Skip to main content

How to Remove Body-Oil Stains and Odors From Bedsheets

Yes, my husband knows about this article. No, he does not care that I'm talking about him online!

Learn how to remove body oil stains and odors from bedsheets

Learn how to remove body oil stains and odors from bedsheets

How to Get Sweat and Oil Stains Out of Sheets

Have you ever had a problem with getting smells or stains out of your sheets? Are you dealing with stubborn, yellowish, or dark sweat-like stains on your linens that just won't wash out? Well, I've got news for you. It's from body oil.* The natural oils that your skin produces can wreak havoc on fabric—and because it's oil, it can be tricky to wash out.

The good news is, I've done the hard work for you and crafted the perfect method for getting your bedsheets super clean. In this article, I'll walk you through my tricks for getting body oils, stains, and odors out of sheets, all using safe, natural products.

*Despite what the Clorox bleach commercials tell you, "body soil" is not actually a thing. "Body oil" is, though. Tricky marketers!

What you'll need to get body oil out of sheets

What you'll need to get body oil out of sheets

What You'll Need

Aside from the usual washing machine and dryer (although I suppose you could also do this by hand in a tub, if that's your jam), you'll need a few extra items to clean sheets stained with body oils and odors.

  • Laundry detergent: Whichever kind you prefer.
  • Dish soap: Yes, the kind you use in the kitchen sink, to help break apart the oils in the sheets.
  • Borax: This is a natural laundry booster that helps with odors but is also a safe, all-fabric, color-safe "bleach."
  • White distilled vinegar: This acts as a natural fabric softener, but it's also fantastic for neutralizing odors. Don't worry, vinegar dries "clean" in that there is no vinegar scent left once the fabric is fully dry. I use vinegar in every one of my laundry loads (including delicates), and it does no damage.
Washing those oily sheets.

Washing those oily sheets.

Clean Those Stinky, Oily Sheets!

  1. Add laundry detergent to the machine. To the empty washing machine, add however much detergent you normally use for a load of sheets. I usually go for about 2/3 of the cup that comes with the detergent, then throw in the cup so it gets all the soap off while washing.
  2. Use hot water. Set your machine to the hottest setting on a normal or normal/heavy load. I use the hot/cold setting (wash in hot water, rinse in cold).
  3. Add dishwashing soap. Add three good squirts directly into the flow of the water (to ensure that it mixes in real good). My "3 squirts" rule probably works out to about three tablespoons or just under a quarter cup of dish soap.
  4. Add Borax. Sprinkle about 1/4 cup into the water. Once again, I eyeball this right out of the box.
  5. Put in the sheets and make sure they're all completely submerged in the water.
  6. Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of distilled white vinegar to your washing machine's fabric softener dispenser. I always use a spare laundry detergent cup for this. If your machine doesn't have a fabric softener dispenser, you can either add the vinegar during the rinse cycle or get a Downy ball (see the Amazon link below) and toss that in.
  7. Let it soak for about 30 minutes once the washing machine has filled. This soak is important because it helps to break apart the oils in the sheets. I always leave the lid of my washing machine open for this step to prevent the wash cycle from starting up again.
  8. Let the wash cycle continue as usual after your sheets have soaked. If you do not have a fabric softener dispenser or a Downy ball, be sure to add the vinegar during the rinse.
  9. Dry your sheets as usual. Since you already used vinegar, which is a natural fabric softener, you can skip the dryer sheets. You may also skip the fabric softener because it can make the body oil thing worse. I always prefer to use a dryer sheet because I like my sheets to be as soft as a baby's butt (and they've never caused problems with getting stains/oils out for me).
  10. Enjoy your super clean and super fresh sheets!
My sheets showing off their lovely, oily stains.

My sheets showing off their lovely, oily stains.

My Husband's Stinky Head, Face, and Body Are Staining My Sheets!

About a year ago, I discovered that my husband's natural dust-musk body odor was permanently embedding itself in our sheets. I also noticed that some of the lighter-colored linens were getting a yellowish stain on them, and the dark sheets were getting darker in places. It was the worst on pillows and pillowcases!

As it turns out, the odor I was smelling and the stains I was seeing were a common result of the body's natural oils staining fabrics. You might see similar stains on undershirts and in the armpits of clothes. Some men and women just produce more of this stuff, which explains why I was seeing the stains (and a-sniffin' the smells) only on my husband's side of the bed. I tried to photograph this phenomenon (see the photo above). It's hard to see, but you can kind of tell that the part on the left of the bed—the side my husband sleeps on—is darker.

