How to freshen your towels and get rid of that mildew stink

Admit it. Your towels have smelled mildewy, moldy, like they sat wet for ever and ever because you left them in the washer too long. Now you need to how to get the mildew smell out of towels. Well, I do it all too often. It happens. You think you’re being productive because you threw a load of laundry in, then you forgot to toss them into the dryer and your clothes or towels developed this nasty smelling odor that just lingers and is just plain gross.  

Well, evidently it is because dirt, grime and detergent build up gets buried into the fibers of towels and clothing and when they are left wet, it can create that awful smell. Gross huh? I mean, we’ve all dried off with one of those towels before and then it’s like “why did I even shower?” You smell worse than before! Am I right? S.I.C.K.  

This doesn’t have to be you! Follow these easy steps to get fresh towels every single time!

Print linked here!

Time needed: 1 hour and 30 minutes.

How To Get Mildew Smell Out of Towels!

  1. Wash with Hot Water and Vinegar

    Wash your load of towels on the hot cycle and add 1 cup of vinegar to the load. Do not use detergent or anything (especially bleach – that can be super dangerous!)… just hot water and the vinegar. Let the washer do it’s job. Then, if you still smell a little bit, rewash with just hot water and 1/2 cup of baking soda. I did not need to do this step but if your towels are bad, you might want to. Again, no detergent, just baking soda and hot water. Got it?

  2. Wash with Hot Water and Baking Soda

    Then, if you still smell a little bit, rewash with just hot water and 1/2 cup of baking soda. I did not need to do this step but if your towels are bad, you might want to. Again, no detergent, just baking soda and hot water. Got it?

  3. Time for the Dryer!

    When your towels are done, throw them in the dryer. Done and done! They always come out smelling great and fresh!

Wash your load of towels on the hot cycle and add 1 cup of vinegar to the load. Do not use detergent or anything (especially bleach – that can be super dangerous!)… just hot water and the vinegar. Let the washer do it’s job. Then, if you still smell a little bit, rewash with just hot water and 1/2 cup of baking soda. I did not need to do this step but if your towels are bad, you might want to. Again, no detergent, just baking soda and hot water. Got it?
When your towels are done, throw them in the dryer. Done and done! They always come out smelling great and fresh!
This also works well on clothing, like stinky wet swimsuits that were left sopping wet out of the pool! Just be sure to be careful with the hot water and mixing colors. You don’t want the colors to bleed so do them separately or with very like colors.
Check out Spring Cleaning Day 1 – Printable Cleaning and Laundry Schedules here

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  1. I never used to have that problem but over the last couple years it has started with my towels. Not because they have been left wet but after the wash & dry cycles they smell again right away when used in the bathroom. I will give this a try and worst case scenario I will be craving french fries and vinegar.

  2. Ahhh but you should NEVER use fabric softener with towels- it makes them less absorbent according to Martha Stewart. Great tip with vinegar. I finally started buying all white towels because I use bleach. I shall try the vinegar trick next time.

    1. I thought the same thing about the fabric softener. I stopped using it and my towels are much more absorbent. I will be trying the vinegar and the regular wash cycle for the stuff that sits all day partially wet from constant swimming all summer. Thanks for the tip!

    1. Not everyone can afford “Quality Luxury towels”! A simple towel will suffice for me because it only gets used for 2 mins then tossed in the hamper.

    2. I do have good quality towels but in the south the water during the summer carries a lot of mold. That’s why I use the vinegar and baking soda.

    3. we live in a coastal climate, no matter how much money I spend on my towels they’re going to smell like mildew the second someone uses them, it makes no difference how expensive they were, mold can’t read price tags

      1. YOU GO, GIRL! Daisy up there was either just using her condescending comment to sound Nouveau Riche or as an excuse to “plug” a link! But you voiced quite cleverly the very same thought I had reading her post… it matters not if the threads are the finest Egyptian Cotton or the coarsest, institutional grade fiber…. microbial processes are equal opportunity phenomena. In layperson terminology: M*ld Happens!
        Here’s to you for pointing out the inanity of that statement!

    4. Well, I have a couple of those “luxury towels”. They still smell mildewed. So, $$$ is not the answer here. Appreciate your comment though.

