There's nothing better than grabbing a towel, a set of sheets or a shirt, putting it up to your face and taking a whiff of that freshly laundered smell. It’s almost like taking in a breath of fresh air.
But on the flip side, there's nothing worse than grabbing something you think is clean and getting a noseful of musty odors.
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Not only do musty odors mean you now have to rewash clothes you thought were already clean, but it might also be an indicator of more significant problems you need to address.
Let's look at what causes this smell and discuss 11 different ways you can get musty smells out of clothes and restore that clean scent we all desire.
What Are Mold and Mildew?
To understand how to get rid of that musty mildew smell, it's important to understand what you're dealing with first. After all, odor removal is a bit easier when you know what is causing the unpleasant smell.
Both mold and mildew are types of fungi. In reality, there are many different types of mold and mildew, but they all will have the same effect on your clothes: They'll make them stink!
The main difference between the two is that mildew tends to stay on the surface where it grows, known as a "flat spread." This means it will extend outwards but won't penetrate your clothing.
Often, you'll be able to smell mildew before you can see it, especially if it's a recent growth or if it's growing on darker clothes. But, as you'll see in a moment, it's also easier to clean since it doesn’t penetrate the fabric.
On the other hand, mold grows on top of itself, which means it will penetrate your clothing and work its way deep into the fibers. It's much less likely for mold to grow on your clothes, though it can happen. It will also make your clothes stink. When you have mold, the problem is more often than not coming from where you store your clothes rather than the clothes themselves.
Removing it takes a little extra effort, but it's still possible. More on this in a bit.
First, let's tackle mildew.
What Causes the Musty Mildew Smell?
One of the best ways to remove the musty mildew smell from your clothes is to prevent it from setting in at all. Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done, but, in most cases, you can save yourself some trouble.
Here are some of the leading causes of mildew setting into your clothes:
Improper Drying and Storage
Mildew thrives in damp environments — e.g., wet clothes. The spores of the mildew itself come from whatever dirt or grease is still on your clothes after you wash them (there's always a little bit). You could also have mildew spores in your washing machine if you don’t clean it frequently enough. If you have foul-smelling clothes immediately after removing them from the washer, there’s a good chance that there is mildew in the machine. We’ll share more on this all-too-common problem in the next section.
Mildew growth on clothing commonly happens after leaving clothes in the washer for extended periods. Of course, no one means to do this, but we've all put a load in, forgotten about it and then came back to a "clean" load that smells terrible.
If the weather outside is warm, this will only make things worse. Next to damp environments, mold and mildew also love the warmth. Warm, moist environments encourage bacteria growth, too.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution: Make sure you dry your damp clothes right after washing them. If you can't get them into the dryer for some reason, or you don't want to, at least hang them up on a clothesline or drying rack.
If you're the forgetful type, consider setting an alarm on your phone to remind you when the washing is finished so that you remember to tend to your clothes before mildew sets in. If you fail to move your clothes to the dryer quickly, run them through another wash cycle before drying.
Dirty Water or Washing Machine
Another reason why mildew might be a problem is that you're washing your clothes with dirty water. How does this happen?
Well, there are two possibilities. The first is that you're washing a lot of filthy clothes at once.
In general, heavily soiled garments and the sweaty clothes from the gym that have been hanging out in your hamper for way too long should be washed by themselves so that you can get all the dirt and grease out. However, they may need to be washed twice to prevent mildew growth or remove mildew smells that have already set in.
The other reason is that your washing machine itself might be dirty, as mentioned above. This seems counterintuitive, but laundry detergent and fabric softener can build up on the inside of the washer, and since it's a naturally damp and warm environment, mildew thrives there. This problem is especially common with front-loading washers.
When this happens, washing your clothes is effectively useless since the mold spores and mildew inside the washer will mix with your clothes and can spread, leaving that awful smell.
The solution? Clean your washing machine. Run it without any clothes and use bleach, ammonia or white vinegar and your machine’s hottest setting. You may want to consider using a spray bottle to make sure the cleaning solution gets into all of your machine’s nooks and crannies. You can also buy products made to clean washing machines, and many manufacturers recommend using them monthly.
If the smell is particularly bad, do this a few times. Also, consider leaving the washing machine door open between loads to help it dry out and prevent mold and mildew growth.
Excessive Sweat or Body Odor
It's not uncommon for people who like to exercise to wear the same clothes repeatedly. After all, if they're just going to get sweaty and dirty again, what's the point?
Whether this is a good idea is debatable, but it happens. When left alone in a damp, warm environment, the oils from our body and our sweat will cause things to grow, and those sweaty clothes can get really nasty. Mildew growth can get out of control, so much so that washing the clothes does pretty much nothing.
To clean these excessively smelly clothes, you'll want to use one of the methods we're about to discuss in the next section. Or, you'll want to consider rotating your workout clothes so that none of them get so dirty that mildew has a chance to grow.
Lastly, where you store your clothes matters. If you are shoving them into damp environments, mold or mildew growing elsewhere can make its way into your clothes. This is why the stuff you leave in bins or plastic bags in the attic or basement usually needs to be washed before you can wear them.
If you keep your clothes in a closet, make sure there's adequate airflow. Check to see there isn't mold or mildew growing anywhere else, and smell your clothes every so often to see if they're picking up an odor.
