Used shirt has weird smell
June 11, 2019 11:24 PM   Subscribe

If you've ever been in a used clothing store, you know they have a particular odor to them. It's a sort of faint, musty smell that's unique to used clothing. I don't know what causes it, but that particular smell can't be found anywhere else. I bought a used jacket from a military surplus store on eBay and it has that smell, only a hundred times stronger. Normally that odor doesn't bother me, but this is overpowering.

The smell has permeated my house and I'm having trouble getting to sleep because of it. It's as if the smell from the entire store was concentrated down into this one item. I tried washing it and it came out completely unchanged. The odor is irritating the inside of my nose, so I thought maybe it's some form of mold or fungus and it's releasing spores. So I put it in a hot car in the sun thinking that if there's something alive causing the smell, then maybe the heat will kill it. The only thing that did was spread the smell to my car. I like the jacket and I don't want to use bleach. Does anybody know what causes this odor or anyway to get rid of it?
posted by ambulocetus to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Mmm... try washing it with vinegar? So far, that's worked for me with strong-smelling used clothing.
posted by stormyteal at 11:31 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's a recent article from the NY Times about the "thrift store smell"

Most of the odor is from residue - body oils, dead skin, and sweat - left by the people who previously wore the clothes and the rest from environmental sources like smoke and dry cleaning solvents.

Washing in cold water is the best course of action (as opposed to dry cleaning) and it may take several washings to get any improvement. An odor-combatting soap is recommended, with Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Liquid Soap getting special mention. High heat will exacerbate the problem, so don't use the dryer. Accessories can be buried in cat litter that has activated charcoal, which is very good at absorbing odors.
posted by theory at 12:09 AM on June 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

I am aware of of multitude of smells from thrift/ second-hand stores. Most are easily removed, but...

(non-related to me) Maternity smells are the worst (for me); haven't found a solution; I hated myself when I accidentally co-washed a piece with my general laundry - the heat must have released it or activated it or something but even after a couple of washes I was still gagging.

Diluting it out/ overpowering it with your own oils, maybe. Vinegar isn't too hard on most fabrics (I wouldn't leave natural fibres long in it, no more than a minute and then wash/ dilute/ neutralize right away), while bleach really accelerates 'wearing out,' but may be more effective for defeating odours.

The scentless 'Febreeze' stuff actually works; it's a kind of water soluble starch (cyclic dextran) that neutralizes VOCs (volatile organic compounds; little charged bits of bits that float around and cause smell) and makes them not smelly (neutralizing surface charges that would otherwise interface with your olfactory gland nerve endings that detect smell).
posted by porpoise at 12:12 AM on June 12, 2019

Get rid of it.

The strength of your reaction to this point makes me think it might be sensitizing you, and if that happens it can become a positive feedback process (in essence, your immune system gets involved), and you could find yourself reacting to more and more things, including things you've had no problem at all with up to now.

Put it outside until you can throw it away.
posted by jamjam at 12:46 AM on June 12, 2019 [15 favorites]

I’ve had really good luck spraying smelly things with Zero Odor, which I think operates similarly to the scentless Febreeze that Porpoise linked to above, which I’ve never used. It’s a spray that has worked for me on smells from cat urine, human sweat, cooking, and mildew/mold. It really does seem to permanently delete the odor, rather than just covering it up. You can totally saturate cloth with it; it doesn’t leave any residue or stain. Good luck :)
posted by Susan PG at 12:51 AM on June 12, 2019

Can you hang it outside in the sun?
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:30 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

2nding throw it out. This sounds like a two boats and a helicopter situation.
posted by STFUDonnie at 3:43 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks folks. I finally got to sleep last night and the smell doesn't seem quite as bad right now, although the item is in the car now, and I dread opening it. I'll try some of your suggestions and report back later.
posted by ambulocetus at 4:15 AM on June 12, 2019

I once had a leather jacket that built up a reek over time. I sprinkled the inside liberally with a dry carpet deodorizer, put it in a paper bag, shook it for a while, then left the bag in the sun for an afternoon. It helped, but I had to repeat that and also sprayed the liner with Odorcide until it was saturated and let it dry in the sun a couple of times to eliminate the smells. It was a process. YMMV.
posted by coppertop at 5:23 AM on June 12, 2019

Why don't you pick up a can of Ozium Air Sanitizer at the drug store for your house and car. I see it recommended here all the time.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:15 AM on June 12, 2019

Hanging things that reek of leftover human being outside in the sun and the breeze will generally dissipate the reek fairly quickly. Confining them inside a hot car built almost entirely of plastic surfaces that soak up volatile organic compounds like little nanoscopic kitchen sponges, not so much.
posted by flabdablet at 6:16 AM on June 12, 2019 [9 favorites]

yes, try washing it in oxyclean or something similar and hanging it outside to dry in an area with good circulation.
posted by domino at 7:01 AM on June 12, 2019

This may be a different smell, but I once had a blanket from a military surplus store that smelled REALLY strongly of napthalene (mothballs). That smell isn't safe to inhale...I got rid of the blanket.
posted by pinochiette at 11:00 AM on June 12, 2019

When I have accidentally left wet clothes in the washing machine for a couple days, I have found that repeated washings do not remove the sour smell that develops. However, if I add borax, one wash will do it.
posted by 445supermag at 11:20 AM on June 12, 2019

I washed it again and left it to dry on the porch in the breeze and it smells better today. Putting it in the car was not a good idea, but the smell wasn't too terrible with the windows down. Thanks to everyone who replied. What a peculiarly strong smell. I buy vintage clothes all the time and I've never had one smell that strong.
posted by ambulocetus at 5:29 PM on June 12, 2019

What is the fiber content? Synthetic fibers tend to hold on to smells more tenaciously than natural fibers. If it has much polyester or nylon in it consider getting rid of it, the odds aren't in your favor. If it's all cotton or other natural fiber, you'll have better luck with the remedies suggested above. My usual routine is a cold hand wash, then soaking and agitating in a water/white vinegar solution for a few minutes, rinsing thoroughly, and a long air dry not just outside but in the sunlight. Sometimes it takes a few rounds of this.
posted by doift at 6:59 PM on June 12, 2019

I don't know; there are no tags on it. What are military jackets usually made of?
posted by ambulocetus at 7:41 PM on June 12, 2019

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