      1. like Meg pointed out mildew cannot read price tags. Anyway, towels get used once or twice and thrown into the hamper. I just googled stenchy water smell because of my drying mats. I just wanted to know how much vinegar do you use in a load?

    5. Not everyone can afford luxury towel snob. Lol and that’s not true bc we have them and every once in a while they do get mildew smell and iv noticed it is when I use fabric softner vs not.

    6. Even high quality “luxury” towels start to smell musty in time. This vinegar / baking soda trick works great! I have used this method a few times now and highly recommend it, even for high quality towels!

    1. Yes you can use it with an HE washer. For the HE washer you use the vinegar in the liquid soap area. If you are going to need to use the baking soda after the first vinegar wash, then you put the baking soda in where powder detergent would go. Hope this helps.

      1. If you have a front load HE washer, I’ve found it better to put the baking soda directly on the towels in the tub, instead of the soap dispenser. The baking soda doesn’t always wash out of the dispenser, at least on my Kenmore Elite.

    2. I have an HE washer and do this all the time. In fact, I use vinegar in all my first rinses. I do not use fabric softer with my towels, and never have. Because of our lifestyle, I do wash my towels with detergent and HOT water. Then use the vinegar in the rinse. Clothes go through 2 rinses and the first is vinegar. I put the baking soda in with the towels and clothes. i also use a liquid detergent.

        1. You can also make a fabric softener out of vinegar and baking soda. It’s 1 cup baking soda, 4 cups of water, 1 cup of vinegar and about 10 drops of essential oil you can buy at Walmart or Michael’s . mix it in a large container, I use a pail because once you add the vinegar it bubbles up like crazy so you don’t want it to bubb
          e over and be wasted. You can store it in your old fabric softener bottle. 1/2 cup per load and it works like a charm

    1. Try using powdered Borax. You’ll find it in the detergent aisle. It’s my go-to for smelly clothes, and it helps whiten without using bleach. Safe product.

      1. I tried Borax and it worked for a while, now no longer works. Will be trying the vinegar before scrapping and buying new towels.

  3. I am trying it now because all my dish cloths and towels smell like this and i appreciate this as i could find nothing useful out to help. thanks so much!

  4. I’ve got some towels that won’t stop smelling mildewy no matter what we try. Definitely giving this a try this weekend! Thanks!

  5. I put vinegar in the towels every time I wash them. I use cold water and detergent with it and it works just as good.

  6. Used cloth diapers for both my daughters (oh those many years ago!) and always rinsed them twice with a cup of vinegar in second rinse. This did double duty, removed the excess soap to keep them soft on baby’s bottom and they always smelled fresh! Use it on my towels still! Gotta love vinegar!

  7. what if you have hard water and cant use hot water…I have a softener but cant use hot water to wash in…will the vinegar still work and not leave rust stains…hate to ruin my towels or clothes…

  8. Front loaders are notorious for this and typy don’t even have to leave them very long lol. I can wah early am and if they aren’t transferred by afternoon then it already starts by dinner. Vinegar to the rescue lol again! To the dryer girl with the smell, try drying a damp vinegar towel maybe! Double bonus, vinegar softens your clothes and doesn’t lead to fabric softener buildup that affects towel absorbency. Smell goes away!

  9. Love that I’ve just found your site! Will try and visit often. Sorry for typos, dang phones give you a weird comment screen to work with lol!

  10. I was wondering, do you think this trick would work using a large plastic tub and soaking life jackets that have gotten that mildewy smell from storage and usage?

    1. That’s SUCH a great idea!!! It works well on swimsuits so I imagine it reduces or removes odors from most fabrics. I have had such good luck with it! It wouldn’t hurt to try, that’s for sure!!! Good luck and let us know!!

  11. Very interesting! I have horrible issues with my towels no matter if I get them straight out of the washer and into the dryer…it Still happens! I Hate that smell…eeek! Thanks so much for the tip as I will Definitely be trying this.

  12. Found you through pinterest, love the way you wrote this and like to see I’m not the only one being “productive” New follower here!

