How to Finally Get That Mildew Smell Out of Your Towels

published Nov 8, 2023
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Head on view of three towels rolled and resting on a marble bathroom counter.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

There’s nothing like towels straight out of the dryer — unless, of course, the smell of mildew overpowers that otherwise fresh, fluffy pile. 

The good news is that it’s not too hard to freshen up towels marred by mildew, although you might have to alter your laundry habits to avoid it happening again. 

Below, how to get the mildew smell out of your towels, and, more importantly, how to keep it from creeping back again.

Quick Overview

How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Towels

  • Step 1: Presoak your towels in warm water and 1/2 cup of vinegar. 
  • Step 2: Wash towels on the hottest temperature setting recommended for towels. Add regular detergent and 1/2 cup of baking soda. 
  • Step 3: Dry towels completely.

Can Mildew Really Grow on Towels?

Yes. Mildew grows on various surfaces and materials including cotton, so your bath, hand, and kitchen towels are a veritable breeding ground for it. It grows faster in damp, dark places like your laundry room or an overflowing laundry basket. We’re not passing judgment here, but it’s a good reason to keep on top of laundry duties, as mildew can discolor fabrics and produce a musty, unpleasant odor. 

But there’s even more to worry about than having stinky, faded towels. Left unchecked, mildew can even cause materials to disintegrate. And because it can take between 24 and 48 hours to grow, you’re on a clock for keeping this nasty stuff away from your towels.

How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Towels

While it’s not necessary to get rid of your towels and buy all new ones, you need to treat mildewy towels quickly. Here, Maria Mooney, cleaning expert at Truly Free, walks us through the process.

Step 1: Presoak towels. 

Fill a bucket or sink with warm water and add a 1/2 cup of white vinegar. Submerge your towels in what Mooney calls “this magical mixture” and soak for 30 minutes. “The vinegar will help eliminate the odor-causing bacteria,” she explains.

Step 2: Wash towels. 

Remove the towels from their presoak bath and add them to your washing machine. Set the washer to the hottest temperature recommended for the towels. You can use your regular detergent but add a 1/2 cup of baking soda for “extra punch against mildew,” says Mooney. 

Step 3: Dry towels completely. 

Pay attention to when your washing machine stops so you can get those towels in the dryer as soon as possible. “Don’t leave your towels damp and vulnerable to mildew’s sneaky return,” warns Mooney. Go ahead and choose a high heat setting and tumble them until they are completely dry.

How to Avoid Smelly Towels in the Future

While removing the smell of mildew from towels is easy enough, the real trick is keeping it away for good. To avoid future mildew mishaps, Mooney offers the following advice.

  • Hang towels properly after use. Do not leave them in a damp pile or bunched together. Even if you do hang them separately, make sure they have enough room to breathe; otherwise, they won’t dry fully. If you’ve just taken them out of the dryer, be sure they are completely dry before folding the towels and putting them away. 
  • Ventilate the bathroom after bathing. Open a window or turn on the exhaust fan after a shower or bath to expel excess moisture and humidity. This is especially important if you hang damp towels in your bathroom, a habit you might want to consider if you’re having a problem with mildew.
  • Wash towels regularly. Laundering towels once a week is fine if you live in a dry climate, but go ahead and wash them more frequently if you’re in a humid climate. That’s because the moisture in the air will only contribute to mildew growth in damp towels. “Keeping them clean and dry is key,” says Mooney.