Why do my jeans smell after one wear?
April 17, 2014 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Recently my jeans have started lasting only one wear before beginning to smell musty. About halfway through the day, I notice that I've been sweating enough to make the waistband slightly damp and there is a distinct odor coming from my jeans. It comes back quickly after washing, and I've never experienced this before in my life - I'm used to jeans lasting a week or so before switching them out. How do I keep from making my jeans smell, or how do I eliminate the odor permanently in washing?

I started noticing this in the late Fall, nothing like it has ever happened before and I've never had odor issues previously (well, maybe some shoe odor on a rare occasion, but only in old cheap cotton shoes).

This happened to new jeans I've bought in the past week, which started smelling musty after two wears. I'm just a little baffled as to how it started in the first place.

I can't think of why it started as I haven't changed my diet in that time and can't think of any differing environmental factors since the Fall. My office is heated through the winter but I never feel too warm, and it's not like I haven't been in other extended heated environments in the past.

My best guess is some sweat built up bacteria at some point in all of my current jeans and they're not being properly washed out. I've tried starting to wash them separately from everything else in the hot water setting, tried using borax powder when washing them, and I've tried switching detergents (I use perfume-free detergent), but to no avail. This is driving me crazy and is quite embarrassing, and I'm having to do laundry much more often that I'd like because I only have 5 or 6 pairs of jeans.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's possible that the jeans smell due to something used in the manufacturing process. I have a pair of women's jeans from Express that smell very weird, due in no part to myself, as confirmed through many reports online. I would Google the brand of the jeans and "smell" and see if anything comes up.

I've not had much success in eliminating the smell - I had some luck with laundering with Charlie's Soap, but the smell is still faint.

I would have returned them had they not fit so perfectly.
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:46 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try using ammonia as a fabric rinse when washing the jeans, that will kill anything that needs killing. If possible, dry the jeans outside, in sunlight, so that they are getting fully dry, and aired out as well.
posted by kellyblah at 5:51 AM on April 17, 2014

Nthing the smell may be coming from the manufacturer - and nthing Express jeans in particular. I have a few pairs from them that have a strange chemical smell as soon as they start to warm up from my body heat. It's embarrassing, to say the least. Several washes with white vinegar has cleared it up, though.
posted by sephira at 5:54 AM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Do you use a front-loading washer? They get mildew-y really fast. A small amount of mildew in the washer may be stinking up your jeans. Even if you have a top-loader, gather up some ratty old towels, and run a very hot load with lots (maybe 2 or 3 cups) of bleach, using the longest wash cycle possible, maybe even turn the cycle off to let it soak for an extra 20 minutes.
posted by theora55 at 5:56 AM on April 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

I was going to suggest the same thing theora55 said. When I bought my first front-loading washer, I couldn't figure out why my jeans would start smelling musty after one day. It wasn't something I noticed in my other clothes (although I did have the same problem with my bath towels). I just didn't realize how often you need to clean front-loading washers.

Personally, I clean mine with vinegar rather than bleach. I use paper towels or rags soaked in a generous amount of vinegar to clean the door, the detergent receptacle, and the rubber "shield" between the door and the interior of the machine, being sure to get every nook and cranny possible. Then I put vinegar in the detergent receptacle and run an empty load on the hottest setting.

Also, be sure you leave the washer door open between uses, so the interior can dry out as much as possible.
posted by neushoorn at 6:11 AM on April 17, 2014

Try adding baking soda to the wash.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:32 AM on April 17, 2014

1-2 hour presoak in an oxy bleach solution in the hottest water that won't make the jeans bleed too much dye, then wash as normal.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:48 AM on April 17, 2014

And make sure the oxy solution is concentrated, one scoop per ~2 gallons water.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:49 AM on April 17, 2014

Yes, wash your front-loader -- it probably has a tub clean setting. I use bleach, but not much, every couple of months.

Then wash all your jeans or mildew-smelling clothing once in vinegar, once in baking soda, dry very well. I had this problem with my towels, which seemed fine out of the dryer but smelled like mildew the second I used them, and the vinegar/baking soda washes solved the problem.
posted by jeather at 6:51 AM on April 17, 2014

People tend to think jeans are cotton, but in actuality they are cotton and loads and loads of made-in-China chemicals (and often, these days, a good amount of Lycra or other stretch fiber, too). There are TONS of discussions online of people having all kinds of weird reactions to jeans. So I would just not even bother trying to figure out what it is but trash/return/consign to thrift shop these jeans and try a different brand.
posted by HotToddy at 7:14 AM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, except I overlooked the part where you're sweating. More than usual, right? There was a recent thread on eliminating stubborn armpit odor that reactivated after washing and the OP reported that his best solution was Sport Wash detergent. Maybe give that a try.
posted by HotToddy at 7:19 AM on April 17, 2014

I have heard that using too much detergent and fabric softener prevents it from being thoroughly rinsed from the fabric, and is a very common cause of mustiness. If the fabric feels a little "stiffer" than you'd expect freshly-washed jeans to be, you can have confidence this is the root cause. If you have a front-loader use ONLY HE detergent, as this is specifically formulated to be a low-suds formulation.

Try rewashing without any detergent or softener, and adding a cup of vinegar to the rinse - your washing water will probably suds up as the retained soap is released. I have found this to be particulaly useful when trying to understand why newly-laundered towels can sometimes smell musty after one use. As a bonus, your tubs of detergent will last for months!
posted by citygirl at 7:56 AM on April 17, 2014

See my recent askme... I now swear by No Sweat Wash. It has de-funkified YEARS of smell in my sports gear, towels, unmentionables etc.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:10 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

The infamous Jolie Kerr tackled this, and recommends adding white vinegar to your wash.
posted by radioamy at 9:19 AM on April 17, 2014

It may be mildew. I'd do a load of wash with a capful of Liquid Lysol. It would get out any weird smells, kill germs and bacteria and give your wash a really clean feeling.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:12 AM on April 17, 2014

Just for a different perspective, is it possible your health has changed recently? Sometimes you can have a new fauna on your actual skin, and a smelly waistband might well signify that a doctor trip and/or antifungal might be needed. However, if it really doesn't happen with any other tight-fitted clothes, then forget I said anything at all.
posted by acm at 11:29 AM on April 17, 2014

The odor can be coming from any of these factors:

-the condition of the washer; see notes above above washing out your tub; especially if it's a front loader
-the jeans as manufactured; I wouldn't rank this as very likely
-the length of time the jeans wait before going into the dryer or being hung to dry; this is a big one, and the odor it causes is hard to get out; try adding white vinegar to the wash
-whether or not the jeans are completely dry before you put then away, particularly if you store then folded
-it could also be the sweating issues you mentioned; the musty smell you're describing wouldn't lead me down that road

Wash out your tub, run the offending pairs of jeans with white vinegar, and make sure you're drying promptly and completely before storing.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:05 PM on April 17, 2014

Jeans that can be worn multiple times without washing are usually the rigid, all-cotton denims. Denim with stretch - so, poly, lycra, spandex - tends to wear more like a normal garment and will need to be washed more often. If the change in how your jeans wear coincides with you trying new styles, brands, or washes: this could be why.
posted by marmago at 5:44 PM on April 17, 2014

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