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How to Clean Stinky Towels – Without Harsh Chemicals

by Tiffany in A Green Home

One of the things I miss about living in the Southwest is the fact that we never, ever had to deal with things like mildew and stinky towels. As a child, bathing suits and towels could be tossed on the carpet all willy nilly and only an hour or two later they would be crunchy and bone dry. Mildew didn’t stand a chance. Later when I was cloth diapering my babes I had the luxury of being able to let the diapers sit in the diaper pail for a week or longer with no smell and no mildew. The first time I tried that after moving to Ohio…well let’s just say it didn’t end well. There was a noxious smell, there was mildew, and there were bugs. Argh!

We also learned that you don’t leave wet bathing suits and towels lay around and every so often your towels start to smell mildewy no matter if you wash and dry them on hot repeatedly. The first time this happened we ended up throwing them out because I thought it was hopeless without the use of something harsh like bleach. Well, we started to notice the same issue with our towels recently and since so many are organic and/or a super luxurious bamboo I did not want to throw them out. Didn’t want to bleach them either. Time to get creative!

With some tips from Facebook friends I had a game plan, and it worked! Yay for clean smelling towels!! But why in the heck do they get stinky in the first place?? We do let our towels sit wet in the bathroom between showers/baths so that doesn’t help, even though they are on a hanging rack. I also think that they have a tendency to get stinky for the same reason cloth diapers do…a detergent buildup. Cloth diapers need to be “stripped” every so often to get rid of detergent scum/buildup and so do towels.

How to Get Rid of the Mildew Smell in Bath Towels

  • Wash with hot water, 1/2 cup baking soda, and 10 drops tea tree oil
  • Rinse with 1 cup vinegar
  • Repeat wash/rinse (tea tree oil optional for the 2nd go round)
  • Dry on hottest setting or dry outside in direct sunlight

This method worked wonders for me! Even after using the same towel over several days, no mildew smell. Now I just need to use this method every time I wash towels over the next 1-2 weeks to make sure I got them all.

Do you ever have this issue? How do you handle it?

How to Clean Stinky Towels

  • NickiD

    Vinegar and hot water wash do it for me.  And dry them outside on a sunny day. That’ll kill bit of mold left over.

  • CMarie

    I’ve had this issue too – towels left accidentally in the washer over 24 hours.  Lysol concentrate (although not natural in the least) kills it the first time every time. I rewash at least twice to get any remaining chemicals gone.   

    • I have heard that tip before… about Lysol.

  • Mauri Gibson

    Thanks for the tip…I live in Utah, so it’s dry and I generally don’t have mildew issues unless I forget and leave the towels in the washer too long.  I will give this a try next time, as I have worried about what to do for mildew now that I don’t use the bleach and other chemicals.

  • Melissa

    I WILL be trying this. We don’t use paper towels, just cloth for the kitchen and I have been throwing towels away right and left. I really hope this works. 

  • Here is Northern Idaho it is normally so dry we don’t have to worry about smell and bugs eitther, but when I lived in Hawaii?  oooh it was bad!

    • I can imagine!

    • Danielle

      I’m In Idaho too… but every one in a while the towels do sit damp. so thins is good info

  • We have this problem quite often-my kids leave wet things laying around and they get that awful mildew smell. I use vinegar and tea tree oil for everything. I might have to add some baking soda to the mix. Thanks!

    • We also use tea tree oil and vinegar for everything. It works for so many different things!

  • Mariangie Gonzalez

    Liked, tweeted and shared. Awesome post, thank you!

  • Jen and Joey McLaughlin

    Thanks so much for this I was just thinking the other day that I need to find out how to fix this!

  • Purvi Dholakia

    Thank you so much for the tip, live in Seattle and always struggle with this. I started using baking soda but was using too little I guess. I try to make a laundry load full of towels, are the measures you mention sufficient for that?

  • Lesley

    Yes. I’ve been washing my towels/cloths lately with 1/3 cup or so of Borax in the mix to freshen them up. When trying to use a stinky wash cloth on the fly, my husband successfully tried ‘pasteurizing’ them – run under hot tapwater, switch to cold, repeat a couple of times. Worked!
    If I have more issues and Borax doesn’t seem to cut it, will try your recipe.

  • Jessica

    This post couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Thank you!

  • MimiAvocado

    Even though I live in the Southwest, I have the problem too!  Family members start a load of laundry and never come back to put it in the dryer.  Thanks for finding the solution!  Now to go re-wash all those towels…

  • Jen

    I assume this also works with just general clothing? My sons have been throwing their wet towels into their laundry basket and now all their clothes reek. Like you said, it wasn’t a problem when they did that when we lived in Colorado, but now in Chicago…yeah. Pretty gross.

