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How To Get Musty Smell Out Of Clothes

There’s nothing worse than the smell of musty clothes. It seems to seep into everything. I know it’s caused by storing damp clothing and dirty washing machines. But is there an easy way to get rid of it? Can I find out how to get the musty smell out of clothes?

Removing musty smells from clothing isn’t difficult. Instead of detergent, which can hide odors, wash with a cup of white vinegar or baking soda. Airing the clothing on a clothesline will also help remove unpleasant smells. Both of these methods kill the mold spores in the clothing, leaving the fabric smelling fresh.

Now you know what causes mold spores, it should be simple to get them out of your clothing. Read on to find out how to freshen up your closet and banish the musty smell from your laundry.

How To Get Musty Smell Out Of Clothes

Why Do My Clothes Smell Musty?

Your clothes go through a lot. Whatever activity you do, your clothes are right there with you, soaking up the sweat and absorbing muddy water on a country hike. Or taking in the traffic fumes from a day in the city.

The dirt and grime can cause problems. If you don’t wash the garments as soon as possible, bacteria can start to build up. It’s the bacteria that can create the pungent aroma, particularly in your washing basket. A pile of dirty washing is an ideal environment for bacteria and germs. They’ll multiply in no time.

Add a few damp towels from your shower or some soggy swimwear from your last trip to the pool, and you have the perfect petri dish for mold. Another lover of all things dirty and wet, mold can permeate the fibers in clothing and create an odor of lingering mustiness that seems to be impervious to washing.

Today’s washing detergents are designed to care for modern fabrics, whether they are natural or synthetic. But why do they seem to be ineffective at removing the smell of must? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons musty smells survive the wash.

After Washing

Why Do My Clothes Smell Musty

Since the introduction of automatic washing machines, it’s been a lot easier to do the laundry. Simply load the machine, push the button and go. The thing is, most of us do go. Off to get distracted by something else, leaving the wet washing sitting in a damp machine.

The longer it stays in the washing machine, the mustier it gets. It’s not just the clothing either. Leaving wet washing in the machine after the cycle has finished causes mustiness to build up inside. Mold looking like black goo develops around the seals and drum. Your washing machine starts to smell as musty as your garments, if not more!

Every time you wash your clothes, this build-up of ickiness is spread through your clothing. Resulting in the whole load having a musty odor.

After Drying

When you finally remember there is a load in the machine, you grab it and dump it in the dryer. There are a couple of reasons why this can cause problems.

The heat from dryers can set in stains and odors. So, if your laundry leaves your washing machine with a slight musty smell, a quick tumble in the dryer is going to make sure that odor stays around. With it now embedded into the fibers of your garment, you’ll be smelling the mustiness straight out of the dryer.

After drying, clothes go to one of two places. Either the ironing basket for a quick press or the closet. Ironing is one of those tasks that gets put off. Meaning musty clothing is left lying in an ironing pile for a while. Once it meets up with the iron, the heat can set the odor even further. That musty-smelling clothing is going to be hanging around for some time.

Storing in the Closet / Dresser Drawers / Wardrobe

The biggest problem with closets, drawers, and wardrobes is they tend to be solid pieces of furniture. Normally made from wood, the clothing is enclosed. There are no air gaps or ventilation vents to allow the free flow of fresh air. If you store any item of clothing that isn’t completely dry, you’re inviting a wardrobe full of mustiness into your home.

This can encourage the resident bacteria that has been growing since the pre-wash stage to multiply even further. Musty odors love stale air, or better still, no airflow at all. Making closets, cupboards, and drawers comfortable incubators for the microscopic little colonies living in your shirts.

If your clothing is already suffering from a distinct odor of must, it’s only going to get worse. Now trapped in a wooden box, the mustiness can spread throughout the closet or chest of drawers, permeating both fabric and your furniture.

How to Get Musty Smell Out of Clothes Without Washing

How to get mildew smell out of clothes

Although you will have to wash your clothing at some point, you’ll be pleased to know there are ways to get rid of mustiness without washing. Especially if you need your garment for an upcoming event or outing and you don’t have time to wash it.

Air Your Clothing

The best way to eliminate odors in clothing is to air them. Bacteria that cause musty smells don’t like a soft breeze of fresh air wafting through the fibers.

If you’ve worn a garment, like a jacket, for instance, don’t put it back in a closet as soon as you get home. Grab a coat hanger and leave your garment hanging from a doorknob for a couple of hours and let the air through it. This will help lift any faint odors from the day’s use.

