How to Deal With Stubborn Body Odor in Laundry

Dear Home-Ec 101,
I am sorry if you have had this question before, but maybe it bears repeating.  I live in hot and sticky Thailand  and I have noticed my tops are not smelling very fresh anymore when I perspire.  I usually wash them in cold or warm water with liquid detergent then I hang them to dry.  After they are dry, I usually give them a short spin in the dryer to take out the wrinkles before hanging them or folding them.
Signed,
Stinky Ex-pat

Heather says:

Oh who doesn’t enjoy a good discussion of laundry, sweat, and body odor? -I’m kidding, it’s not my favorite topic, but it IS a good one since so many people struggle with these problems in their laundry.

If you haven’t removed all of the sweat, deodorant, detergent or a delicious combination of the three from your clothing, each time that the shirt gets wet, no matter how it occurs, via water or more sweat those funky odor molecules still in the shirt can go back into solution. When those molecules are in solution (usually, that’s your sweat) they are able to stink once again. Good times.  Sometimes the heat of the dryer is enough to permanently set some stains, hopefully not in your case.

How To Wash Deodorant Stains

If you are regularly using deodorant/antiperspirant, chances are you have more than one issue going on with your shirts. Turn your shirts inside out and feel the underarm area, if there is a slightly waxy or greasy feel, you probably have a buildup of deodorant in the material. Deodorants cover up body odor and the waxy medium used to apply it to your underarm can also do a good job of trapping odors in the armpits of your shirt.

Try soaking your shirts for several hours in a tub of water with 1 cup of white vinegar. This will lower the pH of the water and hopefully will help remove some of that deodorant build up. If you have a top loading washer, go ahead and fill the tub with warm water, then add your shirts and the white vinegar. Allow the washer to agitate for a bit and then turn off the machine and let the clothing soak in the washtub.

Unfortunately, soaking isn’t always possible in some front loading clothes washers, you may have to use a container of some sort. If there is a significant build-up of deodorant and antiperspirant on your clothing, you may need to repeat this a couple of times. Deodorant residue can sneak up on you and may not be obvious until it is a very annoying and embarrassing problem.

Consider trying out different types of antiperspirant deodorant and finding one that fits your personal body chemistry and doesn’t much residue.

Sometimes the discoloration caused by antiperspirant is permanent, even if you haven’t used the dryer.

Sweat stains

How to deal with sweat stains on sheets and bed linens

Do you have trouble with sweat stains on your sheets? We’ve got help for that, too.

If you don’t use antiperspirant or deodorant, chances are you’re dealing with perspiration stains. For severe perspiration stains, try crushing a couple of uncoated aspirin into a powder and mixing with a little water to create a paste. Apply this paste to the underarm of your shirts with a toothbrush and then launder as usual. The salicylic acid will help get rid of the stain. In the future, sponge or spray the underarms of your shirts with dilute white vinegar before tossing them in the hamper. Be sure to allow the shirts to dry before tossing in the hamper or you’ll have to read up on mildew stain removal.

Another possible cause of the odor in your laundry is what’s known as laundry detergent build-up.

If there is too much detergent in the wash portion of your laundering, your washer isn’t going to be able to rinse all of it away. The residue left behind is actually quite sticky and great at trapping odors in the fabric.

Checking for detergent build-up in a top loading washer is quite easy. Put one towel or a couple of shirts in the tub, set the washer to run a small load on the hottest water safe for the fabric. Leave the lid open and look for suds while it is agitating. If there are suds, you’ve been using too much detergent. Give your smelliest laundry another run through the washing machine, in the hottest water it can tolerate, with only white vinegar OR borax to help rinse away that build-up.

If you have a front loading washer and have been using the high-efficiency detergent, determining if there is a build-up is a little more difficult since high-efficiency detergent is specifically manufactured to be less sudsy in general. You are going to have to rely on your nose. I’d run an experimental load of your offending clothing with just vinegar or borax and see if it comes out smelling better.

guide to the laundry room

Click the picture for more tips!

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Stinky shirts can be saved, you just have to know how to deal with the body odor, sweat stains and deodorant build-up

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36 Comments

  1. Mimsy on June 28, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    Are sweat stains always visible to the naked eye? I have a sister whose clothing is perpetually odorous, and my mother and I are trying to find the right treatment to salvage the offending garments and save her from public embarrassment. She’s used several deodorants (none of which seems able to mask the smell or prevent it from worsening), so we’re not sure if that might be the culprit instead, or if it maybe a combination of the two. What is your verdict? What do you advise?

    • Heather Solos on July 13, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Definitely not. Try stripping the clothing of deodorant and detergent buildup before trying any new versions. It could be the old ones lingering that make you believe the new one isn’t working.

