Bath towels of different colors in wicker basket on light background

How to Get Gross Stinky Towels Smelling Fresh and Lovely Again

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 that use very little water, detergents, fabric softeners, and damp conditions.


Bath towels of different colors in wicker basket on light background

If you’ve noticed gross smelly towels in your house, 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. They feel stiff and “crunchy!”


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.

For this process we want them to do their work independently. This will strip the residue and leave 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 140 F 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 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 close up of a eggHow to Use Wool Dryer Balls and Why You Should

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 1-29-22  with updated info.

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14 replies
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Hi Kathy … General Rule of Thumb: You can substitute baking soda for Washing Soda, but not the other way. For sure NEVER use washing soda in baking. Never! Back to the towels … the baking soda in this process is to tackle the odor and eliminate it. That is not washing soda’s best attribute. A better substitute would be borax, which is fabulous for treating odors. Better still: Get some baking soda!

      • Kathy says:

        Awesome!….cuz I didn’t have washing soda…like I thought I did…I had borax….but I just used the tiny bit of baking soda I had for the time being…will get more baking soda!
        thank you so much!

  1. Nancy says:

    I have a laundry sink right next to the washer. I use the faucet (that is on a long hose) to shoot water directly into the washer. Having the extra weight of the wet laundry vs dry laundry tricks the machine into using more water. It’s ridiculous how little water the machine tries to use to wash even a large load of dirty jeans.

  2. 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!!

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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?


    • peggy says:

      i add it right on the laundry. i also have been using vinegar for prox 25 yrs. no problems, with machines, or laundry.

  8. 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.


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