How to get body odor out of a silk dress
April 15, 2010 5:42 PM   Subscribe

I can't get a body odor smell out of an expensive silk dress. Dry cleaning seems to have made it worse. Does anyone know what might get the smell out?
posted by let444 to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have always had amazing luck using a few drops of pure tea tree oil in a load of wash to get out even the most entrenched smells like mildew or post work out smells. The fact that the dress is silk means you probably don't want to apply water to it, even using an atomizer or a spray bottle of diluted tea tree oil. So off the top of my head, I would probably put a few drops of the oil on a cotton ball or two, put the cotton balls and the dress inside a ziplock back (taking care to place the cotton ball dry side touching the dress) and see if the strong fumes can permeate the dress for a few days. I get the tea tree oil at Trader Joes or whole foods.
posted by Rapunzel1111 at 5:58 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Are you sure that isn't the smell of the silk itself? It has a smell you know and some might consider it similar to body odor.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:58 PM on April 15, 2010

It could be that you took it to a bad dry cleaner. If they haven't changed the solution in their machines for a while, it starts to smell bad (the accumulated smells of everything already run through it!) and can impart that smell to your clothes. I hate dry cleaners so I'm not really suggesting that you take it to a new dry cleaner just offering that as a possible explanation. Also, silk can totally be hand-washed but if the dress has lots of construction and/or decorative features, it might be tough to do that right.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 6:13 PM on April 15, 2010

Are you sure that isn't the smell of the silk itself? It has a smell you know and some might consider it similar to body odor.

Ugh, I hate the smell of silk. Just thinking about it makes me gag.

According to this page, you can handwash silk with a bit of woolite.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:13 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know it's a disgusting chemical product, and, as Rapunzel1111 notes, it's tough to spray liquids on silk - but - I use just the tiniest, lightest spray of Febreze on the inside underarm area of a lot of my synthetic work-out clothes (which suffer from the same problem, i.e., can't get the BO out in the wash) before I wash them -- works like a charm.

Also, it says on the bottle that it's safe for "virtually all fabrics" although for fabrics that may water-spot, like silk, they recommend testing it first on a place you can't see.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 6:19 PM on April 15, 2010

You might also look about in your area for a "green" cleaner, who uses liquid CO2 process dry cleaning, or other alternatives to the standard "perc" dry cleaning solution.
posted by paulsc at 6:26 PM on April 15, 2010

You might find something useful in this earlier question about smelly silk.
posted by RichardP at 6:26 PM on April 15, 2010

Soak Wash. You don't really wash it, just put it in a bucket (or the sink) with water and Soak, let it sit for a while, and then hang it up to dry (no scrubbing, no rinsing, no residue after). The scentless flavour is amazing on smells and has saved some of my workout clothing.
posted by anaelith at 6:27 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

there's a thread here:

it mentions 3% undiluted antibacterial hydrogen peroxide, whatever that is....
posted by lakersfan1222 at 6:30 PM on April 15, 2010

I would suggest finding a place where you can air the dress out for a couple of days (outside if that's possible) before adding any more cleaning products to the dress. It could be that whatever volatile chemicals are lingering in the fabric just need to dissipate naturally. I do this with garments that I clean with Dryel -- I find the smell of it so overpowering and noxious so I'll hang those items on the porch for a day or two and the smell is almost completely gone.
posted by contessa at 6:32 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: Seconding hanging the dress to air out. Outside is best. If you can do it where it gets a little direct sunlight, that usually does wonders. Too much direct sunlight can fade the fabric, so maybe a couple of hours of sunlight, and then maybe 48 hours of shaded hanging. That usually does the trick for me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:37 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could try spraying it with or soaking it in isopropyl alcohol. Use a high purity (like >90%) to lower the chance of residue from any impurities in the water that the alcohol is diluted with. Try it on an inconspicuous area of the dress to make sure it doesn't affect the silk, first. Also, use it in a well ventilated area; leave the garment outside or in a closed room with an open window while the alcohol is evaporating. (I made the mistake of not doing this once... turns out that the alcohol evaporates into the air, which isn't too pleasant. Heh.)

The alcohol should kill the bacteria that are causing giving rise to the smell, and hopefully its solvent properties will help break down the stinky bacterial excretions. I'm not sure if just spraying will be sufficient to denature the smelly compounds; you might need to soak and agitate the dress to maximize the effects of the solvent properties of alcohol. Is it a really lightweight dress? If so, you could let it soak with alcohol in a bowl and seal the top with some kind of plastic wrap, or put it in large ziplock bag with the alcohol.
posted by sentient at 6:57 PM on April 15, 2010

I know it's a disgusting chemical product...

It's a starch.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:09 PM on April 15, 2010

I haven't used this technique with silk, but it's worked well to get odors out of old wood furniture (another notorious holder of noxious scents): I burn a nice-smelling incense - rose is a good one - in an enclosed space with the item, and alternate airing in fresh air with incense treatments until the offending odor vanishes.
posted by Billegible at 7:24 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: Sunlight for the win.

If you aren't worried about photobleaching (and a few hours shouldn't be a problem), wait for a very warm (preferably low humidity) very sunny day (preferably with a bit of a breeze) and hang the dress out in the sun. Flip after a couple of hours so the other side sees direct sunlight. Maybe even hang it out inside-out.

