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How to get rid of mildew smell in clothes

Freshly-washed clothes smelling of mildew? Don’t worry, you can still save them.
By
Published on January 12, 2024
Written by
Marie Cookson
Based in Manchester, Marie is one of the writers at HouseFresh and our resident dust expert. She works together with our in-house researchers and our Managing Editor to produce in-depth articles offering practical advice on how to tackle indoor air quality issues.
TL;DR

There are a few simple explanations for why your clothes smell like mildew. These include a dirty washing machine, leaving wet clothes in the drum, and putting away damp clothes and towels. 

If you’re suddenly plagued by mildewy clothes, there are plenty of ways to get rid of the smell easily. Washing your clothes in vinegar and baking soda is a highly effective and natural method for removing pesky odors. Another rule of thumb is to dry your clothes quickly and thoroughly — outside in the sun, if possible.

When doing laundry in the future, be sure to take preventative measures, such as regularly checking your machine for signs of mold and mildew.

Like the musty smell in a room or that “old house smell”, most of us have also experienced the terrible odor of mildew in our clothes.

Mildew thrives in warm and damp environments, so letting your dirty, sweaty clothes fester in a laundry hamper is one of the most common reasons for the pungent whiff. But you can tackle issues like this by staying on top of your laundry habits.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that you can get rid of the stench as soon as you detect it. Keep reading for our expert tips on how to remove any odor so that your clothes can smell fresh again.

5 steps to get mildew smell out of your clothes

Follow our handy step-by-step guide to get that mildew smell out of your clothes for good.

1. Wash your clothes with vinegar

Due to its acetic acid content, vinegar is a fantastic and natural deodorant. When combined with hot water, the vinegar effectively breaks down the bacteria that can lead to mildew smells.

  1. Place your clothes in the washing machine
  2. Set the temperature to the hottest setting
  3. Add 1 cup of white vinegar to the detergent cup or drawer 
  4. Don’t add detergent or fabric softener, as this will inhibit the process
Tip

Vinegar is generally more effective for removing odors than stains. See tip three below for how to get rid of mildew stains on your clothes.

2. Rewash with baking soda

Baking soda creates an alkaline environment, which stamps out the bacteria that creates mildewy smells. So, if you find that your clothes are still a bit stinky after a vinegar wash, try this as well.

  1. Sprinkle 1 cup of baking soda on your clothes 
  2. Set the machine to the hottest setting
  3. Be sure not to add detergent to the wash

3. Remove mildew stains with lemon juice and salt

The citric acid in lemons is a natural antibacterial agent, meaning that it can destroy bacteria and remove mold and mildew in the process. Salt, meanwhile, helps to break down and lift the stains from your clothes.

  1. Create a paste by mixing lemon juice with salt 
  2. Apply the mixture to mildew stains
  3. Let it sit for a few minutes before scrubbing the area with a soft brush
  4. Wash and rinse your clothes thoroughly

Tip

If possible, dry your clothes out in the sun to dry, as the sun acts as a natural bleach for stains.

4. Use a detergent containing oxygen bleach

If you’d prefer to wash your clothes with a commercial detergent rather than vinegar or baking soda, be sure to choose one that contains oxygen bleach. 

Regular detergent won’t have this crucial ingredient, making it less effective at getting rid of mildew odors. Oxygen bleach is also gentler and less toxic than chlorine bleach.

Tip

Oxygen bleach can also be used as a stain remover:

  1. Mix one tablespoon with a quart of water 
  2. Dab the mixture on the mildew stain before washing thoroughly

5. Dry your clothes thoroughly and quickly

It’s super important to dry clothes properly as soon as possible after the wash. Fabrics that dry slowly are more likely to smell sour and musty, which could indicate mold growth.

Remove your clothes from the machine and dry outside if you can. Drying outside in the fresh air is the best method as the sun’s ultraviolet rays can disinfect and get rid of any residual bacteria on the clothes. However, if this isn’t possible, put your laundry in the dryer and use the appropriate setting for the fabric type.

