How To Eliminate Sour Smelling Towels

Dear Home Ec 101,
Why do towels and washcloths smell sour and how do I get rid of that funky odor?
Sour in Soux Falls
Sour Smelling Towels and How to Eliminate It
Heather says:

High on my list of most favorite thing ever is stepping out of the shower and drying my face with a sour smelling bath towel. Yeah. Absolute favorite thing ever.

How do towels get that sour smelling funk?

Mildew is the common name for a variety of fungi that enjoy growing on damp fabric, among other things. This happens when towels are thrown into the laundry hamper -or onto the floor- damp. Sometimes it happens after they are left in the washer for too long.

While some fungi are fab as a side dish, this variety is anything but appetizing.

Sometimes a quick rewash and thorough dry is all that is needed, but if the home has a front load washer, there’s a chance part of the cause of the funk is the machine itself. Follow the steps in this post on fixing a smelly washer before addressing the towels themselves.

If the smell lingers after a rewash and you’re certain the the washer isn’t re-fouling the towels -oh a rhyme, that costs extra- it’s time to address the underlying cause, detergent buildup. This is pretty common, but it should be noted that the solutions can sometimes fade the color of bright towels. Of course when given the choice between a sour but bright or faded but fresh, the choice is obvious, right? I mean, seriously, who wants to use a faded towel? How gauche..

Guide to Household Odors

Click the picture for lots more tips!

Run the load of smelly towels on the hottest setting available with 1/4 – 1 cup borax, depending on the size of the load. Give the towels an extra rinse and add a cup of white vinegar to the rinse water.  If the humidity is low, hang the towels to dry in the sunlight, if not dry thoroughly in the dryer. Sunlight is the sworn enemy of mildew and it’s not because the sparkling would give it away.

Reduce the amount of laundry detergent used and consider adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle of all towel loads, this is especially helpful in areas with hard water.

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  1. Anna on June 22, 2016 at 9:15 am

    I use oxygen clean in our towels and hot setting and funky smelling towels come out fresh. We have a sick family member that is incontinent and can’t use scented detergents and oxygen clean takes care of the urine smell on clothing.

  2. Gjeorge on April 19, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    my wife gets up set if I start the towels in washer than leave for a few hours, than come home and put in dryer… says they sour…. I just do not be leave they can sour that fast…

    • Kim Pyrros on August 6, 2017 at 1:08 pm

      Oh yes they can! In fact, some of it holds over from many washes before and continues to compound it. Reducing the load can help, hot water, and/or dried in the sun (but this makes them stiff 🙁 . Otherwise, follow the experts.

  3. tooty on March 22, 2013 at 1:01 am

    Wow, I’m so glad I found the answer to my smelly towel problem. This has been going on for years and I thought it was my husband’s fault for over-loading the washer and not getting the towels clean. I had the “crazy” idea tonight to look it up and see if other people have this problem. I think some of my towels are so far gone, I’m just gonna throw them out-there is also a stiffness associated with the smelly towels. Thanks to everyone!

  4. Tooty on March 22, 2013 at 12:57 am

    Wow, I’m so glad I found the answer to my smelly towel problem. This has been going on for years and I thought it was my husband’s fault for over-loading the washer and not getting the towels clean. I had the “crazy” idea tonight to look it up and see if other people have this problem. I think some of my towels are so far gone, I’m just gonna throw them out-there is also a stiffness associated with the smelly towels. Thanks to everyone:)

  5. casey on January 28, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I’m having this issue with just my washcloths. I don’t use a washcloth in the shower (I use a loofah) but I do have some for guests, as well as when I have migraines/sinus headaches and they get used for cold compresses. Occasionally when I am running late in the morning, i will use one for a ‘spit bath’. Other than the ones that are used for compresses they alwasy get hung up right after use. Sometimes the compress ones end up wadded on my bed if I fall asleep with it on. Maybe that is what is causing them to smell? I don’t have this problem with my other towels, but when I’m already nausous from a headache, putting a sour smelling washcloth on top of my nose doesn’t help. Shoudl I just run all my washcloths through the washer with vinegar?

  6. Zolie on July 29, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks for the help with Sour dish towels I will be sure to try them.
    And “Be yourself…cause Everyone else is take!

  7. Southern Nana on July 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I’ve been told that Bounce dryer sheets placed between the sheets will keep them smelling fresh in the linen closet.

  8. K9obsession on July 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    My husband is reluctant for me to use vinegar in the washing machine as he worries it will eat at any rubber seals. Is this actually a concern?