  13. When you pour the white vinegar into front loader will it hit the towels and leave like bleach spots?

  14. This popped up on Pinterest right after I left towels in the washer overnight. Perfect solution, thank you!

    1. Hi there! You will still want to wash your towels normally but this can be done before or after (preferably after a wash) if the towels smell when removing them from the washer. Thanks!

  15. Great tip! I stopped using fabric softener on my towels a couple of years ago and use vinegar instead. I just pour it into the softener dispenser when I start a load. I also do the same if I have a load of stinky clothes.

  16. I’m housesitting for a friend, and the first thing I noticed was a dreadful mildew stink in her front-loading washing machine. I’m an avid white vinegar user, so the first thing I did was run a full load of hot water with some vinegar. This helped somewhat, but the real cause of the stink is the awful black mold that builds up on the rubber gasket at the front of the machine! I ran a vinegar-dampened towel around the inside of that gasket, and was appalled at the black goo that came out. I recommend leaving the washer door open at night to air out the machine, and try to never leave wet laundry sitting there for too long.

    1. The front loading HE washers are notorious for this. I think it’s a design flaw. We kept getting a mildew smell from ours and couldn’t figure out the source until my wife pulled back the gasket one day. *GACK* Black mold everywhere.

      White vinegar is OK for mildew smell sometimes. However for stubborn cases I use Oxyclean. It works every time.

      1. Do you put the Oxyclean directly into the front of the HE washing machine or into the detergent or softener dispenser? I have the black mold problem and the stinky clothes if you don’t take the clothes out right away, and I want to get rid of that smell asap. Thanks!

    2. I put baking soda and lemon juice in my washer at least once a month to get rid of the smell and clean my front load washing machine.

  17. I just tried this trick last night and it worked. Didn’t use any detergent, and only used vinegar and water. Does this mean the towels are clean now or do I need to wash them again but this time with detergent?

    1. Hi Lydia, No, it seems from an earlier comment the instructions are actually to wash your towels as normal, then do a vinegar wash. I just put mine in the vinegar wash first (I didn’t realize the order of things). I’ll run them through a regular wash after the fact this time 🙂

  18. I use vinegar for fabric softener in my front loader……then later I noticed there is no longer any smell in my front loader. The vinegar takes care of it I guess. I have several items that started saying “no fabric softener.” I didn’t want to wash them separately. So I started using vinegar for the softener. It does a good job controlling the static. Occasionally there is an item or 2 that has static….and I just give it a shake and don’t worry about it. Certainly saves me money too.

  19. Bleach Super Dangerous? Cmon…what are we 12 years old? Pour Bleach right into a filled washer w/ water inside and youll be fine.

    1. LC, it’s what you mix with bleach that can result in noxious fumes. Notoriously, bleach and ammonia together do so.

  20. We hang our towels after every use……and typically get 2 uses out of them, and never had a problem with the mildew smell…..but I’ve always added a cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle too……I’m sure that helps keep them good….It’s funny cause when I first met my GF she didn’t want me doing laundry, she’s like ewww vinegar, it’s gonna make me smell……but after the drying cycle, you don’t even SMELL the vinegar………

  21. I am absolutely going to try this NOW. Where does the vinegar go? In the drum or through the detergent dispenser? I have a front loader.

    1. I put about 1/3 cup vinegar in the softener dispenser. Sometimes I pour about 1/3 cup into the detergent dispenser also if I want to boost the power of my laundry soap. Right now I’m using the ‘pods’ that you put in with your clothes. If I had regular laundry soap, I would put the vinegar in the bleach dispenser .

      If I’m putting bleach in a load of whites, I only use vinegar as the softener.

      I’m glad I have changed to vinegar for softening. It is cheaper and the surprise bonus is that there is NO more smell from my front loader. It works plenty well enough. Sometimes I have 1 or 2 items that I need to shake because of static cling. That doesn’t bother me, though. I do have a synthetic blanket that I will try to remember to use a dryer sheet when I dry it.

  22. Love the healthy idea for using vinegar and, if needed, adding baking soda.

    Dryer sheets, however, are unhealthy. Perhaps, if not fragranced they are O.K., but I’m not sure. I heard that using tin foil instead of dryer sheets works well. I also heard that vinegar is a natural substitute for dryer sheets.

