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6 Ways to Get the Musty Smell Out of Clothes and Towels

Laundry odor is something I've struggled with for years. With two teenage boys, musty clothes are a given. With high humidity levels in summer, we tend to end up with musty towels, too, because they simply stay damp on the towel bar.

cleaning musty towels

Our old front loading washer didn't help matters, either. Even with running cleaning cycles and leaving the door open, it always had a musty odor. (We replaced the unit in January and the new washer is much better. It has a drain and clean out below the washer drum.)

Note – Don't forget to clean your washing machine periodically! Check out “Washing Machine Smells – How to Get Rid of the Stink” for more information. (Don't leave damp clothes sitting in the washer – that can leave an awful musty smell, too.)

In this post, we're going to discuss how to get the musty smell out of clothes and towels and how to freshen up musty closets. I'm also giving a shout out to a product line I love, EnviroKlenz. It has amazing de-stinkifying power.

6 Ways to Get the Musty Smell Out of Clothes and Towels

My eldest son love wearing gym shorts shorts made with synthetic fabric. After a while, they get a musty smell that just won't come out. (Until I found the solution I share below.)

He also showers in the basement bathroom – and doesn't swap out his towels very frequently.

Let's look at some options for musty laundry odors…

1. White Vinegar

My husband's great uncle ran a commercial laundry for many years, and he swore by white vinegar for stain and odor removal. It also helps to remove hard water and detergent build up on clothes.

Note: Make sure you use the right type and amount of detergent when you wash clothes. Detergent residue traps moisture, making it more likely that you'll end up with musty towels and lingering odors on sweaty clothes.)

I've used white vinegar in the rinse cycle (instead of fabric softener) for years. Fill up the fabric softener spot and you're good to go. Add a cup of vinegar per load for top loaders, 1/4 to 1/2 cup for front loaders.

Some online guides suggest washing your musty towels in hot water with a full cup of white vinegar (no detergent) to remove mildew smell.

2. Baking Soda

Another classic odor remover, baking soda can be sprinkled directly in with your clothes your clothes in the washing machine. Again, I use about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of baking soda per load, followed with a white vinegar rinse.

3. Enzyme Odor Removers

Since body odor was largely responsible for my son's musty clothes, I figured enzyme cleaners could help break down the stink.

The synthetic shorts got better, but not 100%. I had better luck with them removing pet urine odor.

The BioKleen product was better than the product from the local farm store, because it was odor free. Strangely, the farm store product had a heavy, perfume-like scent. Get BioKleen Bac-Out here.

4. 20 Mule Team Borax

In the book “Talking Dirty Laundry with the Queen of Clean”, the author recommends pretreating heavy soiled musty towels with borax.

To pretreat, soak towels in a tub of hot water and 1/2 cup 20 Mule Team Borax for an hour before washing. Wash your clothes as normal. Get 20 Mule Team Borax here.

5. Sunlight

I'm a big fan of line drying clothes when the weather allows me to do so. Sunlight exposure kills some odor causing microbes, and a nice breeze helps improve air flow to all the nooks and crannies.

The downside of using sunlight is the bleaching effect. Over time, it will lighten clothes, making them look more worn.

Sunlight also breaks down elastic and spandex with repeated exposure, the same way it makes plastic brittle. The odor removal power of sunlight also works much better on natural fibers such as cotton, and not so well on synthetics.

See Prairie Pin Pouch Handmade Clothespin Bag for an old fashioned clothespin bag option and Kevin’s Quality Clothespins -The Best Clothespins You’ve Ever Used for heavy duty clothespins. (You can also learn How to Make Wool Dryer Balls to reduce drying time in the clothes dryer.)

Enviroklenz Laundry Enhancer for Odor Removal

6. EnviroKlenz Laundry Enhancer

The results I've had with EnviroKlenz Laundry Enhancer are nothing short of amazing. The musty shorts aren't musty anymore. They just smell clean – no perfume, no cover up.

