How to Remove Odors from Clothes and Towels

How to Remove Odors from Clothes and Towels

For decades, laundry detergent advertisements have told consumers that freshly cleaned linens should smell like an “ocean breeze” or “mountain air.” The problem is, all those fragrances come at the expense of adding a mystery list of chemical ingredients to your detergent. Those same companies would like you to think that harsh chemicals are the only way to remove odor from fabrics, too. It’s simply untrue. From sweat to mildew and more, here's how to combat fashion funk.

What causes clothing to develop a stinky odor?

Our clothes are made of absorbent fibres that not only soak up moisture but facilitate bacteria growth and hold onto aromas. Whether you like to shop second-hand for your clothes, or your towels are subtly developing a musty smell, there are a few common perpetrators when it comes to odors.


The reason towels develop an odor is thanks to mildew. Mildew is a live organism which thrives in warm, moist environments. The longer it lingers, the stronger the odor and the more likely that a fungus will develop on fabrics, which may present as black or green spots. Most commonly, you may have left a load of laundry lingering wet in the drum of the washing machine for too long. It can happen when you start a load before work and toss it in the dryer only once you get home. It also happens when you start a load later in the day, then forget about the wash cycle, head to bed and the items sit wet overnight. If this is the case (and even though it’s a waste of water and product), you’ll want to run the load through a brand-new cycle and this time, dry immediately.

Body oil & sweat

Sweat itself does not smell. Rather, according to, “the smell is an interaction between bacteria and secretions of your apocrine gland.” The intensity of body sweat odor can depend on the material your clothes are made of. Synthetics for example, can promote a higher concentration of microbial growth than textiles like cotton and wool. When sweat is unwittingly left to linger in the fibres of clothing, bacteria becomes deep-set, building up an odor over time. The problem compounds when an item sits for days in a laundry hamper before being washed. Mildew thrives in warm, moist environments, further adding to the funk. Body sweat can also affect the smell of your bed sheets.

Ammonia (urine)

If you’re a pet owner or the parent of a young child, you’ll be familiar with the strong ammonia smell that a urine stain creates. The urine of a healthy, well hydrated person often doesn’t have a strong smell but even small changes in diet can intensify odor. Not drinking enough water can cause pee to smell like ammonia, eating certain foods (we’re looking at you, asparagus) can create a pungent scent, and suffering from a bladder infection, urinary tract infection or diabetes can all affect odor.

Smoke and perfume

The smell of smoke or perfume is a pungent one that easily absorbs into clothing. Perhaps you’ve made a purchase on Facebook Marketplace from a seller who didn’t disclose themselves as a smoker, or maybe you bought a vintage item from a shop that came with a strong eau de toilette aroma. In any case, you’ll want to shed it quick so that the item no longer feels like a stranger’s clothing.

Your washing machine

We often forget to clean the appliances that clean other household items – like dishwashers and washing machines. If your clothing, towels and linens all have a funk, it’s worth checking the seals and nooks of your appliance for mold growth.

Does hot water kill odor-causing bacteria?

It can, but not all clothing holds up to hot water wash cycles. In fact, most synthetics (like the technical materials athleticwear is often made of) should be laundered at warm or cool temperatures. Always refer to the garment care label.

How to wash and treat clothing that smells of sweat and body odor

Step one: Inspect the garment care label. Fussy fabrics and dry clean-only items should be treated alternately.

Step two: If the odor is coming from the underarm area of a shirt, look to see if there is any deodorant residue that should be removed first. If so, use a toothbrush or soft bristle brush to remove debris.

Related: How to Remove White Deodorant Marks and Crunchy Build-Up from Clothing

Step three: Use baking soda or vinegar to pre-treat, which will help neutralize the odor.

Soak the item for at least 30 minutes in a sink or basin using a blend of one part distilled white vinegar and four parts cold water. Rinse thoroughly.

If you’d rather not pre-treat, you can add half a cup of baking soda to the wash cycle OR 60ml white vinegar to the rinse cycle of the wash.

Step four: Wash the item on its normal setting using a Tru Earth laundry detergent eco-strip.

Step five: Hang-dry and perform a sniff test. If the odor persists, place the item(s) in a basin, sink or bucket. Add two cups of baking soda and just enough tepid-warm water to cover the garment. Soak for an entire day and then wash as normal with a Tru Earth laundry detergent eco-strip.

