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Do Your Towels Smell Bad Even After Being Washed? Here’s What You’re Doing Wrong

The solution to even the worst stink is in your pantry

Ahh. There’s nothing like that fresh, straight-from-the-dryer towel scent. That is, until you pull your clean towels from the dryer and they smell like they did when you put them in — mildewy. Worse, even when you wash towels with regular laundry detergent multiple times, the mildew smell can linger. The last thing you want to do is throw away your towels and spend all that extra cash replacing them, so we’ve rounded up a few handy tricks to get rid of the stench for good.

Why do my towels smell bad even after washing?

“Over time build-up from detergent and fabric softeners can prevent towels from absorbing and drying as quickly,” says cleaning expert Melissa Riker of And the added moisture that sits on the towels’ fibers can lead to bacteria growth which in turn leads to the smell mildew — something detergent alone isn’t strong enough to eradicate.

Another reason your towels smell? You may be washing them along with too many other clothes. When your washer is overloaded, each individual item moves less because it’s bumping into its neighbor. This lack of movement means that less detergent penetrates each item — and it penetrates only part of the item. When this happens, the bacteria live on to stink another day.

How do I get the smell out of towels?

One thing cleaning experts agree on is to wash towels in small loads (see above) with warm or hot water. The hotter the water, the less the bacteria can stand it.

Then, you can combat the culprit that makes towels smell using items you probably already have lying around the house such as…

Baking Soda

Ah, baking soda — the one ingredient we can always rely on to banish pesky odors in just moments. As it turns out, baking soda can be used to eradicate that musty towel smell. “It’s technically sodium bicarbonate, which absorbs odors from both surfaces and in the air,” says organizing expert Jamie Novak.

This hack is super simple, and you don’t need any ingredients other than baking soda. To use baking soda when your towels smell, simply throw your towels into the washer along with one cup of baking soda and run your washer through a cycle. For this hack, you don’t even need to use laundry detergent — in fact, you shouldn’t! By using just the baking soda and hot or warm water, your stinky towels will come out smelling like new. This works the same way for either front-loading or HE washers.

Remember to reserve some baking soda to sprinkle on your stinky bath mats, too. Simply sprinkle a little powder on the rug and let it sit for several hours (or overnight) so it can work its magic. Remove the powder with a hand-held vacuum and all that’ll remain will be a fresh scent.


Vinegar is another all-natural option that can help you out when your towels smell. You might be thinking, what? Vinegar doesn’t exactly smell great, either… but it can be rather useful if you’ve got really stubborn, smelly towels since vinegar’s acetic acid bonds to odor-causing compounds and neutralizes them.

To use this towel cleaning hack, simply do the same as you would with the baking soda. Just add one cup of white vinegar to a load and wash your towels with no detergent or bleach in warm or hot water.

Is mildew invading your shower as well as your towels? Vinegar can help with that too. Simply heat 1 cup of vinegar in the microwave for 2 minutes, then pour into a spray bottle and add 1/2 cup of liquid dishwashing soap. “All you need to do is shake it up and spritz it on problem areas, then forget it,” says cleaning blogger Jill Nystul. “In the morning, rinse it down. It’s like waking up to a different shower.”

Baking Soda + Vinegar

baking soda with white vinegar
focal point/Shutterstock

That’s right — these two pantry staples aren’t just powerful on their own. When combined, they can leave your towels smelling and feeling better. Place towels in your washing machine, then add 1 cup of white vinegar and 1/2 cup of baking soda. Let the machine fill with water, then soak the towels for 30 minutes before running a regular cycle. Together, the white vinegar and the baking soda neutralize odor and remove buildup, leaving towels super soft and fragrant.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide can help heal minor cuts, and it can also nix stinky mildew smells from your towels. Add 1/4 cup of hydrogen peroxide to the washing machine along with your usual detergent and fill with hot water before inserting the towels. Then add an extra rinse cycle to your standard wash cycle.

The hydrogen peroxide breaks down any detergents and mildew-causing bacteria that have built up in the fabric’s fibers while the extra rinse washes it all away, leaving you with fresh towels in a snap!

Essential Oils

essential oil falling from glass dropper

If you’ve found that even after you’ve tried these tricks that you’re still noticing a bit of an odor, you can also add a few drops of your favorite freshening essential oil. To do this, just add three to five drops of essential oil into your load, and your towels should come out smelling fresher than ever. Some of our favorites to use are lemon and tea tree essential oil, which both have an uplifting and refreshing scent. The compounds in both of these oils also help in removing odor — for good! 

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