Should you notice something, you may need to clean out the area and take steps to prevent mildew and mold growth or find another place to store your clothing.
How to Remove Musty Mildew Smell from Your Clothes
Although you can prevent your clothes from getting that musty mildew smell, sometimes it just happens. And when this does, it's annoying. Luckily, this also isn't an impossible problem to solve.
Here are six different ways you can remove the musty mildew smell from your clothes:
Wash Them Again
If you forget your clothes in the washing machine for more than a day and they've acquired that musty smell, then you might just need to launder them again to eliminate the problem.
In this case, the mildew hasn't had much chance to grow and, assuming your washing machine is clean, you should be able to get the smell out by running another load in precisely the same way you usually do.
If this doesn't get the smell out, or if you notice it lingering after drying, then you may need to do something a bit more aggressive. Rewashing with Borax might do the trick. But if not, there are still plenty of other options.
Hit Them with White Vinegar and Baking Soda
When trying to get a bad smell out of your clothes, the first thing you probably think of is using stronger detergent or a more heavily scented fabric softener. You may even consider a laundry deodorizer.
The first might work, though a lot of detergents don't attack mildew. The second and third will do nothing except mask the smell. This will eventually go away and leave you with the same problem.
Fortunately, the solution here is relatively simple. You can use two products you most likely have in your home: white vinegar and baking soda.
White vinegar is probably one of the strongest cleaning agents you have in your house and can be used for many different things. It's effective at getting rid of the mildew smell in your clothes because it contains acetic acid, which breaks down the enzymes that cause mildew and the odor. It’s also much safer than bleach and is less likely to damage your clothing.
To use this method, simply wash a regular load of laundry with one cup of white vinegar. Then, when you're done, rewash them with a cup of baking soda. This will leave your clothes smelling like absolutely nothing.
This second step is only really necessary when the smell is particularly nasty. So, wash with vinegar first and see where you are. If you want your clothes to smell like "something," you'll want to do a third load using your normal detergent and fabric softener.
IMPORTANT: When doing this, make sure to wash your clothes using the highest temperature water possible to ensure the mildew spores die.
Of course, not all garments can be washed in hot water, so make sure you check this before washing. If a sensitive piece of clothing is stuck with this smell, consider taking it to a dry cleaner to protect its integrity.
Use Other Industrial Cleaners
If you want to get rid of the mildew smell, other options include bleach (which should only be used on white clothing and items that can truly tolerate it) or ammonia.
Both are relatively strong chemicals and will get your clothes clean, but they can also harm more sensitive items. You also need to be careful when using these chemicals. So use this method only when the smell lingers after using gentler techniques (washing again and vinegar/baking soda).
If the smell persists after using household cleaners and you're skeptical about using something stronger, consider taking your clothes to a professional cleaner.
Air Dry in Direct Sunlight
If the mildew smell is minor, or if you've just noticed it, one quick way to get rid of it is to line dry your clothes in direct sunlight. The sun's UV rays kill most microbes that cause this smell, and sometimes drying them is all you need. Plus, there’s nothing quite like the fresh aroma of clothing and household linens dried in the sun rather than a dryer. Line drying can save you some money on your utility bills, too.
Of course, the tradeoff here is that the sun can cause discoloration (bleaching) if you leave your clothes exposed for too long. But in a pinch, this can be an easy way to get rid of that nasty smell.
Let Wet Clothes Dry First
This sounds counterintuitive, but if your clothes are wet from sweat or just plain old water, and you can't wash them right away, let them air dry first. This makes it less likely for mildew to grow in the first place and will make it easier to wash it out in a regular load.
You don't need to go crazy, but just don't leave wet clothes in a ball on the floor or at the bottom of the hamper. This will just make your life more complicated later on when it's time to do the wash. Instead, place your damp clothes on hangers, a clothesline or a drying rack and let them dry completely before tossing them in the hamper.
Clean from the Source
Lastly, if you do all of these things and still find your clothes smell, then there's a chance the problem is with your storage or washing machine. Look at your closet or dresser to see if any mold or mildew is growing — and if there is, clean it out. In the event it's moldy, you may need to call in a professional. As mentioned earlier, another great place to look for this is your washing machine itself, especially if you have a front loader.
How to Remove Mold from Your Clothing
In most cases, the musty smell in your clothes will be coming from mildew, but mold can be an issue, too.
The main difference is that mold will be much more visible. It is usually green or blue, fuzzy and really unpleasant looking!
When it comes to cleaning, the process is similar. The only difference is that mold penetrates the fabric, so it can stain. You'll want to start by washing off the big mold spores. Then, pre-treat the stained area as if you were cleaning any other stain. You can use detergent, dish soap, vinegar or any other stain product you like. Just be sure to use a product that’s safe for the fabric from which the garment is made.
Let it soak for some time, preferably overnight. After that, wash it using one of the methods described above and the mold — and its smell — should be gone.
Keep Your Clothes Smelling Fresh
That musty mildew smell coming from your clothes is not only disgusting, but it can also be a hygiene problem. Fortunately, you can get it out pretty easily. To prevent the smell from returning, regularly wash your clothes with a quality laundry detergent and make sure your clothes are completely dry before putting them away.
Now that you know where it comes from and how to wash it out once and for all, nothing is stopping you from keeping your clothes smelling fresh all the time.