What the funk
March 31, 2011 2:56 PM   Subscribe

Why is there a funky smell on my bath towels?

I initially thought it was mildew (due to re-using towels twice or three times). But said funky smell manifests itself immediately after single use. Has anyone else experience such funky behaviour from towels? What causes it?

I don't smell, that I know of.
posted by dontjumplarry to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Use hot water when washing your towels. I had the same problem and then started to wash my towels in hot/cold washing cycles and then max dry to eliminate any moisture. Hope this helps..
posted by melizabeth at 2:59 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you have a front-loading washing machine? If you do, it might be stinky and need cleaning with something like Affresh.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:00 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you in the habit of leaving wet laundry in the washer overnight? Laundry can take on a funky, non-mildewy odor that will become more apparent when the item gets damp again.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:01 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

You need to clean bath towels with hot water and now and then add a little bit of bleach, or that sort of thing happens.
posted by mhoye at 3:03 PM on March 31, 2011

Do you re-fold your towels immediately after use or do you hang them open to dry?
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:09 PM on March 31, 2011

Response by poster: I hang out but it's been fairly damp where I am (Oz) and so they'll often take ages to dry.

I did think it had to be my skin flakes or something, because the funky smell will definitely get worse after the towel is re-used. But if Serene Empress is right, this is just the inherent towelish odor reasserting itself and not my body funk.

Will try hot water and bleach.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:14 PM on March 31, 2011

Yes, it is the quasi-mildew odor that laundry can sometimes catch. I think I solved mine with a good long soak in oxyclean every few washes. It IS some kind of mildew-like bug.

You have to dry the stuff well also. Sometimes it can get into dryers that people continually don't let run long enough to completely dry out.
posted by gjc at 3:20 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mildew (mold) lives in dampness and can remain on shower walls, in fabrics, especially natural fabrics kept in dark, humid conditions. Heat, light, air and, if necessary, fungicides are the answer. The conditions that make the front loading washer funky smelling also exist in the shower. Even if the towel seems dry, there is enough moisture in the air in a bathroom to keep the mildew thriving. Google mildew for plenty of information on products and methods for fighting it and be sure you treat the towels, shower walls, etc., to a good bleaching and drying. (I once got rid of mildew on a treasured, fragile piece of fabric simply by boiling and sun drying it.)

Mildew is bad enough when you find it in the bathroom but it's a disaster for books and one against which librarians are ever-vigilant!

Good luck to you!
posted by Anitanola at 3:26 PM on March 31, 2011

I use vinegar and baking soda to get that out. Works well too!
posted by cazoo at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2011

I had a problem with tea towels and dishcloths getting funky. The solution was to add a bunch of baking soda to the wash every so often.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:45 PM on March 31, 2011

Came here to suggest vinegar in your washing machine. For everything, not just towels. It really helps get them clean.
posted by raisingsand at 4:03 PM on March 31, 2011

I actually want to suggest something completely different from what everyone else here has said, because I had a very similar problem. I believe you are using too much detergent when you put your towels in the washing machine. Soap coats the fibers of your towels, and thus they don't actually get clean. As Lifehacker explained:
That's right, most of the time stinky towels aren't a result of failing to wash your towels enough but using too much detergent and fabric softener. The short of it is this: more isn't better and over time soap residue can accumulate within the fibers of the towels ensuring that not only do they fail to absorb as much water as they can but they also don't dry as effectively as they should. When your towels seem to get a funky smell immediately upon getting wet again, failure to dry completely thanks to soap residue is usually the culprit.
The solution:
What can you do? Saving your towels is as simple as running them through two hot loads. Skip the detergent on both loads, run them through once with hot water and a cup of vinegar and then again with hot water and a half cup of baking soda. Your goal, whether washing brand new towels or old towels, is to strip the softener and detergent reside from the fibers of the towel and get them as absorbent as possible.
This solution works. I have used it myself. I don't think you need to do the baking soda step, though. Just the vinegar wash (obviously use white vinegar, not balsamic!) should be adequate.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2011 [11 favorites]

And obviously, in the future, use way less detergent. Almost everyone uses too much.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:12 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you ever shower without using soap, say, just to cool off? This can transfer to the towel, as water itself isn't always sufficient to remove body odor.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:27 PM on March 31, 2011

We had that problem, towels starting to smell mildewy again after a single use. We solved it by washing all of our towels and wash cloths in hot water and bleach, and have been using hot water for them since then.
posted by not that girl at 4:49 PM on March 31, 2011

Ditto on the too much detergent in the washload. I keep my towels for a separate load maybe once a month and use a third of my usual measure of detergent and it makes them like new again. This also works well for cloth diapers and kitchen linens.
posted by pink candy floss at 5:56 PM on March 31, 2011

Hot water, a heaping scoop of laundry-strength washing soda (sodium carbonate--NOT bicarbonate, and don't use the stuff intended for pools, because it will burn you) and a small scoop of on-brand Oxy-Clean, preferably without brighteners. Let soak for 15-20 minutes before letting the wash run.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 5:56 PM on March 31, 2011

Using a towel warmer will also help dry out your towels between uses!
posted by Agatha at 6:08 PM on March 31, 2011

most of the time stinky towels aren't a result of failing to wash your towels enough but using too much detergent and fabric softener.

Also, don't use fabric softener on your towels.
posted by wondermouse at 6:40 PM on March 31, 2011

It's mildew. Mildew stays in the towel, and it grows whenever the towel is wet or damp in normal use. I agree that it's best to wash them in hot water. If that doesn't work, add bleach OR ammonia to the wash. (Never both! The fumes can be fatal.) Bleach is fine for whites; ammonia is better for colors.
posted by wryly at 6:44 PM on March 31, 2011

Try changing the dryer ductwork - that is, unless it's JUST the towels that smell funky. Lint and moisture can get stuck in there over time and impart funque to your clothing and towels.
posted by brownrd at 7:49 PM on March 31, 2011

Honestly, if it's not what Cornelius said, I don't think your dryer is working properly. My boyfriend's towels have the same issue and it's a combination of a) him re-using his towels for a week and only letting them airdry, and b) his dryer not being as effective as it could be. Check your hoses and your filters!
posted by patronuscharms at 7:59 PM on March 31, 2011

I have a different tack altogether. What is the fiber used in the towel? I got rid of every last one of my cotton/polyester blend towels for the same reason you mention ... even with one use, they stink like mildew rather frequently. Bacteria grow easily on polyester from what I've read.

Switch to 100% cotton (and follow the 'go easy on the detergent' advice above) or even better is hemp, which naturally inhibits fungal growth. I had hemp socks that would never smell bad!
posted by kuppajava at 8:32 PM on March 31, 2011

Also, don't use fabric softener on your towels.

This, 1000x. Fabric softener coats the fibers with a plasticky coating that prevents static but also prevents them from absorbing water -- but we want towels to absorb water, that's their job. No fabric softener on towels.

We use the cup of vinegar with the wash water trick.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:39 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing vinegar and less detergent. CCoDoD's got it pretty good.
posted by intermod at 9:30 PM on March 31, 2011

Also, when I dry the towels, I've gotten into the habit of basically drying them twice, because I think there's some latent moisture deep in the towel that doesn't get quite dried out in one cycle. I run them through a standard dry cycle, then wait for several hours (usually overnight, towels sitting pretty much dry in dryer), then run again for 20 minutes.

No more stank.
posted by intermod at 9:33 PM on March 31, 2011

Seconding Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell with the lifehacker trick -- I used it once and my boyfriend thought I had purchased new towels.
posted by AmandaA at 8:11 AM on April 1, 2011

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