How Do I Get Musty Smell Out Of Towels?

If you've ever noticed a musty smell lingering on your towels, you're not alone. It can be frustrating and unpleasant to use towels that don't smell fresh.

Quick links:

What are some preventive measures against musty smell in towels?

Vinegar or wool dryer balls—which should I use against musty smells?

What are signs I need to retire my musty towels?

Useful tips for storing towels to avoid musty smells

But fear not, there are simple solutions to banish that musty odor and have your towels smelling clean and fresh once again.

Let’s learn some preventative tips to keep your towels fresh, clean, and ready for the next shower.

Why Do My Towels Smell Musty?

If clean towels start to give off a dank, muddy scent, there are usually a few common culprits to blame:

  1. Mildew
  2. Bactera
  3. Laundry detergent
  4. Drying
  5. Storing

Any of these can cause a musty or sour smell in towels, even after washing.

Mildew and Mold Growth

Mildew and mold thrive in damp environments and can easily multiply on towels that are not properly dried. When you leave damp or wet towels in a laundry basket for extended periods, it creates an ideal breeding ground for mold and mildew.

Bacteria Buildup

Towels are often used to wipe off sweat, dirt, and other bodily fluids, providing a fertile ground for bacteria to grow. If towels are not washed regularly or if they are not properly dried after each use, bacteria can multiply and cause an unpleasant odor.

Too Much Detergent

Excess detergent residue can accumulate on towels and create a musty smell. It is important to follow the recommended amount of detergent and avoid overloading the washer when washing towels. 

Using Smart Sheep detergent strips is also a good choice. You cannot have too many of them. One strip is enough for one load of towels. As simply as that!

Inadequate Drying

If towels don't fully dry before you fold and store them, lingering moisture allows mildew and bacteria to flourish. Always be sure towels are completely dry before putting them away. Don't overload dryers and use medium or high heat.

Storing When Damp

Even small amounts of moisture trapped in folded towels can promote odor issues. Never put towels away if they feel at all damp. Allow them to air dry fully before storage to prevent musty smells.

To prevent towels from smelling musty, it is recommended to wash them regularly with an appropriate amount of detergent and avoid overloading the washing machine. It is also important to dry towels thoroughly, either by using a dryer or by hanging them in a well-ventilated area.

Detergent strips

How Can I Prevent That Musty Smell?

Stop stinky smells before they start, keeping your towels fresh and clean smelling after every use. Implement these simple preventative measures as part of your regular towel laundry routine to say goodbye to musty odors for good:

  • Wash towels regularly. Launder towels at least once a week, more frequently for towels used after bathing. Don't allow sweat and grime to accumulate.
  • Use less detergent. Too much detergent leads to residue that breeds mildew and bacteria. Stick to the recommended amount or less.
  • Dry thoroughly. Ensure towels are completely dry before folding and storing. Use high heat and don't overload the dryer.
  • Allow airflow. Fold towels loosely rather than tightly stacking and allow space in bins or shelves. Trapped moisture causes mildew odor.
  • Wash with vinegar or baking soda. Periodically washing with white vinegar or baking soda helps kill bacteria and removes buildup.
  • Alternate towels. Have multiple towel sets and alternate usage to allow a full 24-48 hours of drying time before using again.
  • Check for damage. Inspect regularly for mold or excessive fraying which require towel replacement.

With a little care, your towels will stay fresh, clean, and free from any unpleasant odors.

How to Remove Existing Musty Smells?

If you're already dealing with towels that have a stubborn musty or mildew smell, don't worry—you can get them fresh smelling again with some deep cleaning methods.

  1. Wash with vinegar or baking soda
  2. Air dry
  3. Sprinkle baking soda
  4. Essential oils
  5. Bleach
  6. Wool dryer balls

Vinegar or Baking Soda

White vinegar and baking soda neutralize odors and eliminate bacterial growth that may be causing the musty smell. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Separate the towels and place them in your washing machine.
  2. Add one cup of vinegar or half a cup of baking soda to the drum.
  3. Add laundry detergent. Or add one eco-friendly detergent strip.
  4. Start the wash cycle using warm water and let the machine do its work.
  5. Once the cycle is complete, give the towels a sniff to check if the smell has dissipated.
  6. If necessary, repeat the process for especially stubborn odors.