Anyway, I did some Internet sleuthing and found a few tricks for getting these stinky, oily stains out. I've combined, condensed, and modified what I found to create the method described in this article. It worked wonders for me! It saved our marriage!*

*I'm kidding about that. Nothing could save our marriage.**

**I'm kidding about that, too!

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Dengarden

A clean stack of linens.

A clean stack of linens.

Tips for Front-Load Washers

I've successfully used this method for both top-load and front-load washers. See the tips below if you have a front-loader.

  • If your front loader is a high-efficiency washer (HE), it means it uses less water than a standard washer. HE washers rely on the tumbling motion of the cycle to clean rather than the agitation of a standard washer. As a result, overly sudsing detergents and soaps can interfere with this tumbling action, and can sometimes back up in the machine. Also, because of the fact that less water is used, the soap may not rinse out entirely.

    My solution? Use less dish soap. I did a little Internet research and figured out that a half teaspoon of dish soap should be enough to clean your fabrics, but not so much that it will cause problems.

  • Check your front loader to see if it has a "soak" cycle or "pre-soak" option. You could also start the cycle, and then manually stop it for 30 minutes once everything's mixed up. If neither option works for you, you could do a pre-soak in a bucket or bathtub, and then put the wet sheets in the washer for the rest of the wash.
  • If there's no way to make the pre-soak work for you because you use a laundromat, your washer won't let you, or because you simply don't want to mess with it, just do the wash sans soak but opt for the longest cycle possible. It may still work for newer sheets, but could prove to be ineffective with older, heavily-stained linens.

Other Tips and Pointers for Clean Sheets

  • I'm super sensitive to scents, so it was important for me to get a non-dish-smelling dish soap for this. Your dish soap choice is entirely up to you though! I also opted for a biodegradable soap as it seems that it would be a bit gentler on fabrics. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but it's this kind of thing that gives me a sense of control in this chaotic world.
  • I have had some luck with getting that familiar musky thrift store stink (sorry husband) out of my older sheets, but in my experience, only the newer sheets (ones I've only washed using this method) have remained stink and stain-free. My recommendation is to try it out on your older sheets first and maybe do a more extended soak. If it doesn't work, you may decide to invest in new linens.
  • I like to tell myself that I will change and wash my sheets every week, but this just doesn't happen. I find that as long as I wash my sheets every two weeks, though, no new stains or stubborn, uncleanable odors show up. Of course, if your stains are proving to be a more serious problem, you might have to wash the linens more often.
  • I don't store my sheets in any special way (other than in a linen closet), and they don't regain the smell while they're folded in storage. I hope my method works well for you and yours as well!
  • As for fabric, synthetics are prone to holding onto odors more than natural fibers. I recommend using 100% cotton sheets if you're having problems with smells.
  • Try not to chastise your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, bedmate, or self too much about their bedsheet stains. They can't help it, and it's a mean thing to do. Plus, I can tell you from experience, complaining does nothing to help your sheets.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can baking soda be substituted for borax?

Answer: Baking soda and borax are both basic (alkaline) and have similar cleansing properties, however, borax is the better choice in this instance because it is MORE alkaline than baking soda and is, therefore, better at treating stains. You can substitute baking soda for borax when cleaning your sheets, but it may not be as effective.

Question: Is it possible to remove body oil stains and odors from sheets without the Borax? Or is it quite necessary?

Answer: You can give it a shot. I think the hot water soak and dish soap is the most important part. You can also try another laundry booster like Oxyclean.

Question: Won’t the dish washing liquid cause an over flow of suds all over the floor?

Answer: I haven't experienced this, and I've used it in both top-load and front-load washers. No more than 3 squirts for a top-loader, and about a half teaspoon for front-loaders should be fine.

Question: If I accidentally put the vinegar in the wash the first time, will it deactivate the borax? Should I redo the soak?

Answer: Vinegar is acidic and borax is basic, so mixing the two would make the water's pH more neutral and cut the cleaning power of both. As long as you're using hot water and the dish soap, you should still see some benefit from the process, but for maximum effect, I would recommend redoing the soak.

Question: Do you think the suggestions on how to remove body oil stains from bed sheets would also work for massage sheets?

