How to Get Stinky Smells Out of Your Clothes

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Need to remove mildew, smoke, or other offensive odors from your clothing? Here's exactly how to do it—quickly and easily.

Smelly clothes are a friend to no one, but on the flip side, they’re a sign of a life well-lived. Whether it’s perfume from date night, bonfire smoke, or sweat from a night of dancing, scent leaves a trail that can be a doozy to remove, even after reading the clothing label and following the laundry symbols and instructions exactly. Regardless of washing machine temperature or whether you use your best laundry detergent—maybe even your best-smelling laundry detergent—some stinks just refuse to go away after a wash or two. But that only happens if you don’t know how to get smells out of clothes the right way…and that’s exactly why you need the step-by-step instructions we’re about to provide.

“Odors that linger on clothing can be frustrating, especially after you’ve washed an item and the smell remains,” says Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert. “Dealing effectively with odors on clothing—meaning the odors are removed, not just covered up—often requires more attention than just throwing it in the wash.” Yet with the right laundry products and techniques, your clothes will smell as easy-breezy as the process to get them there. Here’s what you need to know.

Mildew and must

“Mildew is a type of fungus, which is different than bacteria or viruses,” explains Gagliardi. While viruses and bacteria, your typical odor-offending suspects, are neutralized by the sanitizing agents in detergents, fungus generally requires something stronger. Gagliardi notes that products formulated with sodium hypochlorite (aka bleach) are the most effective mildew-busters, but be aware that they’re not appropriate for every fabric type. To get rid of a mildewy or musty smell in clothes, follow these steps:

  1. Check the cleanliness of your washer—a dirty clothes washer can cause a mildew odor. “The inner workings of a clothes washer harbor soil buildup, especially in HE washers,” warns Gagliardi. That’s because with HE washers water is never completely pumped from the machine, so a little bit of dirt and residue stays behind in the machine. These machines also provide a moist environment for fungus to thrive.

  2. If your washer could use a little washing itself, run a cycle with a sodium hypochlorite-based product (without clothes) to wash away soil buildup. If that doesn’t work, you’ll also want to check out these other tips on how to clean a washing machine.

  3. Read the clothing label. “A white T-shirt that has a small percentage of spandex in it can’t be bleached,” says Gagliardi, noting that bleach can break down the sensitive fabric and create holes. “But cotton and polyester items, even with color, can be safely bleached—you just need to check any colored sections for colorfastness first.”

  4. If the smelly item has colors, start with a colorfastness test. Mix two teaspoons of Clorox Disinfecting Bleach into 1/4 cup of water and apply a single drop onto a hidden spot. Wait one minute, then rinse and blot dry, instructs Gagliardi. No color change means you can safely bleach the item.

  5. If it can be safely washed with bleach, use regular detergent diluted with 1/3 cup of bleach and machine-wash in the hottest temperature setting to sanitize thoroughly.

  6. If it can’t be washed with bleach, wash it in the hottest water possible using detergent and a color-safe solution, like Clorox2 for Colors, to “at least get the clothing as clean as possible,” says Gagliardi. This process should remove the mildew smell from clothes, but if it still doesn’t smell quite right, repeat the process.

  7. If your climate allows, let the item air-dry in the sun, which will also help reduce mildew odors.

Sweat and sour smells

Some might argue (“some” meaning us) that getting sweat out of clothes is just as hard as the workout itself, but don’t throw in the towel yet! By following our step-by-step guide on how to get rid of sweat stains, you can banish both stains and accompanying odors for good.

Smoke

Residual smoke odor, whether it’s from a bonfire or a cigarette, is heavy and “sticks” to fabrics. Because of that, the process for how to get these smells out of clothes is a little different.

  1. Air out your clothing immediately in a well-ventilated area so the smoke doesn’t have a chance to settle into the fibers.
  2. Read the label. If the item is machine washable, you can clean your entire outfit in one go—and you’ll definitely want to do that if you can because smoke gets into every crevice.

  3. Use your favorite laundry detergent as normal, but also add a color-safe and bleach-free laundry sanitizer to your load. Try Clorox2 for Colors or OxiClean’s Laundry & Home Sanitizer. These products will protect the vibrancy of your clothing while also thoroughly cleansing it.

  4. If you have a single smokey-smelling item, another option is to spritz it generously with spray sanitizer just before laundering. Both Tide and Clorox’s sanitizing sprays kill 99.9 percent of bacteria on the spot.