Sunlight is also a sworn enemy to musty clothing. Allow your garments to air dry outside, especially on sunny days with a nice breeze. Those nasty whiffs will soon be beating a hasty retreat. It doesn’t take long! Avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight to prevent your colors from fading.

Steam Your Clothing

HiLIFE Steamer for Clothes, Portable Handheld Design, 240ml Big Capacity, 700W, Strong Penetrating Steam, Removes Wrinkle, for Home, Office and Travel(ONLY FOR 120V)(Blue)Depending on your garment, you might find steaming it will be effective in reducing musty smells. It’s easy to apply too!

If you hang your apparel in your bathroom while taking a hot shower, you’ll find the steam will help freshen up the clothing. An added bonus is it will also steam out any wrinkles saving you from ironing later.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you choose steam as an option. If you have any clothing with a delicate or special finish, turn it inside out before you steam it. Suede fabrics, in particular, are easily damaged by water, so keep them away from steam!

Freeze Your Clothing

How to get mold smell out of clothes

This one sounds a little drastic but works really well. Bacteria and bugs, in general, don’t like being cold, so a lengthy stay in a freezer will send them packing.

Again, keep this option for garments that can withstand getting wet. Either place the clothing directly into your freezer or pop it in a plastic bag first. The time you leave it in there is up to you. Although the longer, the better.

It will need to thaw out a little when you take it out. Otherwise, you may find it a little chilly to wear. This method works well on natural fibers. Avoid freezing anything that is dry clean only.

Spray With White Vinegar

Heinz All-Natural Distilled White Vinegar, 5% Acidity, 16 Fl Ounce (1 Pint)White vinegar is one of those unsung heroes of the cleaning world. It can be used for a multitude of things, including removing musty smells from clothes.

First, test the vinegar on an inconspicuous area to make sure the garment will not be stained or damaged. As with most of the options on this list, vinegar is a liquid, so keep away from fabric easily damaged by moisture.

Once you know it’s safe, spray a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water onto the clothing and allow it to air dry. Allow at least a day between spraying and wearing to make sure the apparel is completely dry.

Spray With Alcohol and Water

In a similar way to vinegar, you can also use alcohol. Vodka works best for this as it’s clear and odor-free. It also dries without leaving any marks behind.

Make up a mix of half water and half vodka and spray it onto your garment. Make sure the item isn’t damaged by water before using this method. Allow the garment to air dry overnight or for at least a day.

The great thing with vodka, unlike vinegar, it won’t swap a musty smell for a vinegary one. This solution is ideal for dealing with those lingering odors caused by sweaty underarms.

Spray With Lemon Juice

Realemon, 100% Lemon Juice, 15 Fl Oz BottleAdd one tablespoon of lemon juice to one cup of water for a smell-busting spray with a refreshing hint of lemon.

This option has two benefits. It removes the mustiness and replaces it with the clean, pleasant smell of citrus.

Lemons are well known for combating odors. It’s a popular fragrance found in a range of kitchen and bathroom cleaners.

Your lemon solution can tackle underarm odors or a full-garment stench.

One thing to consider, lemon juice can stain or cause discoloration.

Always check a small area of the clothing to make sure the lemon won’t damage it.


Essential Oils

Thieves Vitality Essential Oil by Young Living, 5 Milliliters, DietaryThere are essential oils that can hide musty smells in clothing. We’ve already looked at lemons. You can also use bergamot, orange, lime, tea tree, or grapefruit.

Adding a couple of drops to your vinegar spray will cover up the vinegary smell. It will also give your clothing a fresh aromatic fragrance to delight the senses.

There are two areas to be wary of, though. Firstly, if you have a pet cat, you need to be extra careful. Cats and essential oils don’t mix well and you could poison your pet. Second, essential oils can’t be used neat. They should always be used in a carrier solution.

How NOT to Remove Musty Smells From Clothes

Sometimes when you’re trying to get rid of one smell, you end up overpowering yourself with another. While the new aroma might be more pleasant, it simply hides the problem rather than solving it. This could leave mold spores in your garment and lead to the musty smell returning.

Choose a detergent with little or no fragrance to ensure the mustiness is completely removed. Only by doing this can you be sure all the mold has been destroyed.

