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How to get rid of musty smells from your home and clothes

Updated on November 16, 2023
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.

Musty smells are commonly caused by mold and mildew, and while such odors are unpleasant, mold spores can also lead to various health problems. Luckily, many ways exist to eliminate the smells, but first, you must locate the source.

Once you’ve established where they’re coming from, circulating the air and controlling humidity levels are two key ways you can help to eliminate musty smells. Also, consider using a dehumidifier and an air purifier, as these devices will help you do that.

Whether it’s damp clothes in your closet or a humid bathroom, musty smells in the home can be a massive nuisance. Yet the real source of the odor is often due to mold and mildew growth; unfortunately, mold spores can significantly impact your health. 

We’ll be delving into all that in more detail in this article, so be sure to keep reading. You’ll also find tips about identifying the source of the smell and effective ways to get rid of mold and mildew for good.

Finding the source of that musty smell 

If your clothes smell, it must be coming from somewhere. Before you can begin to tackle the issue, you need to track down the source. 

There can be various reasons, but mold and mildew are the most common cause behind those stale, damp, earthy smells. Often produced by high humidity, mold and mildew thrive in stagnant areas in your home with little ventilation. 

Mixing still air and increased moisture means mold spores can grow and multiply. When this happens, the spores emit rotten-smelling gasses that our noses pick up. These gasses can infiltrate various materials, including textiles such as curtains, upholstery and carpets.

It’s not just condensation build-up and poor ventilation that can cause excessive humidity and pungent smells. The many sources include water leaks, for example, behind walls, from a roof, or even dripping out of your air conditioner.

🛀 Bathroom
Warm and humid bathrooms are ideal places for mold and mildew to grow. Check prominent areas, like the shower tiles, under the sink and around the toilet.

🍲 Kitchen
There could be numerous sources in the kitchen, including leaks around your sink and dishwasher and under and inside the refrigerator. Plus, don’t forget the trash can. Mold and mildew could quickly be lurking under the can liner.

🛏 Bedroom
While these spaces may be less likely to have mold than a bathroom or kitchen, it’s still possible that a bedroom could be the culprit. Check the mattresses, windows and windowsills for any signs. Be sure to look under potted plants, too, as these can leak. 

📺  Living room
Sometimes, these areas can get warm and humid, so check the space thoroughly. Inspect all furniture items between the windows and the fireplace if you have one. 

👕 Laundry room
Leaks around the machine and doors could lead to mildew growth.

🚗 Basement/Attic/Garage 
These spaces are often warm, dark and damp, so mold and mildew can quickly grow here. Pay special attention to windows, vents, water heaters and under-storage areas. 

How to get rid of mold & mildew 

Follow these tips to banish harmful bacteria and pesky odors:

1. Increase air circulation and quality

Boosting ventilation and airing out your home is essential for helping to eliminate those musty smells. So fling open those windows and doors and turn on any fans. 

➡️ Enhancing natural light will also help rid your home of musty smells, as sunshine can kill germs and bacteria. Be sure to keep your blinds and curtains open on sunny days.


Air purifiers that use HEPA and activated carbon filters are also highly effective at trapping mold spores and eradicating musty odors. Check out our top picks here. We’ve tested all of the air purifiers we recommend. 

2. Reduce indoor humidity

Along with poor ventilation, high humidity is one of the main reasons mold and mildew grow. Reducing your home’s humidity can help stop fungi from flourishing and prevent musty smells. ➡️ Aim to keep humidity levels in your home under 50% — you can measure the moisture level using a hygrometer or humidity sensor.


Using a good dehumidifier is a highly effective way to remove excess moisture and achieve optimum humidity. Keep the device clean and empty the water collection bin regularly.

3. Clean furniture and textiles 

While all those comfy cushions and cozy blankets make a home feel welcoming, items like these and upholstered furniture often trap moisture and bad smells in their fibers. Looking after and cleaning your couch and favorite armchair will help to banish odors.

1. Grab some baking soda and sprinkle it over your furniture
2. Let it sit for 20 minutes
3. Vacuum thoroughly

4. Scrub the washing machine 

Washing machines can be hotspots for mildew growth and bacteria. Cleaning the drum monthly will help prevent such germs from thriving and eliminate musty odors.

1. Wipe the washer drum thoroughly with your regular household cleaner
2. Add a couple of tablespoons of baking soda
3. Run on a hot wash cycle — be sure not to include any laundry
4. Run a damp cloth with white vinegar around the door seals and gaskets
5. Either disinfect the cloth after use or throw it away if it contains mold
6. Finally, dry the door seal and gasket thoroughly with a dry towel

5. Treat your clothes with care

Musty smells on your clothes are generally because of excess moisture and being placed in areas with little ventilation. Taking proper care of your clothing means they’ll remain smelling fresh.

✅ Always ensure your clothes are fully dry before storing them in closets

✅ Don’t let your clothes sit wet in the washing machine for too long — and never leave them overnight

✅ If you have particularly smelly clothing items, rewash these with your favorite natural laundry detergent

✅ To maintain good airflow, remove any unworn clothing from your closet, which will help the air circulate your cherished tops and sweaters

6. Remove mold from shower tiles and grout

As we discussed earlier, bathrooms are havens for musty smells because mold thrives in warm, damp conditions. Be on the lookout for any signs of mold on tiles and grout so you can get rid of them quickly and easily. 

➡️ Before you start, take safety precautions by wearing protective gear, such as rubber gloves and a face mask. Also, open a window and turn on the bathroom fan to ensure adequate ventilation.

1. Spray the grout cleaner or mold remover on the affected spots according to the manufacturer’s instructions
2. Wait before scrubbing; some cleaners remove mold and mildew in just five minutes
3. For more stubborn spots, use a non-scratch sponge or grout brush. Be sure to disinfect these afterward to eliminate mold spores (or toss them away)
4. Rinse the area with hot water and wipe dry, double-checking that all the spores are cleaned
5. Leave any windows open and fans turned on, etc., as this will allow the room to breathe

The health dangers of mold & mildew 

Before we get into some of the dangers of mold exposure, it’s essential to know that many species of mold aren’t harmful. Quite the opposite, as some species are used to make medicines, such as penicillin. 

However, those species release gasses called MVOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the air that we must be aware of. Because MVOCs can produce solid and unpleasant smells, they can often be the source of musty smells in the home.  

Exposure to MVOCs can cause various health issues, including itchy eyes or skin. According to the EPA, inhaling MVOCs may also cause:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Nasal irritation

Another harmful side effect of some molds is that they can produce substances called mycotoxins. Long-term exposure to these chemicals can lead to changes in the immune system and inflammation, according to the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences (NIH). 

People with existing allergies, sensitivities to mold, or an underlying respiratory condition are also more at risk of health problems, such as difficulty breathing. Similarly, individuals who have asthma may find that their condition worsens. And babies who are exposed to mold in the home are more likely to develop asthma as young children, according to the NIH.


Musty smells are familiar, and mold and mildew are the most likely sources. It’s essential to establish where the odors are coming from so that you can eradicate them as soon as possible. Doing so will also help to safeguard your health because inhaling mold spores can lead to various problems. 

Cleaning troublesome spots like bathroom tiles and your washing machine will help to keep mold at bay. But circulating clean air and reducing humidity levels are two best ways to combat mold and musty smells long-term. 


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.