The do’s and don’ts of doing your laundry

To reduce the chances of your clothes smelling like mildew in the future, be sure to follow these do’s and don’ts.

DO

Inspect and clean your washing machine regularly: Deposits of mold and mildew can form on the rubber door gasket and in the detergent dispensers of your washing machine. We recommend you give your machine a deep clean once a month. Follow Good Housekeeping’s guide on how to do it.
Leave the machine door open after each use: This helps circulate air and dry out any lingering moisture that could result in musty whiffs. According to the New York Times, this is especially important if you have a high efficiency (HE) washer, as mildew development is more likely.
Dry clothes properly before putting them away: Mildew can easily thrive in enclosed spaces like closets, where there’s little ventilation. For this reason, it’s crucial to make sure your clothes are completely dry before storing them away in your closet or dresser.
Ventilate: As mentioned above, ventilation is key for preventing mildew smells on your laundry. According to the University of Missouri, you can boost air circulation by keeping closet doors open or setting up a fan. Also, hang your clothes loosely if possible so that the air can continue to move around and circulate.

DON’T

Use too much detergent: Excess detergent can cause a buildup of laundry products and may lead to mildew on your clothes. As Reader’s Digest states, it’s always best to use too little rather than too much, as the water and movement of the machine will do the heavy lifting.
Use heavily perfumed detergents: When washing mildewed laundry, it’s important to treat the mildew and get rid of it. Strongly perfumed detergents mask the smell rather than remove it.
Leave wet clothes in the machine: Wet clothes sitting in the machine or in a pile on a chair creates the perfect breeding ground for mildew to flourish. Be sure to take your clothes out of the machine ASAP, as this will help prevent mildew odors, both on the fabrics and in the machine.
Let piles of laundry accumulate in the hamper: Ultimately, one of the most effective ways to prevent mildew smells is to do your laundry regularly. If you’ve just got back from the gym, for example, aim to wash your gym gear as soon as you can. A pile of sweaty clothes and damp towels increases the chances of mildew thriving.

Commonly asked questions about mildew on clothes

According to the EPA, the term mildew is often used to describe mold growth that is flat. Mold, however, has a raised appearance. The color of mildew is gray or yellow with a powdery feel, whereas mold is black, brown, or green, and looks fuzzy. Mildew is more easily detected by smell rather than sight.

Damp, warm, and poorly-ventilated environments cause mildew to thrive. The EPA states that the smells associated with mildew are due to certain compounds produced by molds, known as microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs). These compounds are released into the air, emitting strong, unpleasant odors in the process.

Vinegar and baking soda are the best natural products for neutralizing mildew smell. As mentioned earlier, washing your clothes in vinegar followed by baking soda will effectively neutralize mildew odor. You’ll find that your clothes won’t smell like anything at all!

If your laundry is prone to mildew odors, try using a scented vinegar (by adding some drops of essential oil) instead of fabric softener on a regular basis.

In the majority of cases, no. As long as you take steps to remove and kill visible mold spores as soon as possible, your clothes can be saved. Hot or warm water mixed with something like white distilled vinegar should destroy mold spores. You can then wash the clothing with oxygen bleach to remove stains.

Wrapping up

While mold and mildew can be found on many items in your home, it can feel especially unpleasant on your clothes. However, the good news is that the problem can be easily fixed.

Be sure to wash your clothes in vinegar, followed by baking soda for an all-natural and easy solution. For specific mildew stains you can apply a natural paste made up of lemon juice and salt. Finally, make sure that you dry your clothes thoroughly and quickly before putting them away.

For future laundry loads, remember that it’s always best to use too little detergent rather than too much, and aim to leave the machine door open after each use.

SOURCES

About the author

Marie Cookson

Based in Manchester, Marie is one of the writers at HouseFresh and our resident dust expert. She works together with our in-house researchers and our Managing Editor to produce in-depth articles offering practical advice on how to tackle indoor air quality issues.