  • Vinegar is great for bad smells. My kids are still young enough that we have accidents pretty often, and I just add half a cup or so of white vinegar to the wash cycle, and wash on hot. 

  • Melissa Aiello

    Great tip! I have an HE machine that locks during cleaning, so I can’t open and add anything. Also, it never fills up…so I wonder if this method will work if I just add the ingredients to the detergent dispenser??? Great post, thanks…my towels are ALWAYS being forgotten in the wash (I live in California, Bay Area, so mildew is a problem). 

    • Jamie White Wyatt

      I HATE my HE machine. We are on well water in the humid South, and my husband and son complain about “sour/mildewy” undershirts, no matter how I wash. Have used baking soda and vinegar. Will add tea tree oil to the mix. 

      • Tracy

        Be sure that when you are done washing a load, you leave the door open for the washer to dry until the next load. The only time the door should be closed is for washing. Also, try cleaning inside the lip of the rubber gasket that seals the door. Mold and mildew live in there.

  • Gretchen

    Do you use the laundry detergent too in the wash cycle or just the baking soda and tea tree oil?

    • No detergent, just baking soda and tea tree oil. 

  • Kara

    I saw similar tips at the links below, but neither of them mention tea tree oil.  What is the effect of the tea tree oil?  Or maybe I should just try it!

    • It has anti-fungal properties.

  • Sonali

    Can we use this in a HE machine?

  • Keri

    Can’t tell you how excited I was when I saw this. Ever since we switched over to a front loading machine my towels have become sooo stinky. I have had a hec of a time too with my cloth diapers…can’t wait to try this out…Thanks so much for sharing this!

  • Crichtonslover

    Hot water, washing soda and strong sunshine/or dry twice in the dryer.

  • Mara Emilia Protich

    Borax is my best friend here in Ohio where everything can mildew. Works much like you terrific tips. Love it!

  • Rachelpreslar

    Can I use other oils besides Tea Tree?

    • It would have to be one with anti-fungal properties to be effective.

  • Outlawcustomcreations

    I love this! Thank you so much! I will definitely try that.

  • Vinegar works miracles! I washed some old table cloths with just vinegar and managed to get rid of the mildew smell. But I didn’t know about tea tree oil, will give that a try next time, thanks for sharing! :)  

  • Buggi

    Growing up and now in my adult life, we always washed our towels (especially stinky kitchen towels/washcloths) with vinegar. We did it every time they were washed. It’s also a great way to keep your washer from getting stinky too (and less expensive than having to use an essecial oil). I just pour about a cup of vinegar in the wash at the beginning along with my detergent.

  • Trying this now hope it helps here in Michigan or ready to pitch these stinky towels

  • I soak and then wash the first time with 1c of vinegar and no detergent and then wash the second time with 1/2c of baking soda. The first wash strips them of detergent residue and the second wash deodorizes. I do that about once a month and it is super easy.

  • Coupon Cook

    We live in an extremely humid area on the coast of Alabama. I have an HE front load machine. A few things I do to keep laundry from getting funky. I always leave the door open when its is not in use. I also run a short empty load after all of the towels are finished. For some reason towel funk is easily transferred to my clothes. I make my own laundry soap using essential oils, washing soda, and borax. I haven’t had any pump clog issues ever. Also don’t forget to run a dry washcloth over and in any seams of the rubber ring every few days. Its not crunchy but a tiny bit of Dawn dish soap will strip towels and diapers of oil.

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  • Thank you for this post! I totally needed to hear this today after my agitation over another clean load of towels with a mildewy smell. I find kitchen rags and towels are especially problematic. Do you find that certain materials are more smell-resistant than others? 

    • Towels that come into contact with food tend to be worse.

  • Amanda Havens

    Sorry if I leave this comment twice, it appears my last comment didn’t actually post but I’m not sure.
    I’m curious what you think of washing soda. I tried all the things you suggested and more to get rid of the stink in my laundry. Was beginning to think I needed a new washer. A friend suggested I try washing soda and it worked. Not perfectly, it took a few wash cycles for the clothes to totally stop stinking but the stink doesn’t seem to be coming back.I’m just hoping it’s not really toxic.

    • Amanda, I think washing soda is fine. The issue with towel stinkiness often has to do with soap/detergent build up. Using washing soda or baking soda instead gets things clean without these things.

  • Joanna Lacey

    I have a window in my bathroom, so I open the curtains to the sunshine and keep the window open and the door open whenever possible (and if I do use bleach, I spray a diluted solution just before I leave the house so the scent is gone when I come home)