woman holding nose in stinky situation

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 my dear 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 gross smelly towels in your houses, 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.

woman holding nose in stinky situation

Smell

That moldy, mildewy, gross smell? It’s the result of the build-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 do not use these products together, at the same time. 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 odor is completely gone. The investment you’ve made in these towels makes 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 front-loading HE machine that uses very little water.

Never use softening products on your towels—liquid softener or dry sheets. These products coat the fibers with a thin layer of chemicals, which make towels less absorbent and prone to produce build-up, aka smelly towels!

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.

First published: 5-08-14; Republished 10-12-19 with new and updated info.


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7 replies
  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Also, if you leave your washing machine door open between loads, it helps dry it out = less moisture = less habitable environment for bacteria to grow!!

    Reply
  2. Anita Esser
    Anita Esser says:

    I always use a cup of vinegar in my last rinse for my towels, I don’t have any problem, but I leave the dryer balls in the dryer when they are drying, should I take the dryer balls out for towels?

    Reply
  3. Orville Boston
    Orville Boston says:

    I used to have the gross smelly towel problem. After showering I now put the towel in the dryer on high for 8-10 minutes. Coming out it smells fresh for the next day. Not once have I had a smelly towel since starting that. It keeps mold and whatever from getting started, and takes very little effort.

    Reply
  4. Mrs. S.
    Mrs. S. says:

    Ever since we got our front load machine (which I regret buying), I have only used vinegar as fabric softener. But our clothes, especially darks, were progressively developing a terrible smell that I could not get rid of. I only have white towels and sheets. They don’t smell because I wash them with bleach and hot water, and the vinegar rinse. To freshen the washer and get the smell out of the clothing, I poured liquid Rid-X, and Lysol Laundry Sanitizer directly into the machine (in the silver tub, not the soap dispensing drawer). I wiped the build up trapped in the rubber ring of the washer as best I could, and let the Rid-X/Lysol mixture sit in the washer for several hours. Then I put a small amount of detergent in the machine, and the Lysol Laundry Sanitizer in the bleach and softener sections of the dispenser. I washed a load of old towels in hot water. The machine smelled better, and was visibly cleaner inside. I now use the Lysol Laundry Sanitizer with every load. It has helped tremendously. The product is a bleach free solution that kills bacteria, which was clearly what the problem was with my, and probably develops in all, front load washers.

    Reply
  5. Kim Domingue
    Kim Domingue says:

    I quit using store bought detergent some years back and began making my own using a recipe a cousin gave me. About a year ago I switched to a liquid recipe the same cousin gave me. Oddly enough, it’s the same recipe that Mary posted a couple of days ago. It’s effective, easy to make and inexpensive. I haven’t used fabric softener or dryer sheets in at least three decades. I’ve used white vinegar with a couple of drops of an essential oil in the rinse cycle instead and dryer balls in the dryer. The vinegar was recommended to me by an older gentleman who had an appliance repair business many, many years ago. He said the biggest cause of problems with both washers and dryers was fabric softener residue building up inside the machines. He said if I quit using fabric softeners and switched to vinegar that it would greatly extend the life of my machines and my clothing and linens as well. I will have been married 40 years in December and am only on my second washing machine. It would appear that my older gentleman knew what he was talking about! I bought a Speed Queen washer to replace my old Whirlpool about six years ago. For anyone looking for a simple, top loading machine, I can’t recommend the Speed Queen highly enough. It’s a tank!

    Reply
  6. Susan
    Susan says:

    Hi – I have a question – I have a front loading washing machine. When I add the baking soda, do I put it in the detergent cup or straight into the washer with the towels?

    Thanks

    Reply
  7. ros
    ros says:

    I have found that ammonia in the wash really kills everything including mold and mildew. Also if you want to know how much soap is left after doing a load, just wash it a second time without adding anything and see how much soap shows up as suds.

    Reply

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