Laundering Kitchen Towels
July 17, 2010 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Laundry Filter 2: Bleaching my kitchen towels hasn't worked, what else could I use to get them smelling and feeling clean and crisp?

I have a large stack of kitchen/tea towels that we use for kitchen chores and everyday napkins. Even though I launder them regularly with hot water and bleach, they've still acquired a faint musty, greasy odor and a sort of coated, possibly oily texture. Is there something I could wash or soak them in to get them back to a clean, crisp state? Vinegar, baking soda, some sort of laundry additive? I don't want to throw away 20-30 perfectly functional tea towels, but the musty odor is definitely unappealing to use around food.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Try washing in baking soda or vinegar. Both are good at removing smells.
Also, let them soak for a while. Start your washer, add your detergent, fill with hot water...and then fast forward the cycle so that it drains, then start the wash over again with the detergent.
And make sure you dry them completely.
posted by phunniemee at 9:44 AM on July 17, 2010

Best answer: Try baking soda or one of those "oxygen" cleaners like OxyClean.

Unfortunately, however, towels eventually get gross and go from "everyday" to "cleaning rags." It might be time to relegate them to the cleaning closet.
posted by radioamy at 9:48 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try using less detergent, and don't use any fabric softener (either when washing or when drying). I did the "wash with vinegar, then wash with baking soda" thing with some towels, and it didn't make a difference. But getting rid of the fabric softener definitely helped.
posted by bcwinters at 10:00 AM on July 17, 2010

I have the same problem. I think the musty and oily comes from the towels I use for cleanup in the kitchen, so I wash table napkins separately. The napkins stay fresh, even if the kitchen towels and rags don't.

I'd try doing a long presoak in hot water and detergent and bleach followed by line drying in the sun and fresh air.
posted by zippy at 10:08 AM on July 17, 2010

Bleach doesn't remove grease, it only disinfects. Vinegar can dissolve grease, but if your towels have gone through many cycles of getting greasy and then getting dried after laundering, trying to get rid of it may be a lost cause. You can try soaking them in a natural degreaser like Simple Green or CitrSolve then washing, or boiling them on the stove in a vinegar/water mix. Then wash as usual.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:11 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there some reason you won't throw them away and buy new ones? They are relatively cheap at KMart, Ikea, etc. I just bought a three-pack for like $2. Recycle them into car rags if that makes you feel better.
posted by kidelo at 10:12 AM on July 17, 2010

You might try using some borax as well.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:19 AM on July 17, 2010

Seconding the borax.
Also, are they all cotton? I swear synthethic fabrics give off an odor like that after a while.
posted by littleflowers at 10:21 AM on July 17, 2010

I think your problem is very likely to be a living organism which is not killed by bleach (because of a biofilm you perceive as "greasy"), or ordinary 'hot' water.

I saved my towels by putting them through a pressure cooker-- 15 min. on high (15lbs.)-- and then washing them.
posted by jamjam at 10:31 AM on July 17, 2010

Best answer: Ammonia. This is exactly what it's for. Apologizes for this link being eHow, but it outlines use of laundry ammonia perfectly.

No, your towels will not smell like ammonia when they're dry, I PROMISE.

I'm kind of flummoxed that Metafilter is so unfamiliar with old-school laundry techniques.
posted by desuetude at 10:34 AM on July 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

I spray kitchen towels with vinegar before washing. It works really well unless the grease has been baked in by many washings and dryings already.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:01 AM on July 17, 2010

Dry in the sun after washing. Doing so really does work wonders.
posted by zizzle at 11:36 AM on July 17, 2010

This happens to my kitchen towels occasionally too. What works for me is washing them in hot water, with no soap until there aren't suds anymore, then drying them in the hot sun for as long as possible.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 12:49 PM on July 17, 2010

I never add liquid softener to my towels or bed linens because it coats them and the coating builds up. Instead I wash all my kitchen and bath towels in detergent and Borax on the hottest temps possible and dry in the dryer with a softener sheet to reduce static. No greasy build-up.

Also, if you do decide to use ammonia in the laundry, make sure your detergent doesn't have added bleach; bleach and ammonia are a deadly combination.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:56 PM on July 17, 2010

Best answer: Seconding ammonia. There is nothing better for greasy laundry. It also works great on laundry that's really dirty but can't be bleached--especially blue jeans. I use the water on the hottest setting, ammonia, detergent, and no fabric softener (sheet or liquid). Fabric softener should never be used on towels because it makes them less absorbent.
posted by GlowWyrm at 2:26 PM on July 17, 2010

Wash with detergent and ammonia, then put vinegar in the rinse. Also, no fabric softener, it works by coating the fibers with fat.
posted by fifilaru at 3:22 PM on July 17, 2010

Lestoil is a very effective degreaser, even after things have been through the dryer, and you can use it diluted in the wash. You'll have to wash the towels a couple of times after that to get rid of the smell of Lestoil.
posted by palliser at 3:58 PM on July 17, 2010

Best answer: Another vote for ammonia. I've used ammonia for this purpose for a long time. I wash dish rags and dish towels only twice a week,so they can get pretty bad. If the ammonia smell bothers you, fill the washer with water, and then add the ammonia. After that, add the stinky items.
posted by wryly at 3:59 PM on July 17, 2010

I've never used ammonia, but I have used washing soda, sodium carbonate (not bicarbonate, that's baking soda). It's in the laudry aisle at the supermarket, with directions on the package.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:05 PM on July 17, 2010

Just PLEASE don't use ammonia and bleach in the same wash - that mixture can be lethal (as in, it can kill you.)
posted by metaphorical at 7:34 PM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies! I tried a combination of several ideas, with great success. First I soaked them in hot water and drained that; refilled the washing machine with hot water and ammonia and soaked again, then agitated; refilled and agitated again with baking soda; finally refilling and agitating again with plain detergent; then dried in the dryer with no dryer sheet. (I live in an apartment with no access to a sunny spot or I would have loved to have dried them in the sun). I probably spent as much on hot water and additives as I would have to buy new towels, but I feel all virtuous by saving these. From here on out, I'll pre-wash them with ammonia before laundering.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 5:31 PM on July 18, 2010

Glad you found success. For the record, you don't have to pre-wash with ammonia. Just add it to the washing machine with about half as much detergent as usual. Use a setting that lets the laundry soak for a bit (like delicates) or just let the tub fill up and leave the lid up (thus preventing the progression of the cycle) until you're ready.

Short version: The ammonia isn't something that needs to be washed out. The fumey odor is volatile and dissipates by the time you're done washing.
posted by desuetude at 9:16 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

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