How to clean Musty Towels
September 17, 2008 6:34 AM   Subscribe

How can I get this awful, musty smell out of my towels?

A wierd thing happened with my towels. I left them in my apartment over the summer, and the subletter here made the entire place stink, including my towels on the linen rack. When I came back, I noticed thier awful, musty smell (same as the apartment smelled), and threw them in the wash. They came out just fine.

Here is the wierd part: after one use, the old smell was triggered again and it reemerged! So they smell just as bad as when I thre them into the wash. How can I remove this smell once and for all?

Do any MeFites have similar experiences?

Thanks, all!
posted by milestogo to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The same thing happened to us. I washed the towels with about a cup of vinegar and it got rid of the smell. I usually hang-dry everything, but towels are going in the dryer now, except if it's a sunny day and they'll dry quickly.
posted by OLechat at 6:40 AM on September 17, 2008

Hang them out in the sun for a few days. Sunlight can work wonders at odour removal.
posted by ssg at 6:44 AM on September 17, 2008

Just stuffing some dryer sheets (with scent) amongst the stack of towels always keeps things smelling fresh.
posted by boulder20something at 6:44 AM on September 17, 2008

It's a towel, so it's not like you can damage it. Boil-wash it, and leave it on a washing line for a couple of rainy/windy days.
posted by Leon at 6:44 AM on September 17, 2008

OLechat, how did you wash them?

Thanks for the quick responses, everyone.
posted by milestogo at 6:46 AM on September 17, 2008

Second washing in vinegar. I added the vinegar to the wash cycle with very little soap. I dried the towels then washed again regular way. It works for long periods. Every few months the smell comes back. In fact, I noticed it this morning.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:53 AM on September 17, 2008

Wash once with a cup of vinegar, then once with a cup of baking soda - get the mold coming and going, so to speak. Then hang dry in the sun (wind if possible), flipping them after an hour to get sun exposure on all surfaces.

While you're at it, do the same for your sheets. Sun-dried sheets have a crispness that makes you sleep better. (me, anyway.)
posted by notsnot at 6:53 AM on September 17, 2008

Also, if you are taking your clean towels and putting them back in a musty room, they will get musty. You don't mention if you've managed to rid the rest of your place of the musty smell but if not, focus on that for a little bit, or store your towels someplace a little more airtigth while you do that. If they're picking up mildews and molds from the surrounding surfaces, continued washing won't help much.
posted by jessamyn at 7:04 AM on September 17, 2008

Do you have a front loading washer? I recently learned the, ah, hard way I suppose, that I need to leave the door on it open (and for good measure, the soap tray). I was wiping the rubber gasket from time to time, but noticed that towels were especially turning up smelling oddly, and I think that was it. I cleaned up the gasket and I'm leaving it open now, and I can tell a difference. May or may not solve your problem, but if you have a front loader, can't hurt.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:15 AM on September 17, 2008

I had this exact problem this past summer. For me, it was in a move. Apparently they weren't completely dry, because after I unpacked them they smelled awful, and no amount of washing them would get it out.

Sour towels are generally caused by bacteria growing on them. During normal use, these build up as you dry yourself, but if properly dried, they don't have that much chance to grow and reproduce, especially if washed regularly. But give them a chance to really get in there, and a simple washing won't get them out.

Solution? Washing as normal plus a splash, no more than an ounce or two, of regular old bleach. When diluted enough, the whitening effects of bleach are eliminated while preserving the sterilization properties. Better than vinegar, as it leaves them smelling all clean. Dry as usual, and problem solved.
posted by valkyryn at 7:56 AM on September 17, 2008

I third washing with vinegar. You can just pour some vinegar straight into the washing machine. If the odor is very strong, you might try soaking them in a bucket full of cold water mixed with a cup or two of white vinegar. Let 'em soak overnight, then put them directly in the washer as usual.
posted by ourobouros at 8:44 AM on September 17, 2008

Backup to Nedieval Maven - front loaders are notorious for odorific issues if they don't dry out properly. That was an ugly day of discovery for us as well!
posted by TomSophieIvy at 9:08 AM on September 17, 2008

Washing soda. Looks like a big box of baking soda, but isn't. It's an old-fashioned product and not carried everywhere, but gets funk out. Unlike vinegar, doesn't have its own smell. Unlike bleach, won't risk ruining your laundry.
posted by sageleaf at 9:19 AM on September 17, 2008

Don't continue to use these towels until you get this fixed; the circumstances suggest whatever is growing on your towels could have come from the skin of your subletter, and you probably would rather not have such a thing growing on you.

If you have a large pressure cooker, steam them on high for 15 minutes.
posted by jamjam at 9:40 AM on September 17, 2008

What I've done in the past is soak the towels in the washing machine with one cup of baking soda for two hours. Run through a normal wash, dry immediately in the dryer, and the smell will be gone for good.
posted by puritycontrol at 10:16 AM on September 17, 2008

I've had similar situations where vinegar didn't do the trick. A cup of ammonia, however, worked very well.
posted by jon1270 at 10:24 AM on September 17, 2008

Sounds like the apartment is the culprit - we have a weird master bath where the linen closet is between the two halves - suffice it to say the room does not dry and the linen closet is a musty moldy place. Anything that stays in there for more than a day smells the same. I gave up trying to get the smell out of the room, gave the old towels to the dog and bought new towels, and keep them in a different closet. I'm a bit lazy I guess, but new towels were worth it.

However - vinegar? An amazing substance. I use it for all my household cleaning. It works better than bleach to remove stains from the formica and the smell of vinegar is gone once it's dry. Awesome stuff.
posted by jesirose at 11:34 AM on September 17, 2008

I've used vinegar for the same problem. I had left a load in my washer for the weekend and I tried color safe bleach, OXY clean, a bunch of detergent to get rid of the smell. Nothing worked. I then read about vinegar. I used the hot water cycle with no soap. Dried them as usual and they smelled great when done. I was pretty skeptical about it working, but it worked.
posted by MiggySawdust at 3:09 PM on September 17, 2008

Check the washing machine, esp. if it's a frontloader. It may be harboring some ookiness; do a load of whites with bleach and hot water.
posted by theora55 at 4:23 PM on September 17, 2008

One thing I use to disinfect clothing is tea tree oil, added with the soap. It destroys the bacteria that cause the odors. It's great, since I have a front loader, and if I forget to leave the door open, it deodorizes the machine also. About 1/2 a teaspoon is more than enough. I don't like to use bleach, because it is not good for the environment, and tends to irritate my skin.
posted by annsunny at 9:02 AM on October 8, 2008

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