  2. Laura on June 12, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    To get the yellow armpit stains and smells out of your shirts try this: turn the shirts inside out; apply a mix of 2 T. blue Dawn dish detergent with 1 T. hydrogen peroxide to the stains; let this sit a while then wash. Most often you will need a second rinse cycle to remove all of the mixture. You will have to experiment to find out the time that works best for your stains along with the fabric of your clothes. Sometimes an hour is enough, but sometimes on white cotton shirts they’ll need to sit overnight before washing.

  3. livelifebetter on July 17, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Choose a deodorant that doesn’t clog-up the skin or preventing sweating.
    A good deodorant is one without leaving residues, stains and odours behind. I’ve been using UARMSOL deodorant for many years now, even when I sweat, I have no more underarm or armpit odours. I applied 1 pinch of uarmsol powder and that’s all to it for the whole day without worries about any smell afterwards. There’s no chemicals, oil or fragrances added. No staining clothes too. There’s no after sport smell or odour masking. And the best thing is I don’t have to shave !

  4. Michelle on April 21, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    I am having problems with bad BO with husbands clothes. I wash them and dry them as usual. But I also have ” Well water” between two, I feel like I am loosing a the battle. Even my sheets are starting to smell..
    Any suggestions?

    • SMELLY SMITHY on August 13, 2015 at 5:31 am

      I had this problem too and found that my washer was not emptying properly thus leaving dirty water in the system during washing so effectively the wash was never clean and came out soaked in dirty water. I got the pipes cleaned which helped for a bit but in the end scrapped the washer and bought a new one. I guess it had just gotten into the old washer too much. it doesn’t happen with the new one at all now. I also used a calgon treatment for a while with the old washer just to keep the pipes clean.

      • Sheryl on July 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

        Hi just read this message I had a problem with my clothes when they had been washed blobs of dark muck stuck on clothing so I undid agitator pulled it to bits and saw that in stead of being white plastic it was black I cleaned it all over and even the bowl of the machine and did the wash all over. Result. Amazing I think you have to check every now and again and re clean

  5. Marion Kent Uk on March 30, 2014 at 4:01 am

    I found some of the smells were coming from the washing machine. The recommendations to wash at 30 degrees allows bacteria to live in the machine. I try to run a maximum temperature (90degree in my machine) every couple of weeks by throwing in all my dishcloths with some vinegar with the usual detergent – it really makes a difference.

  6. Michelle McCallister on January 29, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    I use a product called Freshana Organic Solutions that works wonders.

  7. Sha on January 16, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Would white vinegar soaks also work for smelly washcloths? Someone in the house has been scrubbing smelly underarms in the shower with the “fancy” washcloths, now they stink!

  8. Elle on December 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    I don’t think you answered the question… seems like this person is asking how to remove stubborn body odor from clothing that does not wash out using traditional methods.

  9. Ricki on November 21, 2013 at 7:46 am

    I used to have the same problem. A friend suggested switching to a natural deodorant. I experimented with several brands, but ultimately Lavilin was the best. Very happy. Other benefits are that it is aluminum- and paraben-free, and it lasts up to a week after just one application. Highly recommended!

    This is their website: http://www.lavilin.com

    • Brook on April 15, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      I run into this problem as we’ll,I will try this brand thanks, cause of allergies I haven’t been able to wear any deodorent now I worried that the smells will show up in laundry that I have worn previously. I will try the aspirin solution hope it will work, also have front loaded ? Soap buildup also.

    • Jess on June 25, 2014 at 4:29 am

      Hey Ricki – I use Lavilin too 🙂

      Brook – Lavilin is DEFINITELY worth a shot!! I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love it!

  10. Sara on July 28, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    I use oxyclean – the spray bottle version on clothes peed kid clothes, and it works well for taking the odor out. It foams up like peroxide does on a cut.

  11. jen on April 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Hi – would soaking in water and vinegaar ruin colors? I know it works to get sweat stains out of white clothes, but I’m worried about my boyfriend’s dress shirts and my nicer ones as well. Also, will it leave a smell?

  12. justpassingthrough on July 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Hi, I don’t think anyone I know wants to get at-tagged in this post!  If anyone is reading, do you think this would work for clothing which has been sitting awhile?  Most of it is cotton.  It wasn’t all that dirty, but now has that oily smell that makes me want to give up on it.  
     

  13. meglupo18 on June 24, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Suavitel. I used to have bad hormonal problems that caused some SERIOUS stinky b.o. YUCK. oh thank God those days have found a solution. But all that time led me to Suavitel. It smells fabulous and its absolutely the only thing (its a fabric softener) that would get the stink out. 🙂

    • nalo on December 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      @meglupo18

      I have the same problem- how did you cure the hormonal problems?? I’ll give suavitel a try!

      • meglupo18 on December 3, 2011 at 12:54 am

        I have a disease called endometreosis, I dont know if you know what that is…It has to do with the female sex organs particularly my uterus. Causes all kinds of hormonal crap that is nightmarish and mine is a very severe case so it effected everything. I had to go on birth control with no breaks. I take yasmine (actually i take the generic brand cuz no insurance but anywhoo). I never come off of it. I never take the sugar pills, so every three weeks i have to buy a new pack. Its been unbelievable. cleared up my acne, the BO, the mood swings (i would get suicidal, Yikes), I lost like 25lbs maybe more, and the pain stopped along with the month long periods I was having. so yea…I dont know if you have any of that stuff going but you might check into it. Hope that helps!