Air Dry in Sunlight

Sunlight's natural disinfecting properties can help kill bacteria that may be causing the offending odor. Hang the freshly washed towels outside on a clothesline or lay them flat on a clean surface under the sun.

Allow the towels to fully dry, turning them over if necessary to ensure even drying. Once dry, check whether the musty smell has disappeared. If needed, proceed to the next method.

Sprinkle Baking Soda

Try sprinkling baking soda over the affected towels and letting it sit for a few hours or overnight. Baking soda is known for its odor-absorbing properties, making it an effective solution for eliminating persistent smells.

To use this method, lay the towels flat and sprinkle a generous amount of baking soda over them, ensuring that all areas are covered. Gently press the baking soda into the fabric. Leave the towels undisturbed for a few hours or overnight to allow the baking soda to absorb the odor.

Once the time has elapsed, shake or brush off the excess baking soda, then give the towels a good shake to remove any remaining residue. Check to see if the musty smell has disappeared. If needed, move on to the next method.

Add Lemon Juice or Essential Oils

If you prefer a fresh and aromatic scent for your towels, consider adding lemon juice or essential oils to your wash. Lemon juice acts as a natural deodorizer, while essential oils like lavender, tea tree, or eucalyptus can provide a pleasant fragrance.

To use lemon juice, mix half a cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice with your regular detergent before starting the wash cycle. The acid in the lemon juice can help break down odors and freshen the fabric. 

You can also add a few drops of your preferred essential oil to the detergent in your washing machine. The essential oils will leave your towels smelling delightful after each wash. Remember to check the manufacturer's instructions regarding the use of essential oils and the appropriate amount to add.

Bleach White Towels

For stubborn and persistent musty smells on white towels only, washing them with chlorine bleach can be effective. Bleach is a powerful disinfectant that kills bacteria and removes strong odors.

To begin, separate the white towels from the other colored fabrics. Then, add the recommended amount of chlorine bleach to your washing machine, following the instructions on the packaging. Place the towels in the machine and run a hot water cycle. Ensure that you wash the towels separately to avoid any color transfer or damage to other fabrics.

After the cycle is complete, air dry the towels in direct sunlight to maximize the freshness. Always follow safety precautions and handle bleach with care.

Wool Dryer Balls

As an extra way to combat musty smells in towels, add Smart Sheep wool dryer balls to your drying cycle. The wool's natural odor absorbing properties help extract any lingering mildew or bacteria smells.

Wool dryer balls also lift and separate towels, allowing more airflow to thoroughly dry them. This prevents future moisture buildup that leads to stinky smells.

Thanks to wool's cleaning effects and the dryer balls' constant tumbling motion, you'll pull out towels that are fresher smelling and fluffier after just one drying cycle. To read more about the benefits of wool dryer balls, check out our blog post.

Pro Tip: For some extra aroma, spritz wool dryer balls with anti-static essential oil scenting spray. Replace the musty smell with lavender, lemon, or orange fragrance heaven.

Wool dryer balls + scenting spray bundle

When Should You Replace Towels?

If you've tried all the odor removal methods but your towels still have a lingering funky smell, it may be time to replace them. Here are signs it's time to retire those smelly towels for good:

  • Smells persist after multiple washings. If you've deep cleaned towels with vinegar, bleach, oxyclean, and more but the musty stench stubbornly remains, the fibers have likely been overtaken by mildew and need replacing.
  • Visible mold or mildew. Towels with actual mold or mildew growth, especially if it has spread across large areas, should be discarded. The fungi will be very difficult to fully eliminate.
  • Excessive fraying or wear. Towels that are ripped, torn or falling apart in areas make it harder for them to fully dry after use. The trapped moisture encourages smells. If they are visibly worn, replace them.

While it's better for your wallet and the environment to revive towels when possible, don't continue using any that won't get fresh and odor-free after thorough cleaning. Invest in new absorbent towels that make you excited for your next shower!

How to Store Towels to Prevent Smells?

Storing towels properly is essential for maintaining their freshness and preventing musty smells. Proper storage techniques can make a big difference in preventing odors from developing.