After one wash cycle, I noticed improvement. By two washes, the odor was gone. This is a stink I've battled for years. (My mother-in-law told me I should have just thrown the shorts out, but he only wore them around home.)

I ran around the house making the entire family smell the no longer stinky shorts.

The product is marketed as a way to get rid of the odor from clothes that are new, and to avoid picking up odors at the laundry mat, but it works great for plain old musty laundry, too.

I add the deodorizer in with the laundry detergent, and skip the vinegar rinse (per Enviroklenz instructions).

I gave a cup of the product to some of our neighbors to test out on their farm clothes. They said that the butchering clothes they washed with EnviroKlenz smelled cleaner and fresher than those washed with bleach.

The EnviroKlenz product line has been around for five years, and can be purchased online and at some health care providers who deal with chemical sensitivities.

I've been using about 1-2 tablespoons per load with good results. (You normally use 1/4 to 1/2 cup per load.) I'll easily get more than 15 loads out of the 15 load bottle.

I started with a review sample back in 2017, and have continued to buy it ever since.

musty smell remover

Musty Clothes in the Closet

What should you do when clothes smell musty in the closet ? Sure, you can take out everything and wash it, but if you don't address the underlying problem, they'll just get musty again.

First, examine the layout of the closet, and look for mold and mildew. Our homes are being built tighter. Less airflow = increased mold and mildew risk.

Closet corners are notorious for harboring mildew and mold growth, and it can easily go unnoticed. If you find mold or mildew, you can use the all purpose spray cleaner and carpet deodorizer recipes from the DIY natural cleaners post to help clean up.

Note: If the problem is severe, please contact a trained mold remediation team. Mold spores can cause serious health problems. If you have a room or basement that smells musty, check out “Musty Smells in the House – Finding Them and Getting Rid of Them“.

Three DIY steps for when clothes in the closet smell musty:

  1. 1. Open up your closet doors! If possible, keep closet doors open to increase airflow. Louvered doors are better than solid doors, because they allow some airflow even when closed.
  2. 2. Clean your closet! Get rid of unused or rarely used items, and organize what's left to improve airflow.
  3. When you clean, you may want to consider the old trick of reversing the hangers as you put the clothes back in. When an item is worn, the hanger gets returned to normal. After a given amount of time, anything not worn is removed from the closet and donated.
  4. 3. Consider a small fan at floor level. My in-laws had a basement closet with a chronic musty odor. The finally purchased a couple of tiny fans and put them in the bottom of the closet, directing air in and out. This got rid of the mildew and odor.
  5. You could set these up on a timer if you didn't want them running 24/7. Get a Holmes mini fan here.

These tips should help you get rid of musty clothes and towels so your laundry smells fresh and clean. For laundry stain removal tips, check out “Do It Yourself Laundry and Household Cleaners“.

More Cleaning Tips…

Please check out these articles for more cleaning ideas:

Do you have a cleaning problem that could use some help? Did I miss a way to get the musty smell out of laundry that works for you? Leave a comment and let me know. Shares, Pins and helpful comments are always appreciated.

shirts on clothes line

Last updated in 2020.

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  1. I’m going to try this EnviroKlenz stuff. I have a pile of towels I cant get the smell out of. Tried everything, lets hope this does it or I may have to finally throw them out. Thanks!!

    1. No, I haven’t, as the powdered version is recommended for top load, non high efficiency washers and I have a front load high efficiency machine. I have used the powdered surface odor remover to help clear out skunk smell in our shed and it helped.

  2. > Some online guides suggest washing your musty towels in hot water with a full cup of white vinegar (no detergent) to remove mildew smell.

    If I use hot water then my towels get a hard nap and become less absorbent after a few washes.
    Do you wash your towels in cold water routinely?

  3. 3 years ago, moved back to Calgary, AB after a year and a half in Vancouver, BC. That musty smell still lingers in most of my clothes (probably in my dresser as well). Thanks for all of these options!