Organize & Clean

How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Clothes

updated Sep 21, 2022
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Close up of laundry pile on double bed
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Have you ever buried your face in a fluffy towel expecting the sweet scents of fresh laundry, but were smacked with a musty basement smell instead? That is mildew, my friends. It’s not pleasant, it’s not great for your lungs, and you ​do not​ want a houseguest held hostage to it. But luckily, there is an easy way to get that mildew smell out of your clothes.

Laundry left in a washing machine over a warm weekend (no judgment, we’ve all done it!) or damp gym clothes crumpled up and tossed in a laundry basket are ideal climates for mildew to thrive. Mildew, like mold, is a form of fungus, and fungus stinks. You might think a simple wash cycle would lift that all-too-familiar musty smell, but you’d be very, very wrong.

You’re going to need a one-two punch to get mildew smells out of your clothes, towels, and linens.

Things You Should Know Before You Start

  • Don’t stress. Your clothing can be saved!
  • Don’t use heavily perfumed detergents when washing mildewed laundry. You want to treat the mildew and remove it; covering up the smell won’t solve the issue.
  • Don’t use fabric softener when washing mildewed laundry. Residue from fabric softener builds up over time and can make the problem worse.
  • Don’t forget to inspect and clean your washing machine—the source of the mildew could be coming from the seal.

How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Clothes, in 3 Steps

So, how do you get that mildew smell out of clothes? Luckily it can be done with two ingredients you probably already have in your pantry: distilled white vinegar and baking soda.

1. Wash your clothes in a cycle with vinegar.

Set the water temperature to the hottest setting on your machine. Spread the items out in the washing machine as evenly as possible and pour in 1 cup of white vinegar (no detergent!).

The water in your machine won’t necessarily get hot enough to sanitize your laundry, but the heat combined with the acetic acid in the vinegar will help break up any grime or bacteria that has started growing, which will help rid your clothing of that funky, musty smell.

2. Wash again with baking soda.

Once the vinegar load has finished, spread the laundry out around inside the washing machine and sprinkle in 1 cup of baking soda. Wash once more on the hottest setting. Baking soda is alkaline, which will help neutralize any remaining odors, leaving your laundry smelling like absolutely nothing at all!

3. Air-dry your clothes (in the sun, if possible).

Remove the laundry and line dry outdoors in the sun if you can. If this isn’t a possibility, put the laundry in the dryer on the appropriate setting for the fabric type.

Drying outside is preferable because ultraviolet rays from the sun have disinfecting properties that can help kill any remaining bacteria in the laundry and the sun acts as a natural bleaching agent. Added perks: not running your dryer will save energy and clothing that has been dried outdoors just smells so​.​ good.

If, after the laundry is completely dry, you catch a whiff of mildew, repeat the steps, this time adding a 1⁄2 cup vinegar to the rinse cycle, then dry.

What is the difference between mildew and mold?​

Mildew looks grey or yellow and has a light powdery texture, and is usually found growing in flat, spotty patterns. In most cases, your laundry won’t have visible mildew spots but will smell stinky.

Mold looks fuzzy (sometimes slimy) and is black or brown. ​It’s a bit more complicated to remove mold because the green and black growth leave behind stains that are tougher to treat.

Before you can treat the stain and odor, you need to get rid of the mold: Grab a stiff-bristled brush and scrape the mold away, then let the clothing soak in a solution of 1 part bleach to 3 parts hot water for 30 minutes. Rinse, then launder as usual. If the stain is gone, but the smell persists, launder with a vinegar wash followed up by a baking soda wash as instructed in the steps above.

Can you prevent mildew smell on clothes?

If you find your clothing is prone to mildew smells, take preventative measures by using scented vinegar instead of fabric softener, and be careful not to add too much laundry detergent to your loads as it can cause buildup.

Treating your bath towels to a vinegar wash and a baking soda wash once a month during humid summer months is also a great idea to prevent smells on your clothes.