    Have you ever heard this about dryer sheets?

    1. I think apple cider vinegar would work, but plain white vinegar is so much cheaper. I use some ACV for eating/cooking, but buy the white vinegar by the gallons for laundry and cleaning. (2 gallon box at Sam’s Club for about $3.50.)

  23. I’ve been looking for a solution to that musty smell – I will have to try this!

    On a potentially unrelated note, does anyone have any advice on getting rid of dog fur in/on towels and clothes? (Laundry advice that is; we’re all over brushes, vaccumes, etc.) I have a front-loader and have tried different settings. Instead of being removed in the wash, my items are covered in felted balls of dog fur. Suggestions?

    1. What works for us is to throw the blankets/clothes that the fur kids lay on into the dryer for a short cycle, and then wash them. The majority of it is collected in the lint screen, and I don’t notice an exorbitant amount of fur on the clothes once they have been laundered.

  24. Perfect timing! We just ran into this issue and did the first step but haven’t done the baking soda step! So glad I stumbled upon this today!

  25. Going to try this. Any suggestions on how to clean your washer?. I dont want to buy the expensive products available.

    1. Anne, I have a front loading washer, and get the mold. I pour some bleach (1 cup or more) into the empty washer,
      and run a cycle. When it’s finished, I use paper towels and wipe out the gasket, especially under the gasket. You won’t believe how much “gunk” you clean out. I end up using several paper towels, but the washing machine is clean!

  26. Great post, it is becoming, even more, difficult to wash towels and get the wet smell removed especially for those on the west coast who are facing drought restrictions and for those who live in areas where the water is hard and high in calcium.

  27. Hi! I live in Toronto and nobody carries distilled white vinegar, is there a difference between distilled white vinegar and pure white vinegar? The only ones they have is pure white vinegar and pickling white vinegar which one is better for cleaning and washing? Thank you

  28. Thank you so much for the tip. I do this after every day at work with my microfiber towels and it works just great! So +1 approval with experience. 🙂 Keep up the good work, this collection is awesome!

  29. I’ve done this many time and the small just keeps coming back. Also, the hot water is so hard on my towels, they basically are just falling apart over time. What am I doing wrong to get them smelly in the first place? I cut down my detergent per load, I rarely use fabric softener with towels (as I hear it can cause build up on them) but not I’m left with scratchy, paper thin towels that are totally faded. There has to be some other way to keep towels fresh, clean AND soft!

  30. I would add that putting them in the sun to dry would be helpful too. I could do that in my old house with no trees but now I’ve got 4 fifty-year-old oaks that block my sun and my towels have been the worst they ever have.

  31. Thanks for the great tip! Now that the cooler weather has hit Berlin my towels haven’t been drying so fast. They’re starting to smell of mildew, so I think I’ll trying chucking some white vinegar in the washing machine next time.

  32. Bleach is dangerous? Come on, that’s the best germ killing disinfectant there is. Now, its not the best at getting smells out like this, but don’t poo poo bleach.

  33. Not sure why u wouldn’t just soak towels in diluted bleach water for a while that’s what I do n my towels never stink. Of course I buy white ones I think this diy is good for colors. But my husband HATES the smell of vinegar and guarantee somehow he would sniff it out

  34. We have a front loader washer and we make sure to keep the door open when not in use. Every couple of months I put about half cup of vinegar in the liquid detergent dispenser, quarter cup of baking soda in the powder detergent dispenser and…….5-6 drops of tea tree oil in with the vinegar. I run the washer empty on a normal cycle using hot water and it’s like new!!

  35. I’m certainly going to attempt the baking soda trick. I have a major prob with towels getting smelly after few uses, which influences me to think about whether, for poor bathroom ventilation, over-uses is a reason… How frequently do you change your towels? I’m changing hand towels on a daily basis, yet have tried to get more uses out of a bath towel before washing it…

  36. I would have never thought to use vinegar on anything besides French fries!! Oh my god thanks so much!

  37. At our place we’ve been using vinegar and lemon in so many new ways that we would never have thought of. They really have so many uses.

  38. My towels are musty smelling from the dryer, but my sheets and pillowcases
    and none of my clothing have that smell.
    It is odd

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