    • Southern Nana on July 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm

       People have been using vinegar for cleaning purposes for quite some time. No, it won’t ruin the seals in the washer. It also helps if you don’t let the damp towels sit in the dirty clothes hamper for a long period of time. If there is a way for you to hang the clean towels on an outside line, during a sunny day, this has been known to work also. (the sun is also good for “refluffing” your foam cushions on your sofa and chairs. Remove the covers and just let them sit in the sun for about an hour or so, flipping halfway thru.) You probably won’t have to use the vinegar EVERY time you wash the towels. I say clean the machine first with a cleaner made especially for the washer (found on the laundry detergent aisle).

  9. Southern Nana on May 9, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    If that smell is coming from your washer, you need to clean it. This is especially true for the new front loaders. The water can sit in the door gasket and become “funky”. You HAVE to wipe out the gasket area around the door after every wash load and at least once a month, use a washing machine cleaner. They really work. I use one every month in my “regular” top loading model. It also helps if you don’t overload the washer, allowing the clothes to move “freely”. Make sure you use enough detergent, without overdoing it. Hope this helps.

  10. Mary on January 13, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Our towels smelled sweet again when I started doing laundry with soap I made myself from Zote, washing powder and Borax. I use vinegar in the rinse too. The smell left the very first time I switched soap.
    My recent post Propel your progress by realizing how many more paychecks you have

    • Sharon C. on November 21, 2015 at 11:55 pm

      I use Zote to treat stains and remove heavy dirt from things like socks. Works great and smells way better than Fels Naptha.

  11. Patty on August 2, 2010 at 2:24 am

    On the uncommon occasion that I need to put vinegar in the final rinse, here's what I do, and I feel a little guilty but I compensate by line drying: After the load finishes I just reset it to the final rinse and rinse again this time adding vinegar. I also do this on the rare occasion that I add softener (which I use only with some really staticy but warm fleece throws).
    I have never had an odor that I could not get rid of by 1-2 washes with hot water and detergent plus borax, followed by a vinegar rinse and line dry in the sun. Yes, and all day process, best to avoid the mildew in the first place!!!

  12. P J @ home decor on June 4, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Everyone gave great advice, and I'll remember the advice if it ever happens to me about the sheets and towels. One thing I do for sure is make sure the towels are completely dry before I fold them and put them away. Since towels are a lot thicker now than years ago, this is a must.

  13. imabug on June 1, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    I think I'll give this a try on some funky smelling dog collars I have

    • Sharon C. on November 21, 2015 at 11:58 pm

      The best way to clean dog collars is in the sink or tub w/some Zote or Fels Naptha and a scrub or toothbrush. That stuff releases embedded dirt like magic. Rinse, let them sit in some water w/non-chlorine bleach for a little bit, rinse again and voila !

  14. caroline on May 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    What if the dryer is making your towels smell? Several months ago I had a flood in my garage, and I used some old towels to mop up the water, along with small bits of leaves, dirt, wood, etc. that had accumulated on the floor. I laid the towels out on my patio to dry (mostly) and then washed and dried them in the machines. Ever since when I take towels (all towels not just the ones I used to mop the flood) out of the dryer they have this weird smell, not musty/mildewy smell, it smells more like wet branches. I suppose it could be the washer (I have a front-loader) but I only notice the smell after the towels are dried. I keep potpourri in the linen closet so by the time I use the towels they smell nice again.

  15. HeatherSolos on May 27, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    I would try lowering the humidity in the closet. A product like Damp rid can help prevent musty odors. Additionally, we store the spare set of sheets between the mattress and box spring, to free up space in our linen closet, but I can see how that wouldn't work for everyone. Good luck.

  16. LoriW on May 27, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    What about sour-smelling sheets? My sheets smell great after I wash and fold them. But I wash all my sheets at one time, so they sit in the linen closet for two weeks before I use them. And in two weeks, they're no longer fresh smelling. They're stinky smelling. Suggestions? javascript:%20postComment(0);

  17. KristinC on May 26, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Can you put borax powder in front loader HE washer? Do they make liquid borax? I totally have the stinky towel problem.

    • HeatherSolos on May 26, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Absolutely. It's much more soluble (dissolves easily) than some powdered detergents. If you have any concern, just sprinkle it into the wash tub itself.

    • Sharon C. on November 21, 2015 at 11:54 pm

      You can use dry or liquid detergent w/a frontloader. Usually you remove the liquid detergent cup and put the dry detergent in the compartment beneath it. I put my borax and washing soda there, replace the cup and put my liquid detergent in it.

