How to Get Mildew and Musty Smells Out of Clothes

Banishing those icky, musty smells is easier than you think.

If you're sniffing the air for the source of a mysterious musty smell, we have some bad news. It may be coming from your clothes. You can try washing them again, but once mildew smells penetrate the fabric, it usually takes more than a regular wash cycle to remove them. This is a serious problem since mildew smells aren't only unpleasant, they wreak havoc on your sinuses and allergies.

Don't worry, saving your favorite outfit is easier than you think. We spoke to chemist and former scientific communications manager for Tide, Jessica Zinna, Ph.D., to find out how to get mildew smells out of clothes—and how you can avoid them to begin with.

How to Remove Mildew and Musty Smells from Clothes
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What Causes Mildew Smells in Clothes?

Mildew and musty smells can occur in clothes in even the most fastidious of households. Zinna says, "Laundry odor can be caused by a variety of sources including forgetting wet clothes in the washing machine, a dirty washing machine, hard water, or leftover body soils on clothes." According to Zinna, that last one is particularly important. She adds, "Invisible body soils are one of the leading causes of laundry odor. Our bodies are in constant contact with clothes, towels, and other fabrics that trap our body soils over time, causing that stinky and musty smell." In fact, much of the soils on your towels are invisible body soils. Another culprit? Leaving clothes in the hamper too long, especially if they're damp.

What Is Mildew vs. Mold?

So what exactly is growing on your clothes? A dark, poorly ventilated closet or a pile of damp clothes provides fertile ground for mildew, which is a type of mold. "The term mildew is often used generically to refer to mold growth, usually with a flat growth habit," cites the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Molds that cause mildew flourish wherever it is damp, warm, poorly lighted and/or where air is not circulated," explains the University of Missouri Extension. "It is a thin, black, or sometimes white, growth produced by mold." Mildew has a distinct odor and can be irritating to some, but mold poses a more serious health hazard. "Although mildew can cause respiratory irritation in sensitive individuals, household molds, such as those from indoor water damage, are generally associated with more serious health effects," according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

How Do You Get Musty, Mildew Smells Out of Clothes?

Sometimes life doesn't go as planned. You get busy at work, and the hamper sits too long, or you discover a collection of dirty athletic jerseys under your teenager's bed. It's okay. You can still get those unpleasant smells out of your clothes. Zinna says all you need is a heavy-duty laundry detergent. Look for options like Tide Hygienic Clean or other brands containing ingredients made to trap dirt and oil so they won't get re-deposited on clothes. She says this is particularly important if you have a high-efficiency washing machine that uses less water than standard models. In most cases, washing as usual with a quality heavy-duty detergent will remove the mildew smell.

You can also add 5 cups of vinegar directly to the drum with your laundry detergent, but Zinna says this is more effective for removing smells than it is for removing stains. In fact, she states that vinegar may interfere with the cleaning performance of your detergent so you might have to be prepared to wash your clothes a second time if the stains persist.

How Does Hard Water Affect Laundry?

Zinna is also quick to point out that neglected laundry might not be the culprit. Hard water may also be the problem. "Most people don't realize this, but musty odors on clothing, stiff towels, faded colors, dingy whites, and even stubborn yellow underarm spots can be caused by hard water!" The calcium in hard water can impact the effectiveness of your detergent. Hard water can also give fabrics a dingy appearance and make them feel less soft. According to Zinna, if you have hard water, you should look for a product like 9 Elements Laundry Detergent to combat the negative effects of hard water on your laundry.

How Can You Prevent Mildew Smells in Clothes?

The most obvious way to prevent musty smells from attacking your clothes is to stay on top of your laundry. Don't allow piles of dirty, sweaty clothes and damp towels to accumulate in the hamper. Also, be sure to remove your clothes from the washing machine as soon as it's finished running.

Zinna advises leaving the door of your washing machine open a tiny crack to allow it a chance to dry out. She also recommends wiping down the gasket (the inner rubber seal) after each use to make sure standing water doesn't accumulate.

Should You Wash Your Washing Machine?

It's also a good idea to clean your stinky washing machine once a month. Check the manufacturer's directions for your washing machine since many units have cleaning cycles. If your machine doesn't have such a cycle, she says to manually wipe the inner rubber seal by hand with soapy water. She also recommends removing the dispenser tray and rinsing it clean with hot water. Lastly, she adds that products like Tide Mashing Machine Cleaner can be used periodically to make sure the interior of your washing machine is squeaky clean.

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  1. Abney SE, Khalid Ijaz M, McKinney J, Gerba CP. Laundry hygiene and odor control: state of the science. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2021;87(14). doi:10.1128/AEM.03002-20

  2. EPA. What is the difference between Mold and Mildew?

  3. University of Missouri Extension. How to Prevent and Remove Mildew--Home Methods.

  4. USGS. Hardness of Water.

  5. Cameron BA. Detergent considerations for consumers: laundering in hard water--how much extra detergent is required? Journal of Extension. 2011;49(4).

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