Answer: From massage oils? I don't see why not. However, if there is a lot of oil, you may need to repeat the process.

Question: How often should I wash bed sheets?

Answer: Do so every other week, and the sheets wash up perfectly. Weekly may be ideal for others, but this schedule works for me.

Question: Do you recommend using this method every time you wash your sheets to keep the stains at bay? I’m washing every 2 weeks.

Answer: Absolutely. I use this method every time.

Question: Wouldn't a shower before bed also help reduce staining and yellowing of bed sheets?

Answer: Yes! Wearing a t-shirt helps too.

Question: My husband's bedroom smells horrible. I washed all his bedding -- sheets, mattress pad, comforter, and even his pillow. The room still reeks I bought a "bad air sponge" that's supposed to be effective, but it is not. What do I do?

Answer: It could be the carpet or the walls. I once repainted a room and had the carpet changed, and the room still smelled for weeks afterward. It eventually went away, but I was surprised how resilient the smell was.

I recommend cleaning the carpet/rugs with a carpet cleaner. Cleaning the walls with soap and water might help as well. If there are blinds or curtains on the windows, clean those as well.

Question: Do you have any suggestions for getting body oils out of a mattress?

Answer: This would be very difficult to do with any degree of success. I suggest treating the mattress with a fabric deodorizer such as Febreze, then getting a plastic mattress protector and machine-washable mattress pad. Put the mattress inside the plastic mattress protector, then put the mattress pad over the whole thing. That way, you'll protect the mattress from further staining, and you'll be able to wash the mattress pad rather than worry about the mattress itself.

Question: How do you remove oil and odor from kitchen and bath towels? They never smell clean enough, and there are also oily stains on my dish towels.

Answer: The methods in this article are geared at removing oil and scents, so I don't see why they wouldn't work on towels or other linens, just make sure the fabric can be washed in hot water (otherwise reduce the temperature).

Question: Could I apply the same method of removing body oil stains and odors from bedsheets to a down comforter? I have a white comforter with a nasty yellow stain all along the edge that touches our faces at night.

Answer: You could try, but hot water may be a concern for down. It depends on the washing instructions for your particular comforter. I always get duvet covers for hard-to-clean blankets (like down comforters) and then clean those the same way I clean my sheets.

Question: Could I remove baby oil stains the same way you describe in your article?

Answer: I think you can use this method with any oil, but if there is a lot of oil in one spot, you may want to pretreat it first with dish soap.

Question: Would this also be good for bath towels? My towels tend to have a musky man smell as well.

Answer: I don't see why not. It would be especially fitting for white or very light colored towels because fading is not a factor. If the towels are dark or brightly colored, you may see some color fading due to the hot water soak.

Question: Does this How-to on removing body oil stains from bed sheets work for essential oils too?

Answer: It should work for essential oils. However, if the stain is old/set in, you may need an extended soak, or you may need to do the process twice. If you can still smell the essential oils, you can also add more vinegar.

Question: Front-loading HE washers use less water, so bed sheets may not be completely covered with water. Is this a problem? Where do you add the Borax on a front loader?

Answer: I've used this method on a front loader and on a standard top loader, and it has worked for both. On a front loader, I added the Borax to the dispenser at the top before the cycle starts; if your machine doesn't have this feature, just add the Borax the same way you add detergent. Also, make sure you're selecting the longest, highest-agitation cycle possible. If your machine has a "stain" option, even better.

Question: Can I use these products and process on natural linen fibers to remove body-oil stains? I regularly read that linens should never go through a hot water cycle, or placed in a dryer because of the natural fibers which could break down much quicker. I'm desperate for answers to rid our sheets and pillowcases of body oil stains and smells.

Answer: Linen may shrink in hot water, and hot water does break down fabric fibers more than cool water, but the same things can be said for cotton which is the only fabric type I've ever washed using this method. If you are concerned about damaging your sheets, try a cooler water, lower-agitation cycle first, but keep an ample soak. As for the products, some may consider Borax and vinegar to be harsh on fabrics (because of their pH), and dishwashing liquid is not made for fabrics, but if you cut a lot of products from this method, it's likely to be less effective. For what it's worth, I've been washing the same cotton sheets this way for well over 5 years, and they're still looking great.

© 2013 Shay Marie

Comments: Got any experiences with stinky sheets? Wanna share some of your laundry tips? Have at it!

