How to Remove Body-Oil Stains and Odors From Bed Sheets
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.
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.
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!
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Add Borax. Sprinkle about 1/4 cup into the water. Once again, I eyeball this right out of the box.
- Put in the sheets and make sure they're all completely submerged in the water.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Enjoy your super clean and super fresh sheets!
The Downy Ball
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 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!
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 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.
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
Can baking soda be substituted for borax?
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.Helpful 41
Is it possible to remove body oil stains and odors from sheets without the Borax? Or is it quite necessary?
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.Helpful 41
Won’t the dish washing liquid cause an over flow of suds all over the floor?
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.Helpful 30
Do you think the suggestions on how to remove body oil stains from bed sheets would also work for massage sheets?
From massage oils? I don't see why not. However, if there is a lot of oil, you may need to repeat the process.Helpful 21
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.
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.Helpful 5
© 2013 Shay Marie