – there is a fix although it may take a little bit of work to make them smell fresh again.
I was asked this past week how to get the stink out of towels and I briefly answered it in the comment section. Here’s a more thorough answer.
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Wash towels on the hottest water setting possible.
If you have your hot water heater turned down to save money, turn it up for this wash. I know the controversy that modern detergents are so great now we can wash everything on cold, but that is not the case with moldy, mildewy towels.
If you have a machine with a Sanitizing option, use that.
Wash on the longest, most heavy duty cycle your washer offers.
Towels are probably the most sturdy cotton material your washer deals with. The ‘heavy duty cycle’ is made for items like this, so don’t be afraid to use it!
The smelly towels need a tremendous amount of agitation to get rid of the stench and possible bacteria. Use a long cycle to help this process.
For more information – Laundry Basics: How to Choose the Washing Cycle
Use a capful of detergent up to the top fill-line.
Now is not the time to skimp on cheapie detergent or use a lesser amount of detergent.
You can be frugal in your other loads of laundry this week, so use high-quality detergent and an ample amount of it.
Do not use fabric softener. Do use a scoop of oxi-clean in the wash and white vinegar in the rinse.
Fabric softener will only mask the smell, if any remains. The next time your towels get wet (ie: when you dry off), they’ll smell icky again.
Use a full scoop of Oxi-Clean in the initial wash and use 1/2-1 cup of white vinegar in the rinse.
You can put the vinegar straight into your fabric softener dispenser or into a Downy Ball.
Dry in direct sunlight if possible.
There is nothing like fresh air and hot sunshine to help get rid of towel stench. It is a wonderful, free cure!
No clothesline? Get a portable clothesline and dry them in any outside space. Wash the towels in two separate batches if you need to, to ensure that they all have ample outside drying space.
If you aren’t able to dry your towels outside, dry them on the hottest setting on your dryer and get them completely dry.
If they are wet at all when you put them away, they’ll be gross again then next time you use them.
If after the initial washing your towels still smell moldy/mildewy, repeat the washing process again before drying in the dryer. Heat sets in all kinds of bad stains and smells. It may even be that you have to repeat the washing process 3-4 times.
That sounds like a lot of work, but it sure beats throwing away a washer load of towels. If you make the effort to get them usable again, you’ll be so thrilled with your result!
I love you. You know that right? I am wondering why your updates arent showing up in my dashboard. I flipped out when I realized you posted things I hadnt read yet. I need help with red mud. I love your step by step directions and that you use vinegar. I do too a lot. The other day I reorganized my WHOLE laundry space and put away ALL the laundry because of your post. I have to say it was the most fulfilling day ever. PS I LOVE YOU.
.-= Jana´s last blog ..Lets name the love story!!! =-.
Hey Girl! So completely proud of the laundry re-org! Pictures?? We must see your progress!
Red mud. It’s a toughie, honestly. Oxi-Clean is your best friend. If I have time, I’ll write a tutorial post on it this weekend. We live in the land of red mud too and it can be a pain to get out of clothes.
Love you Chickie!
I swear by borax..
I’ve never had to line dry because of that.
Though Im sure that does wonders.
I used to love that smell from outdoors. Don’t think that works in cities though.
If you soak with borax that will generally clear mildew smell.
But think mommas ideas are best for sweat.
I love new ,thick, fluffy towels.
I used to look for ones made in Turkey.
, but haven’t seen many anymore.
I’m frugal so I go to Ross or tT.J.maxx and get good quality towels and high thread count sheets for less.
When old ones start getting used and snagged.
I use them for cleaning and putting down for painting, or dog towels etc.
Red dirt and mud stains from baseball or anywhere in the south is usually from oxidized iron (rust) in the dirt that makes it that red color.
I use iron-out or rust-out or red-out in the laundry section. It’s a specific chemical that affects the rust and allows it to be washed out of the fabric.
White baseball pants are the worst, and usually require a lot of soaking to get it all out.
Will this same method work for t-shirts washed on cold? I don’t want to shrink them.
You can try washing them on cold and then drying them in the sun. The drying in the sun part is so important in getting rid of stink.
While washing on cold adds a layer of protection against shrinkage, it’s not the most effective method for removing that mildew-y smell. First, try washing on cold on the normal cycle (def don’t use gentle/delicate) and drying in the sun. If it is absolutely still awful, you might need to step it up to ‘warm’ temp and dry in the sun.
I forgot about a load of clothes in the washer and ended up with a load of whites/lights that smelled. I discovered this after my husband had tossed them into the dryer – eek! So I washed them again, and they smelled ok. I tossed them into the dryer on a no-heat cycle (mostly to get the spin cycle wrinkles out) and then forgot about them. For the second time. Double yuck. This was shortly after your post about sour towels, so I went back to it and used the link to get to this post.