Body odour (at least, bad body odour) is mostly from bacterial metabolic wastes (everyone has commensal body bacteria - sweat has lots of nutrients for bacteria, the bacterial "poop" can smell really bad). The UV in sunlight can break down some of these low carbon number organic compounds into more volatile/soluble products. Heat and airflow (and low humidity) can also help remove some of the more volatile nasally-offensive organic compounds. If it gets hot enough, it can also kill any residual live bacteria on the garment and prevent re-occurrence of the smell problem once you give the bacteria a bit of "food."

Is the dress "stinky" or just "smells like you a lot?"

I've used the sunlight method for some of my stuff and also recommended to other people and it works. Hockey gloves are smelly but baking them in hot sun works well (sometimes inside a black garbage bag for a while before airing out). Likely not possible with the dress, but baking hockey equipment in the sun after being sprinkled/coated with baking soda makes the process more effective. One exception that I've encountered was a heavily sweat stained piece of clothing from a pregnant woman. It ended up being a total write-off. The owner couldn't detect an odour problem with the garment but a large percentage of other people were on the verge of retching when close to it.

Hydrogen peroxide (you can buy the 3% stuff in the first aid section of) is a reactive oxygen species that kills bacteria and can break down some of the low carbon number organic molecules or otherwise render them more volatile/soluble. However, hydrogen peroxide can also bleach lots of dyes, and to soak a dress can take lots of H2O2, which in the first aid section is sold in 200-500mL quantities (a dozen ounces or so?).

Canadian Tire sells something called "Smoke Relief" which is a liquid that is aerosolized. I have no idea what's in it, but it's very effective at removing odour (especially from smoke, and pet odours, possibly even human odours) but I suspect that it's some polar ionic molecule that binds an- and/or cat- ions and makes them easier to precipitate out or at least too bulky to trigger odour receptors in the nose. Despite the fear of sounding like a shill, I really really really like this product for odour removal. Of course, if the source of the smell is living bacteria, this is only a short-term solution.
posted by porpoise at 7:39 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's a starch.

Really? That's awesome.

(I read the Wikipedia entry about it but not only was there not much there I'll also admit I didn't really understand what I was this is great info. Thanks!)
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:19 PM on April 15, 2010

No, Fabrese is ethyl alcohol in water (pdf) with a few perfumes added. It's exactly the same as the old theatre trick of spaying costumes with diluted vodka. The "harsh chemical" in it is alcohol.

That's probably the easiest thing the poster can try: get a squirt bottle with 1 part vodka, 10 parts water---4% alcohol---or buy some Fabrese for many times that price---and give the garment a spritz.

Note that I would not use peroxide solutions on silk. It's a bleach, so it might ruin the colours, and it can damage the silk fabric itself.
posted by bonehead at 5:49 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Febreze is based on a chemical that is far more interesting than starch or alcohol, though starch is used as a feedstock for its synthesis, and alcohol is among its less interesting ingredients. The active ingredients in Febreze are donut-shaped molecules, cyclodextrins, that act as cages to contain other molecules, including strongly scented ones.

I would never use Febreze as a substitute for real cleaning or a good airing, since I loathe the synthetic perfumes it tends to be loaded with, but it is a lot more than just starch or alcohol.

I've noticed that many MSDS pages omit the interesting contents of the products they describe, based on the manufacturers' claims that those ingredients are not hazardous, so the only ingredients that show up on the MSDS are less important ingredients such as ethanol. An MSDS is often entirely useless for determining how a product works.

I agree that 3% hydrogen peroxide is not a harmless choice for silk. Airing would be my first choice, and gently washing in plain water or choosing a better dry cleaner would come second and third.
posted by Ery at 6:02 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Febreeze is a masking product not a cleaning product. I find it disgusting and useless. The product I've found that gets deep funk out is Oxy Clean powder. Put a little in when you hand wash /soak with Woolite for silk. Rinse. Repeat. Check directions first though. Not sure that it works on silk without damaging but it WILL get the nasty smells out of everything I've washed and I am very particular about 'that' smell. Good luck. And yeah you probably picked up bad smells from the dry cleaners dirty fluid. I've had that happen. Disgusting.
posted by Muirwylde at 9:18 PM on April 16, 2010

N-thing the advice for no bleaches, including hydrogen peroxide, on silk.

I've heard of soaking for a few minutes in slightly acidic water - enough lemon juice to be barelynoticeable in taste - followed by a thorough rinse, for both cleaning silk and "relaxing" silk proteins. Don't know if that is backed up with good science.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:12 AM on April 17, 2010

Response by poster: I would never even consider soaking or spraying anything on this dress, so skeptically I went with the "air it out" ideas and to my surprise that helped alot. Another option if that didn't work would be to find a cleaner that had an ozone room. I know that's where people send serious coture gowns (it's not as exotic as it sounds. It is similar to letting it air out) but, that is not easy to find and a little pricey. Thanks everyone for your help!
posted by let444 at 7:44 AM on April 19, 2010

Oh, totally forgot - have you tried freezing it?

It works great on stinky shoes and I've heard that people don't wash their expensive couture jeans but instead, freeze them, these days. dang kids

Maybe put the dress in a paper bag, then stick it in your freezer for a while?
posted by porpoise at 8:21 AM on April 19, 2010

« Older How do membership discount cards work?   |   Is $10,500 reasonable for a 2004 Volkswagen Jetta... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.