How to Get the Musty Smell out of Clothing and Fabrics

Updated on August 25, 2018
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I am a serious DIY addict and frugal living master. I have practiced green and frugal living my entire life and love sharing tips.

Is this sign appropriate for your laundry?
Is this sign appropriate for your laundry?

Your clothes smell like they've spent a year in a musty trunk—what do you do? Well, first, figure out why they smell that way. Maybe they were in a musty trunk, but more likely they either keep coming out of the washer that way or you let them sit somewhere damp for a while. I know I've forgotten to switch the load from the washer to the dryer on more than one occasion.

So, why do your clothes smell musty? Here's a few common reasons that I'll go over in this article:

  • I left my clothes in the washer.
  • I left my bathing suit in a plastic bag.
  • My clothes always smell musty after they've been washed.
  • I just pulled my clothes out of storage.
  • I don't know why they smell so bad.

Washing Wet and Musty Clothes

Ok, we'll start with the most likely reason. Somehow you left your clothes in a damp place, whether it was the washer or a bag or simply in a pile that happened to get wet. In this case, there are a few tried and true ways to get the stink out.

Method #1: Vinegar Bath

If you only have a few pieces of clothing that are musty, fill up your sink with warm water and place in half a cup of vinegar. Submerge your clothes overnight and then dry them in your dryer or over a clothesline. When the vinegar is dry, the smell will be gone.

Method #2: Vinegar in the Washer

For larger loads of musty clothes, run them through the washing machine. Use a standard amount of detergent and one cup of vinegar. For extra large loads, use a cup and a half. You really can't use too much vinegar. Then dry in your dryer.

Method #3 – Baking Soda, Lemon, and Salt

If your clothes have visible mold or mildew on them, make a paste of lemon juice and salt and rub it over the affected area. The lemon is an acid that will kill off the mildew and clean the area. Be careful to test a patch on the clothing first, as lemon juice can have a bleaching effect. Rub baking soda on the area to help pull out the smell. Then launder as usual. Bam! No more musty smell in your clothes.

Note: There are commercial products out there that will pull smells out. (Febreeze, for example.) I have chosen not to include those, because they don't work any more effectively than the things you already have in your home.

My Washer Smells Musty

Washing machines, especially the new front-loading variety, have a very specific design flaw that makes them the perfect habitat for mold growth. This mold will then get on your clothes while they are in the wash (effectively making your washing machine a molding machine).

When a front-loaded washer is closed, it becomes airtight and locks in all of the hot water and steam used in cleaning. This vapor condenses and collects underneath the rubber gasket that holds the washer door shut. In this dark, damp place, mold and mildew thrive. If your front loader smells like mold, this is where you will find it. Peel back the rubber gasket and have a look. Not sure how? Check out the video above for a visual demonstration.

Once you identify the rubber gasket, clean it with a borax paste or a vinegar solution:

  • Borax Paste—1 cup borax to 1 gallon water
  • Vinegar Solution—1 cup vinegar to 1 gallon water

Mold in the Drain Lines

Both front-loaders and traditional washing machines can develop mold in the drain lines (and in top-loaders above the water line). These can be professionally cleaned out for upwards of $100, or you can use some more economical methods. The first is to run an empty load filled with a gallon of vinegar every six months. This should clear out all of the mold in your system. There are also commercial products, like Clorox Washing Machine Cleaner, that will also clean out your washer and leave it as good as new.

A clean washing machine stops musty clothes in their tracks!
A clean washing machine stops musty clothes in their tracks!

How to Keep Your Washer Clean

Once you have your washer clean, there are a few things you need to do to keep it that way. First, leave the lid or door of your washer open after use. This will prevent moisture from building up on the inside of the machine.

Second, always use the correct amount of detergent. Too much detergent leaves a film filled with dirt and grime around the machine that mold and mildew can grown on. Liquid fabric softeners can do the same thing. Switch to dryer sheets if you can.

My Clothes Got Musty in Storage

You pulled your summer clothes out of the storage closet, and they smacked you in the face with that terrible musty smell. You could have sworn that you put them away dry, but that's all water under the bridge now. You can use the methods above to get the musty smell out of the fabric. Here's what you can do to prevent it from happening again!

  • Wash your clothes in the hottest water that they will tolerate. This will kill off many of the bacteria that thrive in storage locations.
  • Add a cup of vinegar to the wash to help remove any lingering odors that could multiply during storage. (Some people prefer baking soda.)
  • Dry your summer clothes outside if at all possible.
  • Add desiccant packets to the storage area. If you are using large zipper seal bags, this one is a must. They will absorb the moisture from the clothing and prevent any mold growth.

Put a desiccant pack in here to stop mold and mildew.
Put a desiccant pack in here to stop mold and mildew.

Tips and Tricks to Avoid Musty Clothing

  • Don't let damp clothes sit. If you have wet clothes, dry them out before putting them in the hamper.
  • Add a scented dryer sheet to the dryer to give a nice smell to freshly washed clothes.
  • For white clothes, use lemon juice and salt for immediate stain and mildew removal.
  • Check your front-loading washing machine once a month for mold or mildew growth.
  • Leave the top or front of your washer open when it is not in use.

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