I washed the load on a normal cycle, but changed the settings to “heavy soil” and hot water, and put vinegar in the softener part of the detergent tray. (Oh, and used unscented detergent to be sure I wasn’t masking the smell). The load definitely smelled of vinegar when the load finished. I knew that the smell would go away, but I set the load for a rinse-and-spin cycle to get the vinegar odor out so I could be SURE that the sour smell was gone.
Once again, THANK YOU!
My clothes smell, well, like clothes now. No more sour smell! Yay!
Yippee for you! I actually washed a load this week and didn’t put detergent in. I realize they didn’t smell ‘Outdoor Fresh’ as I was putting them in the dryer. Sigh.
THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!
Sorry – I didn’t get to finish my message. I have been struggling for some time trying to get the sour smell out of my wash cloths, hand towels and towels. I never use fabric sheets on them, I’ve used hot water, use a good liquid detergent and a laundry booster. I found this site and page and tried it. It worked. Now they smell GOOD when they get wet. I’ll be much more diligent about getting them in the dryer and will use this method if I notice it again. Can’t thank you enough. I was just about to haul everything to Goodwill and buy all new stuff!
Joy, I am SO happy for you! Yay for clean towels!
I, too am absent minded and occasionally leave a load in the washer. I found peroxide will take away the musty smell. Just pour a generous amount in the bleach dispenser and wash again. It kills bacteria and that is what causes a bad smell. It also works to soak smelly sneakers before washing them. Just pour in the shoe and slosh around to get at all the inside. Let sit awhile before washing. Use on feet and socks too. It is inexpensive and really does the job.
I use hot water detergent and baking soda when I wash my towels. ..no they dont smell like lavender but they dont stink either
I’m pretty new to the whole laundry thing (just moved out of my mother’s) and I just bought a new set of towels. How do I keep them from shrinking so I don’t end up ruining them? Sorry if this is a stupid question but I really like my towels.
Thanks for writing this, it really helps complete noobs like me!
Another tweak is when the wash cycle is done, before it empties the water, is let them sit for about 1-2 hrs in the full hot oxy detergent water. This gives the oxy time to work. Add more oxy here for more mildew fighting hydroxide… Then let it finish. You won’t need a second wash!
Also never dry outside unless you have lots of full hot sunshine. My family used to dry them outside in a shaded wooded area upstate ny and it was a yuge disaster. Hot dryer is the cure there.
Ok so here is a question on dish cloths. I hang them to air dry them before laundering them. I wash kitchen towels and dish cloths together on the hottest heavy duty cycle and add vinegar to the rinse cycle. No frabric softener is used. I hang them in the sun to dry them or use the dryer; either way they end up stiff and scratchy.
Why do they end up stiff and scratchy? Am I missing some secret step; or should I just go buy new dish cloths and throw out the old ones?
Hey Barbara! Anytime you line dry something, it’s going to be much stiffer and scratchier than if you’d dried it in the dryer. The dryer fluffs up the small fibers of the article, making it feel more fluffy and less scratchy.
It may also have to do with the material your dish clothes are made out of. Very absorbent cotton material such as terrycloth will stay fluffy-ish, whereas anything with man-made materials will have a “feel” to it.
When I air-dry things they come out stiff. To get them fluffy again, just run them on a timed dry in the dryer for 10 minutes! No heat for delicate items, low heat for most everything else.
Thank You Miss Lauren
Thank you! I needed to know what I was doing wrong, and I think I found the answer in your clear, detailed post! I have washed my sour towels with Borax & baking soda (on the inside of my HE front loader) and added vinegar into the fabric softener dispenser, then dried them in the sun. They still smell bad. But I washed them in COLD! I will be washing them again on sanitize hot with oxy clean.
I saw from another website that you shouldn’t do both vinegar and baking soda. Is this correct? I do it often.
I’ve been suffering with sour smelling towels for a while now. I’ve tried vinegar, line drying to no avail? I have dried them in the dryer multiple times so perhaps I have set and mildew?? There are also large area of discoloration (like the towel just looks dirty) in the center of the towels. Are they too far gone to save? Also, they are not white so I’m unanle to bleach them.
How can you refresh towels that have lost their softness?
I have several dresses..prom drrssrs that have smoke damage from our house fire. What is the best way to get them white again?
Hey Christa – I would try the dry cleaners first. I personally wouldn’t attempt to put a prom dress through the washer, as they are usually made from a material that cannot withstand washing in a traditional machine.