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How to Remove Body Oil Stains and Odors from Bed Sheets

Updated on November 26, 2016
shay-marie profile image

Yes, my husband knows about this article. No, he does not care that I'm talking about him on the Internet. :)

How to remove body oil stains and odors from bed sheets.
How to remove body oil stains and odors from bed sheets. | Source

Give Your Sheets a Proper, Deep Cleaning!

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 bed sheets 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

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 extras to clean sheets stained with body oils and odors. You can use whatever laundry detergent you prefer.

You will also need:

  • Dish soap (yes, the kind you use in the kitchen sink) to help break apart the oils in the sheets.
  • Borax (a natural laundry booster) to help with odors, but also as a safe all-fabric color-safe "bleach."
  • White distilled vinegar 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.

20 Mule Team Borax Natural Laundry Booster, 65 oz
20 Mule Team Borax Natural Laundry Booster, 65 oz

My mom introduced me to Borax a few years ago. It's a classic product (over a century old!) that works as a fantastic natural laundry booster. It's great for removing stains and odors both in your washing machine and around the home.

Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid, Free & Clear Unscented, 25-Ounce Bottles (Pack of 6), Packaging May Vary
Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid, Free & Clear Unscented, 25-Ounce Bottles (Pack of 6), Packaging May Vary

I use a lavender scented dish soap in the laundry, but you could also opt for a fragrance-free dish soap. This Seventh Generation soap is non-toxic, hypoallergenic, dye-free, and has no scent. They also make a lavender/mint variety that smells lovely.


How to Clean Those Stinky, Oily Sheets!

  1. Add laundry detergent to 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!

The Downy Ball

Downy Automatic Dispenser Ball (Pack of 2)
Downy Automatic Dispenser Ball (Pack of 2)

I've used this sucker in washing machines that don't have a fabric softener dispenser, and it works like a champ. Be sure to follow the instructions on the package so that it works properly. Also, despite what the ball might tell you, you can use vinegar with it instead of Downy fabric softener.

My sheets showing off their lovely oily stains.
My sheets showing off their lovely oily stains. | Source

My Husband's Stinky Head, Face, and Body are Staining My Sheets! (My Story.)

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 below): 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 you'll find below. 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!

A clean stack.
A clean stack. | Source

Tips for Front-Load Washers

  • 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 to 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 bed sheet 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.

© 2013 Shay Marie

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

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    • profile image

      Renee 3 weeks ago

      The stains faded a bit but did not completely go away. It probably would've been the same results if I just used detergent and hot water. I soaked it for 45 minutes too. Too bad, I was hoping i didn't have to put too much effort by the sounds of your instructions but I ended up having to scrub in some stain remover and then wash again. That worked!

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      Happy wife! 7 weeks ago

      This is the most amazing post. My bedsheets were 3 years old, and a significant body oil stain had built up over the years. I was going to get new sheets but came upon your post and my sheets came out squeaky clean with just one wash! I am so amazed. My front-load HE washer has a sanitize function and since I couldn't pre-soak the linen in the machine, I put it on the longest wash possible (just over 2 hours) with the usual detergent, 1/2 tsp dish detergent directly onto the sheets, and vinegar in the fabric softener compartment, just like you instructed. I was a little skeptical that this would work without the booster, but my sheets haven't been this clean since I bought them. Thank you so much!

    • profile image

      Kortney 2 months ago

      Just a heads up, dryer sheets have fiberglass in them. I used them for years but found out about the fiberglass and stopped. FYI

      Thank you for the tips to a deep clean for my sheets.

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      Donna 2 months ago

      My fabric headboard has a round stain where my husband rests his head!!! I need to figure away to clean it ....can put it in the washer :(

    • profile image

      Allison 3 months ago


      I just tried this and it worked REALLY well. I've never been able to keep my ivory sheets clean. But there were a few places scattered around the sheets that had a brownish dotted pattern after I washed/dryed them. The holes in the washer (where the water drains) must have left them. I have NEVER had this problem with my washer before until I tried this mix of detergents/chemicals. I washed them again and most of the spots came out, except for a few places. Have you ever heard of this? I love this and want to do it on more items, but afraid now of what happened!

    • profile image

      sudhir 3 months ago

      I use simple green heavy duty (degreaser). It is the best.

    • shay-marie profile image

      Shay Marie 4 months ago from Southern California

      @Jillwhite06 -- I have not used this method on clothes myself, so I can't speak from experience, but I would wager if the fabric is not delicate, it would work in a similar manner. That said, hot water does increase fading of colors & darks (and can shrink fabric too), so if that is a concern, maybe try the method with cold water. I don't think it will be as effective, but it's worth a shot.

    • profile image

      Ashley 4 months ago

      I'm gonna give this a try. my cotton sheets haven't ever given me a problem with a smell before but are now. the other fabric ( I think polyester) stinks even though they just sit abs barely ever get used so I want to see if it will help with the smell of those

    • profile image

      Jillwhite06 4 months ago

      What about clothes? Can I use this same method for my husband's clothes? And I always use cold water, I'm afraid hot water will fade my sheets that are dark and my husband's clothes that are dark or colors.

    • shay-marie profile image

      Shay Marie 5 months ago from Southern California

      @Elaine - It's more of a timing thing than anything else. I recommend adding the detergent, dish soap, and borax in the same way you add detergent regularly, ie at the same time & in the same place in the washer. Add the vinegar in the fabric softener spot or, if your washer doesn't have one, a fabric softener dispenser (there is a link to one in the article). If you can't soak in the washer, just opt for the longest cycle available. I hope this helps!

    • profile image

      Elaine 5 months ago

      My LG top loader does not allow the addition of borax, etc as the water fills the washer. There is not a soak cycle and if you stop it to soak it times out and cancels the wash. I have just added the detergent, dish soap, borax and vinegar (in the bleach cup) and used hot water . It does help. Any suggestions?

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      Lisa 5 months ago

      Wow! I wish I'd found this sooner. It worked really well! :)

    • shay-marie profile image

      Shay Marie 5 months ago from Southern California

      @Dodie - Yes I believe it is.

    • profile image

      Dodie 5 months ago

      Is dish soap the same as washing up liquid in England?

    • profile image

      Rosanne 6 months ago

      Appreciate all the info. I've been using the Borax and the vinegar. I'll also add the dish soap to see if that helps. My problem is body oil, but from a dog that now owns my new sofa - covered with a sheet to protect it, of course. Hence, the problem.

      One tip about the Borax - it's also wonderful as a pure and safe insecticide. If you dilute it you can spray it around the house to prevent bugs and if you hapen to have a pet who gifts you with fleas you can sprinkle it dry onto furniture, carpets,etc. Leve for a day or 2 and vaccuum. Kills 'em dead! And all the while freshening the air!

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      a.nonymous 6 months ago

      sigh... didn't work for me.

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      Susan 7 months ago

      They worked

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      Jennifer 8 months ago

      I tried this and it worked!! Thank you so much for sharing!!

    • profile image

      Margie 8 months ago

      Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I had despaired of ever getting the stains out of my sheets. Your post was my last ditch final effort. I tried it first on my worst stains, and while it didn't totally remove them, they looked better than anything else I ever tried. I use your method every time I wash sheets now and I am no longer embarrassed by how they look. I also tried it to remove the musty smell in my towels and it worked for that also. Thank you again.

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      Pb 8 months ago

      So glad I found your tip. My sheets look like new. Thank you

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