  14. helengrieve on June 13, 2011 at 8:47 am

    @HeatherSolos thank you very much! I’ll go and get the distilled malt vinegar then, I wanted to make sure i got the right one! Thank you again 🙂

  15. HeatherSolos on June 13, 2011 at 6:18 am

    @helengrieve distilled malt vinegar is what you’re looking for. I’m assuming you do not live in the US, it’s just a regional naming difference. White vinegar refers to any distilled vinegar, malt is typically the cheapest. You want the vinegar you can buy in the large jugs. most of the others would just be a waste of money to use in cleaning and a may flavor your tops. 😉

  16. helengrieve on June 13, 2011 at 4:54 am

    Hi, I have the same problem with my tops smelling but it isn’t bo, I do see a build up of deodorant on my tops. I’ve been lookjng for white vinegar but so far I’ve cane across white vine vinegar, white balsamic and white cider vinegar and also distilled malt vinegar. Would any of these other types do the same job or does it need to be specifically white vinegar??
    Thank you

  17. casey on April 27, 2011 at 8:34 am

    is there anything i can do when wearing the clothes to cut down the stink? I have some 100% cotton sweaters that I wear to work, but if I wear while walking to dog (and sweating) they absord the sweat stink and I have to change before work. I don't have this problem with my other shirts.

    When I wash them they smell & look clean so not sure if that's the issue or not.

    • Demaroge on July 29, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      I use a crystal stone deodorant. It is very easy to apply directly out of the shower/bath prior to toweling. (It does take some getting used to a new routine right there!) It eliminates odor for me completely. And, is generally thought to be a healthier option over traditional deodorants and antiperspirants.

  18. Lorrieena on April 26, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I second Nature's Miracle, and would also add that baking soda will remove most bad smells – I've gotten out cat pee and fryer grease smells with it. Wash the clothes on the warmest safe setting, with half to a full cup of baking soda and the normal laundry soap. Repeat if needed till the wet clothes pass the sniff test. I don't recall doing it more than three times, for something the cat got and I didn't find right away. Usually once is enough.

  19. Michele on April 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I spent a bit of time this weekend trying to find the solution to the waxy deodorant build up on my beau's shirts and had no luck at all finding a credible sounding answer. Lo and behold, when I checked Home Ec 101 today there was a whole post dedicated to clothing-related deodorant/sweat yuckiness. Get out of my head!. 😉 Thanks Heather!

  20. Natalie on April 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Kind of a non-traditional solution, but I have also used "Nature's Miracle", an enzyme solution (unscented) meant for permanently removing pet odors. It really does miracles on polyester numbers or anything with lycra. You can find it the "red & white bottle" at Petco, Target, etc. Really helpful!!

    • Elizabeth on March 12, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      Do you use laundry soap as well as Nature’s Miracle? How hot was the water? Would it be effective on cotton clothing?

      • Heather Solos on March 12, 2015 at 12:08 pm

        Yes, the Nature’s Miracle is a laundry booster which implies that it is not to be used alone. According to their website the enzymes break down the organic compounds that create the smell.
        Their website says it works well in hot or cold, but thinking about solubility and enzymatic processes, I’d go with warm. And cotton? Yes.

  21. Lisa on April 25, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Hi. I just have a suggestion. My husband's undershirts used to get crusty from his deoderant as well. I started using the powdered "Arm and Hammer *with oxyclean*" laundry soap and it has taken the crust out of all of his shirts.

  22. Amy at CreativeSpace on April 25, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    This post was SUPER helpful. My husband favors cotton t-shirts when working out, but after several weeks, I can't seem to wash out the sweat smell. It drives me crazy! I switched him to a rotation of poly shirts which seems to be helping. I told him he was just naturally funky. (but I'll give the vinegar a try too)
    My recent post the siren call of cake

  23. @awakeatheart on April 25, 2011 at 11:36 am

    My hub has a 100% poly shirt he loves, and it builds up sweat odor. I've found the soak in water with a good shot of white vinegar for a couple hours, then running it through the wash like normal removes the sweat stink. I have no problems with sweat odors in his cotton shirts, so I think it's just the poly that absorbs them.
    My recent post Foolproof Brown Rice

  24. Sus on April 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Super helpful! Love your blog!
    My recent post Sits at Natural Waist

  25. CLS on April 25, 2011 at 8:32 am

    I'm having the same problem, except mine is with urine odors when one of my little ones wet the bed. does the same advice apply, or is it a different tactic to get those smells out? thanks for your help!

    • 2GAboys on May 16, 2011 at 8:39 pm

      Put some baking soda in when you're washing urine-soaked bedding and/or clothing. Takes the smell right out.

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