Shay Marie (author) from Southern California on September 09, 2020:

I've used this method in commercial machines as well - I just chose the longest cycle possible.

Allie on August 04, 2020:

Thank you for posting this. I have been searching for what seemed like eternity to find a solution to my husband's side of the bed problem. While this method didn't remove the yellowing completely, it's practicslly gone! I think the key ingredient in your method is the dish soap. Of all the other methoeds i have tried nobody has included dish soap. Thabks again!!

Heather M Brown on April 04, 2020:

I would really love to know how this method can work when you are using a commercial machine that you can't stop and soak the sheets in. I am currently in an apartment and using commercial machines for the first time in my life. I hate them for so many reasons that I won't enumerate here, but not being able to stop the machine to soak my linens is one. Any ideas on how to circumvent this would be fantastic!

Ann on March 31, 2020:

Thank you so much for this article! You have saved my sheets! My daughter (who at 17 is responsible for her bed linens and laundry) didn't change her sheets for at least 2 months (I'm being conservative)! I took one look at the pretty white and light green patterned sheets and realized I needed more help than a standard washing. I did exactly as you recommended and holy cow are they amazingly clean! I thank you for the bottom of my heart for your help!!!

Heidi on January 16, 2020:

I'm going to try this on the bed pillows, but use your system twice. Thanks~

Emmi on January 05, 2020:

What would you recommend for raw linen? I have to wash them in handwash program and are scared that the wrong detergent/ borax will suck out the dye (natural dye)

Doris Jackson on November 16, 2019:

So a similar problem with husband’s bed sheets but I thought and still do that its as he is a heavy smoker, has a beard, and sweats: the pillow slips and the area of his back where it rests on sheets are stained brown very noticeable although he has a daily shower. I will try the above as sheets are coloured and cant use regular bleach.. why there are not stains from where his arms and legs rest I dont know. I like our new washer but just pounding wet sheets and clothing around as they did hundreds of years ago, rock in a stream, is not working... great for lightly soiled items but give me the good old two feet or so of water using the old washers anytime!

Christine on September 24, 2019:

Wow! I can't believe how well this worked. For years our sheets have been gross. I'd say there's an 85% improvement after one treatment. I soaked them in the bathtub cause of our front loader to get a good soak. Thanks!

Honeychurch on September 01, 2019:

Thank you so much for this. As much as I wanted to save my sheets, I was not going to rub chalk into my pillowcases, as one grim tutorial suggested. This saved two sets of nearly new cotton sheets, and going forward, we will always wash them like this.

Gloria on April 29, 2019:

I have been using Dawn dish soap for years to get body oil and food stains out of sheets n clothes - I just put the Dawn straight on food stains let sit for could hours n stains gone. Then our son came home after being gone a year with most putrid smelling clothes ever from body oil going rancid - defeated that too- I have LG front loader that has sanitize cycle (extra hot water) w/ pre- wash n extra rinse cycle. So, pre- wash got dawn, borax, and Calgon water softener, I did extra rinse, regular wash got Dawn, Calgon, Deep clean Persil laundry soap, and white vinegar in bleach cup, and used a fabric softener w/ Oder remover. All w/ sanitize cycle. Takes 2 1/2 hrs to go thru everything, but, after dried folded, n put away - smell is gone, even 2 weeks later, no more putrid smell! Hope this help anyone dealing w/ putrid oily clothes or bed sheets ;)

Genny on April 27, 2019:

How do i get brownesh spots off muslin material of antique quilt top with out the red appliques fading its nevere been washed.need to quilt it for a friend.

Tianna on April 25, 2019:

Thank you! I was just about to throw out 2 sets of fairly new sheets but had them piled on the floor because I felt bad about adding them to the land fill. I thought, one last effort to see if I can salvage them and came across your solution. It worked! So happy. I always hated the fact that I washed the sheets and they never felt, smelled or looked clean. Will try this on some stubborn PJs now too. Thank you thank you!

Shay Marie (author) from Southern California on March 12, 2019:

Try soaking in hot water with dish detergent/soap. Then wash as usual.

Mrs Marks on March 05, 2019:

My husband is bald and his head has made the pillow cases oily and the bed head oily. How do I get the oil out. I have tried scrubbing washing up detergent on the stains then boiling them on the stove to get the water hotter, I've tried ironing them between kitchen paper to get the oil to soak up in the paper, I have tried all the usuall ways with nappy san etc. what do you surgest.