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The Best Ways to Remove Musty Towel Odors

April 6, 2019

Towels are incredibly useful. Not only are they great for the beach, but they’re awesome for cleaning up spills. An everyday essential, they come in a variety of colors, styles, and sizes. As you might be aware, they are made from a variety of fabrics including cotton, bamboo, hemp, linen, and microfiber. Of course, they all vary in their durability, absorbency, and softness. 

This goes without saying but you always want to keep your towels as clean as possible. As it turns out, bacteria easily can multiply on the fabric—even if you just use it for a few seconds every day. How often should you be washing them? Ideally, after “three to four uses.” It’s also recommended that you air dry them fully between washes; this will help to prevent the build-up of harmful microorganisms.

The Best Way to Wash Towels

Luckily, towels are pretty easy to wash. Separate them into like-colors and load them into the washing machine. Add a scoop of ACTIVE detergent and wash with warm or hot water (cold if the towel contains delicate fibers). Avoid using fabric softeners—they can decrease the towels’ absorbency. Hang them up on a clothesline to dry. You can also put them in the dryer on the lowest heat setting.

Pro-tip: Towels tend to absorb the colors of other garments. For this reason, it’s a good idea to wash them by themselves.

Why Do My Towels Smell Musty?

More often than not, your towels will come out smelling clean and fresh. Sometimes, however, they will smell even after being washed with detergent—a smell that can only be described as being “sour and musty.”

causes of towel odor

As it turns out, there are several reasons for this. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes below.

Too Much Moisture in the Towel

It only makes sense that towels will be wet—they’re meant for wiping after all. However, they should not stay wet. You might have heard this before, but bacteria love to grow in moist environments. Not just them, but mold and mildew too. If you leave a wet towel in the hamper or on a floor, things will begin to multiply. For this reason, you always want to dry your towels immediately when they’re wet. 

Build-up of Fabric Softeners on the Fabric

Fabric softeners not only decrease the absorbency of towels, but they can also make them smelly. How? They prevent the cotton fibers from rinsing out cleanly—this causes detergent and softener to be leftover on the fabric. Those particles then attract dirt and smells.

Residue in Washing Machine

Had your washer for a while? If so, you might want to consider giving the inside a good clean. Over time, residue can easily build up on the inner surfaces. In some cases, it can cause musty smells, which can spread to your laundry—including your towels. Ideally, you want to clean your washing machine once per month. 

How to Remove the Musty Odor from Towels

Do your towels smell sour? Is there a musty odor? Don’t chuck them away—you can easily get rid of the smell. As a matter of fact, you can do so in more than one way!

Use White Vinegar

Put your towels in the washing machine. Instead of using laundry detergent, add one cup of white vinegar to the load. Wash everything with hot water. Take the towels out when the cycle is finished; check for the smell. Repeat with more vinegar if the odor is still present. Wash the towels as normal afterwards with laundry detergent.

removing towel odors with vinegar

Alternatively, you can soak the towels in a vinegar-water mixture. Fill the tub or the sink with warm or hot water. Add one cup of white vinegar and mix the liquid with your hands. Place the towels in and let them soak for at least 30 minutes. Launder as normal with ACTIVE detergent afterwards. Repeat with more vinegar if necessary.

Use White Vinegar with Baking Soda

Vinegar works great, but sometimes you need a little extra deodorizing power—you can get this by adding baking soda.

Put the offending towels in the washing machine. Fill it with hot water; hot water is much more effective at removing musty smells. Carefully pour one cup of vinegar to the load. Wash all of the towels on a normal wash cycle. When it’s finished, refill the machine with more hot water. This time, add half a cup of baking soda. Wash it again with a second cycle.

Pro-tip: You might want to boil some water on the stove for this method. The hotter the water, the more effective it will be!

Dry your towels completely either by putting them in the dryer or by hanging them on a clothesline.

Wash them with Bleach

You can also remove smells by using bleach. However, this method only works for white towels. Add an appropriate amount of chlorine bleach to your load (along with laundry detergent) and wash with hot water. If possible, allow the towels to soak for 15 to 30 minutes before washing. 

Soaking Towels with Detergent and Hot Water

No luck with the above methods? Try soaking the offending towels in ACTIVE detergent and hot water. Fill a bucket or  container with hot water (boiling water works great) and add one scoop of ACTIVE detergent. Mix the solution by gently tilting the container back and forth—be careful not to spill the water. Place the towels in and allow them to soak for a couple of hours; make sure that they are fully immersed in the liquid.

why you should use active detergent 1

Once they’ve been soaked, you can wash the towels as normal with the washing machine. Use the hottest setting.

How to Keep Your Towels Smelling Fresh

Clean Your Washing Machine

You can prevent your towels from smelling by keeping your washer clean. After all, how can you expect your towels to smell fresh if the inside is moldy and gunky? As mentioned earlier, you want to clean the washing machine once per month. You can do this by running a “clean” cycle. If your machine doesn’t have that setting, you can pour a cup of white vinegar into the dispenser and let it run with hot water. Leave the door open for at least 20 minutes after the cycle finishes—this will prevent the buildup of moisture inside, which can lead to bacteria growth.

why you should clean your washer

Pro-tip: Use a clean cloth to wipe around the gasket every time you use the washing machine. Even if you don’t clean it after every wash, you should do so every week to get rid of mold.

Make Sure that they are Completely Dry

Make sure that your towels are completely dry before putting them away. Never fold them if they are even a bit damp—that will only increase the risk of mustiness. In the same vein, do not leave wet, used towels in the hamper. Instead, allow it to air out by spreading it on a hanging rack. 

Add Only the Appropriate Amount of Detergent

Too much laundry detergent actually does more harm than good. Difficult to rinse out, the chemicals will likely remain on the fabric. When this happens, it tends to attract dirt and smells. Only use the necessary amount as per the instructions on the packaging. Remember, less is more.

Skip the Fabric Softener

Fabric softener is no good for towels. Not only will it make them less absorbent by coating them with a wax-like substance, but it will keep bacteria and mold inside the towel fibers. As you can imagine, this will only make your work harder! 

White vinegar is a great alternative if you want to soften up your towels. As an added bonus, it will also help to cut odor!

Don’t Leave Your Towels Inside the Washing Machine

Never let your towels sit around in the machine—take them out immediately once the cycle is finished. The dark, wet environment will lead to bacteria growth (they can breed within one to two hours). If that happens, you’ll have no choice but to wash everything again. Wouldn’t you agree that that defeats the purpose of cleaning them in the first place?

dont leave towels in washing machine

Always Hang Your Towel Up

Never leave a used towel on the floor or in a hamper. Always hang it up on a rack (spread it out as to maximize the surface area). The smell will worsen if a damp towel fails to dry fully between uses.

Perform Heavy Duty Cleaning Every Once in a While

It’s a good idea to wash your towels in hot water on the longest setting every once in a while—this will help to keep them clean and fresh. Make sure that they are dried completely before folding and putting them away.

Do Not Use Your Towel For Too Long

Towels are absorbent—that’s how they work. Unfortunately, this also means that they tend to harbor bacteria. Remember what we said earlier? These microorganisms love moist environments. They will breed and multiply on your wet towel.

As a general rule, you want to wash a towel after three to four uses. You’ll be surprised to know just how dirty they get—even if you just use them for a few minutes every day! The worst thing that you can do is to use a dirty bath towel to dry yourself. The germs can easily go on your skin, which can lead to infection in some cases.

dont use towels for too long

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