How to get the smell out of thrifted and second-hand clothing

  1. Hang the item in a well-ventilated space for a few days
  2. If the clothing is colourfast and is not dry clean-only, allow the item to sit overnight in a basin or sink full of water and 100 ml (1/2 cup) distilled white vinegar.
  3. Wash with a powerfully formulated laundry detergent like Tru Earth Platinum laundry detergent eco-strips.

How to remove set-in urine odor from clothes in five simple steps

Step 1: If the item is colourfast, pre-soak in a baking soda solution. Fill a basin or sink with warm water and four tablespoons of baking soda (60ml), ensuring the crystals are fully dissolved before placing the item in the water. Treating with baking soda provides the needed boost to break down uric acid (which causes the ammonia-like smell) by raising the PH. Allow the item to soak for 15-20 minutes.

Step 2: Rinse the item thoroughly. Tru Earth is formulated for optimal performance and rinsing avoids any interactions the baking soda may introduce.

Step 3: Wash according to the garment care label, selecting the warmest water temperature that is appropriate for the fabric type.

Step 4: Allow the item to air dry.

Step 5: Perform a smell test. If the odor persists, repeat steps one through four. When the odor has subsided, you can resume machine-drying the garment if appropriate.

How to remove mildew odors from clothes and towels

(Optional) Step one: Use a soft, dry bristle brush to sweep visible spores from the towel or garment. Do this outside or in a well-ventilated area like a patio or deck.

Step two: Place the affected items in a shallow basin or sink. Drop in one Tru Earth laundry detergent eco-strip and add only enough water to fully soak the items, using your hand to ensure the strip fully dissolves. Wait 15 minutes before wringing out and rinsing the towels/clothing.

Step three: Wash on the items/towels’ typical wash setting, adding a Tru Earth strip.

Step four: Machine dry or hang-dry immediately after the cycle ends.

Step five: Perform a smell test. If the smell persists and the item is colourfast, allow the item to soak in a white vinegar bath with water, using a 4:1 ratio. (Four parts water to each part vinegar.) Then, wash as usual. If this still does not help, try baking soda. Pre-soak the garments with 120 ml (1/2 cup) of baking soda in a sink full of water. Rinse, drain and wash.

Optional: What if a stubborn mildew odor persists?

If the mildew musk persists, the spores are still present on the fabric.

If your item can handle it (in terms of colourfastness), you may choose to pre-treat or wash them in a non-toxic, chlorine-free oxygen bleach. However, this type of product is often packaged in hard plastic containers, meaning zero waste options in this product category are extremely limited. However, if it’s the difference between tossing the item out or saving it, you may want to first ask a friend or family member if they have any oxygen bleach they can spare.

What about dryer sheets? Will they improve the smell of musty clothes?

At Tru Earth, we’re all about lessening the use of synthetic chemicals in our daily routines. Dryer sheets contain a mysterious list of ingredients and artificial fragrances, so we prefer to skip them entirely. Instead, we like to add a few drops of our favourite essential oil to wool dryer balls before tossing them into the dryer with a load of towels.

Tips for preventing mildew build-up on clothes and towels

  • Air dry a towel every time you use it. Whether it’s a dishtowel in the kitchen, a hand towel in a powder room or body towel in your ensuite, always hang a towel to dry after use. Ensure it is draped flat over a towel bar to maximize the surface area exposed to air. (I.e.: avoid hooks where bunching occurs or draping over a door, where one side of the towel is not exposed.)
  • Never put a wet or damp piece of clothing in a laundry hamper. Always ensure soiled clothing or towels are completely dry before adding to a bin.
  • Dry laundry immediately after laundering. The less time that wet towels or clothing lingers in the drum of a washing machine, the better.
  • Ensure your towels are completely dry before folding and storing. If needed, pick the “extra dry” dryer setting.
  • Promptly unload bags after visiting the beach or pool

Tips for preventing sweat odor on clothing

Preventing clothing from developing an odor is easier than attempting to rid deep-set funk.

  • Wash workout gear sooner than later. If you’re waiting for a full load, rinse gear in the shower post-work out and hang dry.
  • If you’re not ready to wash an item right away, spot-wash the sweatiest parts and allow to hang-dry.
  • Do not re-wear sweaty athletic gear; wash after use.
  • Never put a moist item of clothing in the hamper.
  • Shower more frequently.
  • Wash clothing more frequently using a small load wash setting.
  • Use an effective laundry detergent.
  • Wear an undershirt.
  • Wear clothing made from natural fibre textiles.
  • Wash sweaty clothing inside-out.

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