Here are some tips on how to store towels to keep them smelling clean and fresh:

  1. Fold loosely and allow airflow. When folding your towels for storage, avoid tight and compact folds. Instead, fold them loosely to allow better airflow. This helps prevent moisture from getting trapped, which can lead to musty odors. An easy and effective method is to fold the towel in half lengthwise, then in thirds horizontally.
  2. Avoid overloading the drawer or shelf. It’s important not to overload your towel storage space. Overstuffing the drawer or shelf can restrict airflow and prevent proper ventilation. Leave some space between each towel to ensure good air circulation.
  3. Alternate use to allow full drying. After use, allow your towels to fully dry before storing them away. Avoid placing damp towels directly in your towel storage area, as this can promote the growth of mold and mildew. Instead, hang them up to air dry, either on a towel bar or a drying rack. If you don't have space for drying racks, laying them flat over a clothesline or shower rod can also work. Once they are completely dry, you can fold and store them.
  4. Choose a well-ventilated storage area. Select a storage area that offers good ventilation. Avoid storing towels in areas that are prone to high humidity, such as basements or closets without proper airflow. Instead, choose a well-ventilated spot, preferably in a room with good air circulation.
  5. Utilize sachets or air fresheners. To help keep your towels smelling fresh, you can place scented sachets or air fresheners in your towel storage area. These can help mask any lingering odors and keep your towels smelling pleasant. However, make sure the sachets or air fresheners do not come into direct contact with the towels to avoid any potential staining or damage.

With these practices in place, you can enjoy fresh and clean-smelling towels every time you reach for them.

Get Musty Smell Out of Towels FAQ

Why do my towels still smell musty after washing?

Towels can still smell musty after washing due to bacteria, mildew, or detergent residue. These factors can lead to a lingering odor even after washing.

Why do towels develop a bad smell after a while?

Towels can develop a bad smell over time due to the accumulation of bacteria and mildew. Moisture and warmth provide a favorable environment for these microorganisms to grow, resulting in the unpleasant odor. Regular washing in hot water and proper drying can help prevent this issue.

How do you freshen bath towels?

To freshen up bath towels, wash them in a hot cycle with either baking soda, vinegar or an odor eliminating detergent. After washing, place them in the dryer, along with wool dryer balls.

Make sure they are fully dried after each use. You can also occasionally add lemon juice or essential oils while washing. Storing towels properly helps prevent new smells too.

Can you wash towels with vinegar and baking soda at the same time?

You can wash towels with both vinegar and baking soda in the same wash cycle. The combination can help break down stubborn odors and freshen up fabrics. Just add them separately—the vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser and the baking soda directly into the drum.

How do you get the mildew smell out of towels with baking soda?

To remove the smell from towels with baking soda, add 1/2 cup directly to the wash cycle. You can also let towels soak for 30-60 minutes in a baking soda and water solution before washing. Always rinse thoroughly as residual baking soda can leave behind its own smell.

How long does it take to soak clothes in vinegar to remove the smell?

For vinegar, a 30 minute soak is typically recommended to effectively eliminate odors from towels or clothes. For stronger scents, doing a pre-wash soak of 1-2 hours can help fully dissolve smells before laundering. Just be sure to rinse items thoroughly afterwards.

How do you deodorize towels in the washing machine?

Wash your towels in the washing machine, with an odor eliminating detergent or add baking soda, vinegar or lemon juice to deodorize your stinky towels. Using the hottest setting, an extra rinse cycle, and proper drying can also prevent new smells. Washing towels weekly prevents buildup that leads to odors.

Is it OK to use the same towel for a week?

It's generally best to use a fresh towel daily if possible, or at least every 2-3 days maximum. Reusing the same towel for a week allows bacteria and odors to accumulate. Quickly drying towels between uses and washing them weekly helps keep them fresher.

Further Reading

What are the best laundry detergents for sensitive skin?

Do dryer balls actually work?

Wool dryer balls or dryer sheets—what to choose?

How long do wool dryer balls last, anyway?

How many dryer balls do you need in a load of laundry?

What are natural fabric softener substitutes?

Are wool dryer balls better than tennis balls?

Are wool dryer balls better than dryer sheets?