  5. If the label allows, wash in the hottest water you can for the best cleaning, recommends Gagliardi, and this should do the trick.

  6. Air-dry in the sun if possible, or dry in an equally hot setting. Just make sure to check the label to ensure the item won’t shrink in heat if you’re putting it in a dryer.

Perfume

According to Gagliardi, when perfume gets on fabric, the ethanol within the formulation evaporates quickly, leaving you with an oily, smelly stain. “That’s why it’s a harder stain to get out,” she says. “But it’s not impossible—just treat it like any other oily stain.”

  1. Pre-treat the stain when the fabric is dry by dabbing liquid dish detergent onto it and gently rubbing it in. (Don’t rinse the item with water first.)

  2. Wait five minutes.

  3. Rinse the stain with warm water to remove the dish detergent.

  4. Do a colorfastness test by mixing two teaspoons of Clorox Disinfecting Bleach into 1/4 cup of water. Apply a tiny drop to an inconspicuous spot and wait one minute. Rinse and blot-dry. No color change means you can safely bleach the item.

  5. For white bleach-safe clothes, add a tablespoon of bleach into the bleach dispenser.

  6. For bleach-safe clothes with colors or dark hues, or white clothes made of spandex, squirt in a tablespoon of Clorox2 for Colors.

  7. If clothes are not bleach-safe, then repeat steps 1 through 4 until the oil stain is removed.

  8. When the stain is out, wash the item in the hottest water recommended for the specific fabric.

Tips for banishing any type of nefarious odor

These helpful tips for how to get smells out of clothes are general guidelines, but rule number one with laundry—that many of us have learned the hard way—is that some detergents, water temperatures, and drying options don’t play together nicely, so take the extra two minutes to read the care label before settling on an odor-killing strategy. “It’s always important to check the care label before laundering an item, whether you’ve got an odor problem or not,” says Gagliardi. “Knowing fiber content is important for helping you choose the right laundry products, especially if your laundry problem requires more aggressive laundering.”

  • Different clothes and fabrics require different additives. Remember that laundry is often not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Different odor situations will benefit from distinctive and specific actions, along with the right laundry additive to boost the cleaning power of the detergent. For example, spandex clothing can’t be washed with any type of formulation that contains bleach, and neither should wool, silk, mohair, or leather. Cotton and polyester, on the other hand, can tolerate bleach.

  • Liquor can help. Yes, with laundry odors. What did you think we meant? Vodka is shockingly effective at odor removal—just ask any Broadway actor. “Actors sweat all night in their costumes, and they can’t get them dry cleaned every night, so they spray them with vodka,” says Leslie Reichert, aka The Cleaning Coach. Pour some into a spray bottle, then spritz it on unfresh clothes. As the alcohol evaporates, it will lift odors away. And laundry likes its vodka strong. Adding water will weaken the high alcohol content, which is where the spirit gets its odor-eliminating power. In fact, find the cheapest bottle of vodka you can find and watch in wonder as the stink disappears.

  • Add vinegar. Beloved by grandmothers everywhere, the simple trick of adding a cup of vinegar to your wash cycle has stood the test of time. It can be used on both whites and colors, and your clothes will not only look brighter—they’ll smell way fresher, too. It’s also a helpful pre-wash treatment: Soak clothes for 30 minutes in a tub or sink filled with a 1:4 solution of vinegar and water, and voilà! The smell will break down tenfold.

  • Try a dusting of baking soda. Another hall of fame laundry hack is adding up to a cup of baking soda to your suds. But a word to the wise: Don’t use baking soda and vinegar—they’re an either/or situation, as they will cancel out each other and you’ll still be left with stinky clothes.

  • Don’t dump in lots of detergent. Although it sounds like a good idea, it’s not. Too much detergent will leave a slimy residue, which traps odors and makes them even harder to remove.

  1. Be careful when dealing with gasoline stains. Gasoline is a fire hazard and needs to be handled with extra care. Let the clothes stained with gasoline air-dry for 24 hours outdoors, then spot-clean the stain once it’s dry, using liquid dishwashing soap and gently rubbing it into the stain. Let it sit for five minutes, and then rinse the stain with warm water. Make sure that the dish detergent is rinsed out completely, then air-dry. Then launder the item as usual.

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