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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fill the machine once more with the hottest water possible. This time add 1 cup baking soda. Run the entire cycle.
Whether you hang the towels outdoors or put them in the dryer along with wool dryer balls, 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.
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!
A previous post, Fabric Softener Products are the Problem Not the Solution, struck a chord with thousands of readers. I know because you send me messages and letters, which I love—even ones from some who are not 100% satisfied making the switch from problematic laundry softeners to what I find are amazing wool dryer balls.
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.