Dear Home Ec 101:
My towels all smell funky. Is it my teenage son? He’s usually pretty good about hanging up his towel, but lately they’ve all developed a stink. There is nothing quite like stepping out of the shower to be greeted with a musty, mildewed, smelly towel.
~Musty in Muncie
Mildewed towels will shortly be the merest whiff of a memory. First of all, go sniff your washer. No, really, especially if you have one of those new-fangled, high efficiency front loading wonder washing machines. They are notorious for harboring mildew. If the machine is the source of your funk, check out this post, you’ll have things smelling sweet in no time.
If your washing machine is not the source of the odor problem, we must dig a little deeper. Make sure your son IS hanging up his towels as you say. If they stay wet for any length of time, it’s like inviting all your mildew friends to party and just like that one obnoxious cousin, they just don’t take a hint.
Now that we know that little Bobby is hanging up his towels and that the washer is not the source of the funk, it’s time to address the towels themselves. This may sound counter-intuitive, but often an underlying cause of odor is too much detergent.
When doing laundry there needs to be enough detergent in your wash water to surround the molecules that make up stains and bring them into solution (that’s your wash water). Remember, effective laundering happens with the right combination of thermal energy, physical energy, and chemical energy.
The thermal energy is provided by the heat of the water, the physical energy is the agitation created by your washing machine, and the chemical energy is provided by the detergent.
If too much detergent is used, it won’t all go into solution and will cling to the towels. And guess what, detergent is sticky, even tiny little bits of detergent. These deposits can build up on the towels and odor molecules just love to cling to these sticky spots.
The following tips apply ONLY to your everyday towels. For your guest and decorative towels always follow the label directions. These methods are for the ones you don’t mind fading. Personally, I’d rather use soft, slightly-faded, odor free towels on a regular basis and have a few set aside for decoration or guests.
If your towels are fairly ripe, it may be time to strip them of the residue. Wash them in very hot water with baking soda, borax, or washing soda, and add vinegar to the rinse cycle. If possible, observe the rinse water for sudsing. If the towels are creating soapy bubbles, you may need to repeat the first step. Otherwise, dry them immediately and thoroughly.
Fabric softeners can build up on towels making them less absorbent. 1/4 to 1/2 cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle will naturally soften towels and help retard mildew growth. If all you have on hand is vinegar of the balsamic or red wine varieties, temporarily skip the vinegar step.
*Frugal Tip* With items such as laundry and dish detergent it may be worth your time to experiment and find the least amount necessary to achieve desired results. Too much detergent can build up on your clothing while too much dish soap just washes down the drain unused. Rather than blindly scooping to the recommended line with each load, try cutting back. When you first notice that you are not getting the desired results, go back to the last amount that worked well. Don’t forget to mark your new amount on the measuring cup.
Remember the amount of detergent you need depends not only on the amount of soil on your laundry, but the hardness of your water, and the temperature setting you choose.
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