How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Clothes

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There’s nothing worse than sticking your head in the dryer and expecting clean clothes, only to be smacked in the face with the musty odor of mildew. If you’ve ever left a load of laundry sitting damp a bit too long, you know how fast this terrible smell can take over. But never fear! We’re sharing tips for how to get the mildew smell out of your clothes.

Follow these methods, and you can have your laundry smelling fresh and clean again in no time.

What Is Mildew, Anyway?

Mildew is a type of mold or fungus that grows in damp places without good air flow. Darkness also helps mildew grow, so the inside of a damp washing machine is a perfect breeding ground. And even when clothes aren’t sitting around soaking wet, high humidity in the air might keep your clothes damp enough for mildew to grow.

You probably won’t see fuzzy spots of mildew on your clothes, unless it’s an extremely advanced case. In most cases, you can smell the problem before you can see it. Mildew has a very musty and stale smell. Some people say that it smells like sweaty socks. Not exactly what you’re looking for in your clean laundry!

How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Clothes and Towels

To get rid of the not-so-great scent of mildew, you have to get rid of the mildew itself. There’s no getting around it by masking the smell with flowery laundry detergent. The stink will come right through. So face the problem head on with these cleaning tips.

Try White Vinegar 

White vinegar is excellent at killing mildew, and makes an amazing odor neutralizer in the wash. (Just make sure to use pure white vinegar and not red vinegar or other types.) Choose the highest heat setting that the musty clothes can handle — but if it’s delicates, vinegar may even work on a gentle cold wash cycle. 

For really musty clothes, try washing with a cup of white vinegar and no detergent. For a more mild mildew issue, try adding a quarter cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle of a normal load, and see if that does the trick.

Go for Baking Soda

If vinegar doesn’t work or you don’t have it on hand, baking soda is a great alternative! You can also follow up the vinegar wash with a baking soda wash to give it a one-two punch. Baking soda can help kill mildew. It also soaks up smells to act as an odor neutralizer — the same reason people keep boxes of baking soda in the fridge!

Run clothes in a cycle with nothing but hot water and baking soda. (Again, do the highest heat the specific fabrics can handle.) Finally, fry off any remaining mildew spores by drying the clothes completely on the highest possible heat setting. 

Reach for Bleach or an Enzyme Cleaner

Chlorine bleach is also effective at getting rid of the nasty mildew odor. Bleach kills all sorts of pesky things like bacteria and fungi, and mildew is no exception. And if your musty clothes are also stained, bleach can also help with that. Just be aware that bleach may cause colored clothes to fade or lose color in spots — so it’s a good idea to spot test bleach on your clothes first.

And if none of those things do the trick, you can try enzyme odor removers. These products fight stinky smells and are also great at breaking up stains.

Dry Clothes in the Sunshine

Remember how we said mildew loves dark, damp places? Well one thing it really hates is sunshine. Sunlight can help kill mildew and leave clothes smelling fresh — and the open air is a much better place to dry musty clothes than a drying rack in a stuffy room. 

For serious mildew problems, sunlight alone may not do the trick. But a bright sunshine drying session is a great follow-up to other methods for getting the mildew smell out of clothes.

How to Prevent Mildew Smell in the First Place

To prevent mildew from invading your clothes, it helps to figure out where and when the fungus is getting into the fabric. 

Keep Mildew Out of the Washer

Sometimes the culprit is your washing machine itself — the very appliance that’s supposed to get your clothes nice and clean! Mildew spores can linger in the washer and continue to grow between wash cycles. To banish musty smells from your machine, try running it without any clothes, on the hottest wash cycle, with either chlorine bleach or white vinegar thrown in. Or you can try a bleach cycle followed by a white vinegar cycle.

Get Clothes Into the Wash Quicker

In other cases, you may be waiting too long to wash clothes and letting mildew build up before they ever get to the washer. When you take off damp or sweaty clothes, be sure to wash them as soon as possible. Because after all, sweat is moisture! If you throw sweaty clothes in a hamper for several days, it creates the dark and damp environment that mildew loves.

Leaving sweaty clothes in a gym bag all day can also create the same problem. (And the combined smell of stale sweat and mildew is an especially pungent odor best avoided.) This advice goes for sweaty bedsheets, too — it’s best not to leave those lying around under the comforter for too long.

If you can’t wash damp or sweaty clothes right away, hang them up to dry somewhere with plenty of good air flow. That way they’ll be slightly less stinky when you finally have a chance to wash them.

Dry Clean Clothes Right Away

Next up in the list of culprits is what happens after clothes leave the washer. Make sure to dry your wet clothes and towels completely and promptly after washing. If wet clothes sit inside the washing machine for an extended period of time, they can quickly develop that signature mildew odor. If clothes in the dryer do not dry completely, the same thing can happen.

And when you hang clothes to dry, make sure there’s enough air flow to dry them quickly and completely — or better yet, hang them outside in the sunshine.

Thankfully, no matter how the musty smell came to be, there are reliable ways to get the mildew smell out of your clothes. Happy cleaning!