  18. Family Balance Sheet on May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am

    When my husband and I were dating, we lived in different states for a couple of years. On one of my visits to see him, I grabbed a towel after my shower and I about gagged at the smell. It was awful. He did his laundry on weekends and would let his wet towels sit in a basket all week. When he did his laundry, everything went into the washer together, on cold with a little detergent. Needless to say, I do the laundry and I am happy to do so.

    If I think our towels have sat too long, I wash them in hot water and put vinegar where the softener goes. I don't always use hot water, but my husband's gym towels can get kind of gnarly after sitting in the car all day while he is at work.

  19. Mary on May 26, 2010 at 6:32 am

    It's just me and my husband so this is always an issue by the time enough towels accumulate to wash. I just automatically add borax to the wash and it works every time! I use vinegar as a softener on everything!

    • Sharon C. on November 21, 2015 at 11:51 pm

      I always use borax and washing soda plus my detergent. I use non-chlorine bleach and vinegar as fabric softener and I double rinse. I always smell everything before I put it into the dryer. Smells fine going in. Smells funky coming out sometimes and sometimes it comes out sweet smelling. The funky smell is like sour milk. I always smell everything when it comes out of the dryer as I fold it. THis last load I did I washed TWICE and dried right away both times. They smelled fine when I folded them. I just went and took out a blanket for my dog and OMG did it smell SOUR.

      • Sharon C. on November 21, 2015 at 11:52 pm

        Oh… and I do remove any hair and other debris from the gasket after each load, wipe it down and I leave the door open.

  20. Becki on May 25, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    Great advice. I'd like to add that you should be sure the towels have a chance to dry out between showers. I have a tiny, cramped bathroom, so it took awhile to figure out a way for each towel to be able to hang enough to dry properly. In the winter I use a towel for a week; in the summer I can only make it last about 4 days.

    • HeatherSolos on May 25, 2010 at 11:34 pm

      Definitely, hooks and towel racks are made of awesome and win, now if only I can train the minions to utilize them on a regular basis.

  21. Stacy on May 25, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    I really don't have a big problem with this, but when I have clothes that smell funky, I usually put baking soda or vinegar in the wash with the soap. Maybe this does absolutely nothing, but it seems to work. Or maybe it's just the rewashing that works. Anyway, it doesn't hurt them and I feel like I'm doing something. Yes, it's sloppy problem solving, but whatever.

    • HeatherSolos on May 25, 2010 at 11:36 pm

      Both raising and lowering the pH of the water (baking soda raises, vinegar lowers) increases the solubility of certain minerals or the detergent itself. Borax also has a high pH and works through the same process.

  22. lifeofahappymom on May 25, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    LOL asyhre! I'm afraid it's going to be like that here most of the time! Especially with more cloudy days per year than sunny days! Don't you love Murphy's laws? 😉

  23. lifeofahappymom on May 25, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Fortunately, I haven't had much problem with smelly towels. I usually dry them in the dryer, because we don't have a line and we live in Portland OR (meaning we have over 200 cloudy days per year), but I plan on drying them on the line this summer (because we're moving and will have a line!) as much as possible. But what I can't figure out is how to get the vinegar in on the final rinse! It's not like I'm doing laundry at the laundromat and am just sitting around waiting for the rinse cycle… I have kids. I will soon have a huge house (that is, in about a week). I will soon have a yard that needs lots of work. I don't have mental energy to remember that so many minutes after starting a load I need to run down and put in the vinegar… Any ideas?

    • HeatherSolos on May 25, 2010 at 10:27 pm

      I promise, you're not alone in the busy department.
      If I need to remember to add something to the washer, I just set the timer on my phone (or the microwave).
      When I had a top loading washer, I used one of those Downy Ball fabric softener things and I didn't have to remember anything -other than shifting it to the dryer, of course.
      Congratulations on your move.

    • asyhre on May 25, 2010 at 11:03 pm

      When doing towels I would put the vinegar where the fabric softer would go… when I had a washer that did not have one of those compartments I used the downy ball.

      I run into the problem of finally deciding to hang out the clothes/ towels/ bedding and it rains… it does not fail… hang it out=rain, put in dryer=bright and sunny.

      • blessedmomof9 on August 27, 2010 at 5:46 pm

        you always run an extra rinse cycle which I do anyway because I like an extra rinse before fabric softner. You could put your vinegar in the extra rinse.

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