How to remove mildew and musty odor from towels

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.

Help!

~Musty in Muncie

Heather says:

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.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

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Comments

  1. says

    I have also discovered towels with fabric that is antibacterial and odor-repellent. They have made such a big difference especially during the rainy season when it’s very difficul to dry clothes without a dryer.

    Unfortunately, the Philippine manufacturer, Bench, seems to have stopped producing these towels and I wasn’t able to stock up much. Your tips will come in handy for my next batch of towels,and for my old non-antibacterialones.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    I thought of two more possible causes:

    Are the towels being folded and put away without being 100% dry? Residual moisture will cause a musty odor.

    Is the bathroom closet itself a source of musty odor? We had a slight plumbing leak in the shared wall between shower and bathroom closet. I couldn’t detect moisture by sniffing, but the towels, which were stored there for days, clued us in. Opening a can of Damp-Rid can remove the remaining moisture.

  3. says

    I will add one more to the cause list, that you sort of mention at a glance, but don’t really go into. The bathroom itself where the towel is hung.

    In a poorly ventilated bathroom (especially one that has outside facing walls which will often keep the room cooler than the rest of the house), that steamy air helps keep the towel moist longer, and thus allowing that musty smell to embed itself. This of course is exacerbated by bathrooms with outside facing walls, where the coolness help breed those little suckers into the towels.

  4. says

    I did not know about fabric softeners reducing the absorbency of towels. I’ll have to tell my parents that – I never feel dry after a shower at their house, and now I know why!

  5. says

    We don’t use fabric softners. I use Borax. I found not only were the clothes and towels much more softer but they smelled just clean. And it’s less expensive then fabric softners.

    • chris urlacher says

      I was looking at the posts and ran across yours. I understand that there can be many reasons why towels/clothes smell “funky” I came across Borax mule team. I add 1/2 cup to washer when washing towels, linens. Nothing works better! Funky smell all gone,

  6. Stacy R. says

    I have a LG front loading HE washer. After reading many websites, I swithced from liquid HE Tide soap to a powder soap for my front load washer. This was 8 months ago, approxiametly. We live in a brand new house, w/ a brand new washer, so I was assured that I was doing the right thing by switching from liquid to powder to reduce the smell in our towels. Now, 9 months later, and $900 later after having to dig up our sewer system becaue the powder tide stuck to it, I’m not so sure. Any suggestions? I guess I’m back to the liquid for now, although I’m afraid of burning up my new washer!

  7. says

    It’s the Tide–period. Tide is bad on many accounts. It is bad for people with allergies and sensitive skin. It bad for your clothes, it builds up and dulls them. AND it is horrid for sewer lines and septic systems. There are alot of other choices that work great. Just throw out the Tide, liquid or powder.

  8. exponent says

    This is how to get mold and mildew out of clothes and how to get the smell of mildew out of clothes SmellyWasher Cleaner is a completely organic powder that is used to clear fungus from any clothes washer. The cleaner is used by adding a small amount (1 tablespoon normally suffices) to a hot setting in your washer and allowing it to complete the cycle.
    In order to remove fungus from towels and clothing use just one teaspoon of cleaner instead of detergent. Rinse and dry as normal. This product is super simple and works great! I found it at http://www.smellytowel.com

  9. G.L. says

    My husband is a university science student and mentioned something to me that I haven't seen anywhere on this post board or a few others: they use UV light kills bacteria in the lab. Hang your towels outside to dry on a sunny day, flip them for full sunshine exposure and see if that helps!

    • Daniel says

      Science labs DO use UV light to kill bacteria (it mutagenizes their DNA, just like it does for our DNA). However, they use a lot more UV light than is present in sunlight, so this method isn’t as effective for killing the bacteria. Having said that, bacteria need moisture to replicate, and so drying the towels effectively stops them from growing. Drying towels in the sun (or the dryer) is a fantastic way to prevent the smell from ever appearing, since it dries them before the bacteria have a chance to replicate very much. BUT, it won’t help all that much if the towels have already gotten smelly (they’ll smell great when dry and then get smelly as soon as they’re wet again).

  10. says

    my problem is that i keep towels that we have used in a closet until i do laundry at the end of the week, and i wanted to know is there anything i could put inside the closet to keep down the musky smell until laundry day???

  11. Leanne says

    I have a musky vinger smell under my vinyl in the bathroom and it has a red liquid all over it under Neath and looks like blood.

    What could this be?

    Please help.