A Simple Solution for Gross, Smelly Towels


If my inbox is any indicator of what’s going on in the world, and I believe it is, smelly towels are a growing problem for consumers—and for sure EC readers. And it’s a rather new problem, the result of modern things like front-loading high efficiency washing machines, detergents, fabric softeners and damp conditions. If you’ve noticed the gross smell of stinky, albeit appearing to be washed, dried and ready to go, perhaps you’ve also noticed that your towels have begun to repel rather than absorb water.

stinky woman holding nose

SMELL. That moldy, mildewy, gross smell? It’s the result of the built up of detergents and fabric softeners that have not been rinsed out properly, together with damp, moist conditions. What you have there is a breeding ground for bacteria. No wonder you’ve got a big gross smelly laundry problem.

ABSORBENCY. If your towels have stopped doing what they’re supposed to do well—absorb water—that problem stems from the same source: Detergent and fabric softener build up. Seriously! With detergent and laundry, more is decidedly not better.

SCIENCE. You are going to use white vinegar and baking soda to fix this skanky problem once and for all. But not together. This will be a two-step process. Vinegar contains acetic acid that breaks down mineral deposits and dissolves the build up of detergent and fabric softeners. Baking soda is alkali and breaks down dirt and grease and neutralizes odors. Used together they counteract one another. For this process we want them to do their work independently. This will strip the residue and leaves them fresh and able to absorb more water again.

WASH #1: Load towels into the washer loosely, set it for a long wash cycle and fill with the hottest water you can manage. Turn the water heater up to 140F for this event. Or boil water on the stovetop then carefully transport it to the washer. The point is that the water must be very hot to kill the bacteria. Add two cups of white vinegar to the load. Allow it to run the entire cycle then leave the towels in the washer.

WASH #2: Fill the machine once more with the hottest water possible. This time add 1 cup baking soda. Run the entire cycle.

DRY COMPLETELY. Whether you hang the towels outdoors or put them in the dryer, make sure they are completely and thoroughly dry. Now smell them. If they do not smell fabulously clean, repeat Wash #1 and Wash #2 as necessary until the smell is completely gone. The investment you’ve made in these towels make them worth the effort.

MAINTENANCE. Find your owner manual and discover the exact amount of detergent you should be using in your washing machine. Measure it every time. Never add more than recommended, especially if you have a HE machine that uses very little water. Never use softening products on your towels—liquid softener or dry sheets. They coat the fibers with a thin layer of chemicals, which make towels less absorbent and prone to produce build-up. Instead, add 1/2 cup white vinegar to the last rinse. This will get out the last of the detergent which causes towels to become scratchy, and prevent that horrid product build up that can turn smelly. Always dry towels thoroughly before folding and storing them away.

Next week: How to clean that bacteria-laden appliance you call a washing machine.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • SKHampton

    The simplest solution is to not let it happen to start with. If you use the homemade laundry detergent that Mary Hunt shared here (https://www.creators.com/advice/everyday-cheapskate/homemade-laundry-detergent-update.html), you won’t have the problem to start with. We have had our front loading washer for three years. It has never had a problem because we have always used this recipe (actually used the old formula before this one was published). We leave the door ajar when the washer is empty. So follow her recommendations for cleaning and then switch to her detergent recipe. You won’t have build up again.


  • Stephanie

    We’ve a front loader and I leave the door open (don’t use fabric softeners, just white vinegar), yet we do have towels that seem to ‘sour’ after only a couple uses… Thanks for the hints, Mary and EDC staff.

    • Debi

      I use the 2 Downey Balls to dispense the vinegar in my washing machine. Also use Mary’s homemade detergent. I found out it was much more expensive to go to the pool supply store for the washing soda (soda ash), $2.40 per pound. as compared to washing soda in the grocery store, 79 cents per pound!

  • Pat in Raleigh

    I have used the washing machine solution from Pinterest and it works well to clean your machine. My issue with “washing” the washing machine is all the water that is used. Water is costly and there has to be a better way than filling the washer two or three times.

  • Diana Brannan

    The obvious is that softener makes towels mostly water repellent. If doing only a load of towels, kitchen or otherwise, just don’t use softener.

    Only stinky smell I get occasionally comes from the washer, not the loads being washed. Clean the washer occasionally and it will be gone. Also leave the lid open when not in use so it can air dry. All that water left in the bottom after the last spin starts to smell up the washer basket.

    Just common sense, folks.

  • Janet

    Can you wash with soap and vinegar in the same load or separate loads?

  • turnerasylum

    My husband has kidney failure and his sweat STINKS. Elastic seems to absorb the stench the most and I threw out elastic waist pants until I realized that vinegar cuts oils, like those in sweat.. If I do not use a cup of vinegar or ammonia in the wash cycle, all our clothes stink in that and every load after that. You cannot mix ammonia with Dawn so stick with vinegar. You might find this handy if your spouse is diabetic, has liver failure or runs a lot because toxins are being sweated out then also. One time we had to call a repair person to fix our washer, it wouldn’t empty. The problem was hard water plugging up the holes! The repair person used a very “specialized tool,” a screw, to poke the holes open and he recommended using vinegar once a week to keep the holes clear! We use it more often now for more than 1 reason.