Here’s your guide on how to get the smell out of towels and get them smelling fresh with 5 simple methods. Goodbye mildew, mold, and stinky towels – hello fresh!
Just like tough stains need a specific laundry stain remover, sometimes your stinky kitchen towels need some extra love too.
You’ve been there, right? You’re cooking dinner or washing dishes and you need to wipe your hands. You reach for the nearest dish towel, dry your hands, and start sniffing…What is that smell?!
It takes a few seconds for it to click – it’s the towel. But do you know how to get the smell out of towels?
You’ve used detergent. You’ve run the hot water. You may have even run the wash cycle TWICE to make the stinkiness go away. But it hasn’t worked.
Short of throwing the darn towels away, you’ve washed your hands of the mess (and found a different towel to dry them on!).
Until now. Let me share the secret to getting the moldy, sour smell out of those towels!
What you Need
- Hot water
- Cleaning agents (vinegar, baking soda, dish soap, essential oils, borax, Homemade Bleach Alternative, or a combination of these)
- Heat. Good old-fashioned sunshine or high heat on the dryer cycle.
Notes on Ingredients
- You need HOT water. I’m not just talking about turning the faucet on hot and letting it run. I’m talking about HOT water.
- Go to the hot water heater and turn it up as high as it will go. **
- Get your biggest pot, fill it with water and bring it to a boil.
- Do what you have to do to get the hottest water possible.
- You need the right cleaning agents. Ditch the fabric softeners and scented detergents (because these are actually FEEDING the bacteria…more on that later), and stick with the ingredients listed – vinegar, baking soda, dish soap, essential oils, Borax, and this Homemade Bleach Alternative. These cleaning agents will actually BREAK DOWN the bacteria.
- You need a LOT of heat. One wash and one dry isn’t enough. You need to tag team the stinky towel effort and do this a few times.
- Wash + dry in the sun + machine wash + machine dry
- Wash + wash + wash + machine dry high heat OR line dry in the sun
- Boil + wash + machine dry
** Note: Hot water heaters are usually set a bit below the maximum temperature for safety reasons. If you choose to change the temperature, make sure you immediately wash the towels and supervise anyone else who is using water until the washer is done. Then go back and turn the temperature back down. If you won’t remember to turn the temperature back down, then it would probably be wise to not turn it up. There’s no shame here – just being real (and safe!).
Okay, you know what you need. Now how exactly do you pull this off? I have four methods for you:
Method #1: Sanitary + Antibacterial Cycle
This is perhaps the easiest method, if you have the cycles needed on the washing machine.
Step 1. Wash the towels in the washing machine using the sanitary cycle + 1 cup vinegar in the fabric softener cup.
Step 2. Dry on the antibacterial cycle in the dryer.
If you don’t have a sanitary cycle or an antibacterial cycle, let’s try something else to get the smell out of those towels!
Method #2: Multiple Wash Cycles
Wash it, and wash it again. And again! Each cycle uses a different cleaning agent to get your towels clean. Since each agent works against a different element of the bacteria and stink, it makes a magical combo!
Step 1. First, wash the towels with 1 cup of vinegar on the hottest water setting .
Step 2. Wash the towels again on the hottest water setting, this time with ½ cup of baking soda.
Step 3. Repeat the wash cycle a third time on the hottest setting with your regular detergent.
Step 4. Dry on high heat or line dry in the sun.
Method #3: Boiling Water Method
Another great and simple option to get smell out of towels: boiling water and a little cleaning help.
Step 1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (you might want to use a big stock pot like this one). Add 1 cup of vinegar and 1-2 teaspoons of grease-cutting dish soap* OR laundry soap. Add the towels and boil for 15 minutes.
Step 2. Turn the heat off, let the towels cool and dry them in the sun.
Step 3. Finally, machine wash the towels as usual on the hottest water setting.
*I use and recommend Thieves Dish Soap. I know there are a lot of “natural” products out there and I’ve tried quite a few. But after testing and a lot of research, I found Young Living to be the best. You can read more about my decision to use their essential oils and household products HERE.
Method #4: Boiling Water + Baking Soda
Because baking soda is a base, it busts up organic compounds like dirt and grease. According to this article, using it as part of your wash cycle can dissolve organic matter built up in your towels. Add boiling water, and you have a super-power odor killer!
Step 1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (again, I suggest using a big stock pot like this one). Then add the towels and 2 tablespoons of baking soda and boil for 20 minutes.
Step 2. Carefully move the towels to the washing machine and launder as usual on the hottest water setting.
Step 3. Dry on the High Heat setting.Step 2. Carefully move the towels to the washing machine and launder as usual on the hottest water setting.
Method #5: Stink Prevention
Quite possibly the best idea of the bunch and the method I personally use: prevent the smell from happening in the first place!
As I researched cleaning and laundry for my 5 Days to DIY Natural Living Challenge, I found that some of the very things you use to get smells OUT of your clothes and towels are actually ATTRACTING stinky smells!
Fabric softeners are a huge culprit, and it’s because of how they work:
- They add a thin, water-resistant waxy coating to your towels and clothes.
- This coating sits on the surface of the fabric, prevents air flow and prevents your clothes from absorbing water and detergent in the washing process.
- In turn, your clothes (and towels!) are more likely to lock in stinky odors.
Your best bet is to ditch fabric softeners completely. If you have hard water and need some help getting your clothes clean, you can add vinegar to the fabric softener cup OR add one tablespoon of Epsom salt to the soap dispenser.
In addition to ditching fabric softeners, I highly recommend switching to a natural laundry detergent. Here are a few brands that my colleagues and friends use and recommend:
- Thieves Laundry Soap (this is what I use, and I love it!)
- Biokleen (you can find it here)
- E-Cover Zero (there are a few buying options here)
Ever since I switched to Thieves Laundry Soap, the issue with stinky towels has DRASTICALLY gone down. I add three drops of Purification Essential Oil to every load of towels and now, very few of my towels get stinky in the first place. When I wash in hot water and add vinegar to the cycle, the smell is completely gone!
Why do my towels smell even after washing?
Cold water, detergents, and fabric softeners can all make it difficult to remove mildew and mold smells from towels, and actually cause it to grow. In contrast, using cleaning agents that break down bacteria, like vinegar and baking soda, and washing with very hot water, can remove bacteria effectively.
Is there a way to get the smell out of towels with vinegar?
Yes! Vinegar, in combination with hot water and, in several cases, other ingredients like baking soda, is used in several of the methods above. Vinegar is very effective in neutralizing odor and breaking down bacteria.
How do you get the smell out of towels without a washing machine?
If you don’t have access to a washing machine, boiling water and baking soda can be used to break down odor-causing bacteria, followed by your normal washing method. The sun also effectively kills mildew, so hang-drying can be a great option for eliminating odors!
Other Natural Solutions
Looking for some other laundry and cleaning hacks? Check out these home solutions!
- DIY: All-natural Homemade Bleach Alternative
- Make Homemade Stain Remover with 3 Simple Ingredients
- DIY All Purpose Cleaner No Vinegar!
- Homemade Laundry Detergent