Another laundry favorite to avoid is fabric softener. Not only will the fragrance of the softener contribute to masking the musty smell in your clothes, but it could also add to it. Fabric softener is known to leave a residue behind. This residue keeps your clothes soft, but it can also build up to create a home for more mold spores.

Can Mold Spores Travel on Clothing?

Mold spores are airborne microbes that love to travel to new areas and spread. They can be carried on clothing. They can even travel in your hair. Pretty much any surface you can think of moving, mold spores can travel on it.

This can be problematic. Not only are mold spores damaging to health, but they also cause a horrible musty smell in your clothes. It’s not always easy to tell when your clothing has come into contact with airborne mold spores. The best way to combat its spread is to make sure you take precautions.

Always air your clothing before putting it back in your closet or drawers. This will help stop the mold spores from spreading throughout your wardrobe. Remember, mold doesn’t like fresh air, so the more ventilation you can give your garments, the better.

If you know you have been somewhere damp, musty, or stale, like an old building, make sure to wash your clothing as soon as you can. Washing should remove any unwanted mold spores that hitched a ride home with you.

How to Prevent Musty Smells in Clothing

Remove mildew smell from clothes

As with most things, prevention is better than cure. This is not only true when it comes to musty smells; it’s essential. Mustiness generally means the presence of mold, which is not good for you or your clothing.

There are things you can do to stop musty smells in their tracks and stop them from taking hold of your garment storage. Let’s take a look at some tried and tested solutions to keep you and your clothes as fresh as a daisy.


Mold hates fresh air. So make sure you give your closet, cupboards, and drawers plenty of ventilation. You can do this by either adding air vents to your closets and the back of your cupboards. Or, you can ventilate your entire bedroom.

Simply opening a window regularly and allowing your whole room to air can work wonders for reducing mold. Getting rid of the mold means fewer musty smells in your clothing.

Air Dry Your Clothes

A clothesline is a great way to prevent musty smells from accumulating in your clothes. The gentle swaying in a warm summer breeze does more than dry the garments. It kills mold spores, and in turn, destroys any chance of a musty smell build-up.

While the heat from a dryer acts as an incubator for nasty odors, an outside washing line adds the gentle fragrance of the great outdoors. It’s simple and effective at keeping your laundry mold-free.

Empty Your Laundry Basket

Doing the laundry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a chore and can be, well, a bit of a chore to do. The thing is, the longer you leave damp clothing in a washing basket, the more chance there is for a nasty stink to develop.

The same goes for the washing machine. If you regularly leave a load of wet washing in your machine, mold will start to form. Damp, dark, humid areas are what mold spores love best. Washing machines are the perfect climate for them.

Always do your laundry regularly and empty your washing machine as soon as the wash cycle has finished. Don’t give the mold any opportunity to grow and your clothing won’t become musty.

Clean Your Machine

Washing machines and dryers come into regular contact with clothing. Washing machines, in particular, come into close contact with dirt, grime, and bacteria. If your wet washing goes into the dryer still carrying mold spores, the humidity in the dryer helps them spread.

Simply doing the laundry creates the perfect conditions for mold to grow into a huge problem. Caring for your washing machine and dryer will nip the spread in the bud. Regularly check your laundry equipment for signs of mildew, mold, and musty smells.

Clean your washing machine by running it through an empty wash on a hot setting. Add a quart of the vinegar and let the machine complete the wash cycle. This will clean the drum and pipework.

For the seals, wipe over with a 50/50 vinegar spray between washes. This will prevent any buildup and reduce the possibility of mold. Wipe over the inside of your dryer in the same way.

Donate Unused Clothing

A great way to ensure airflow around your clothing is not to overpack your closets or wardrobes. If you find there are garments you haven’t worn for some time. Donate them to charity. Although, it might be an idea to wash them first.

Clothing that hasn’t moved in months could be the cause of your musty closet smell. If it hasn’t moved, any mold growing on it will have spread uninterruptedly. If the clothing is badly affected, you may need to throw it away.

Either way, get rid of any item you no longer like to wear or want to wear. Your closet and your nose will thank you for it.

How to Get Rid of Mildew Smell in Closet

How to Get Rid of Mildew Smell in Closet

Closets are an ideal breeding ground for mildew and musty smells. Whether it’s due to hanging damp clothing in there or having too many garments, the smell will build over time. If you have a musty smell or signs of mildew in your closet, there are ways to get rid of it.

The first thing you need to do is empty it completely. Remove all the clothing and make sure you wash it as soon as you can. You’ll need to wipe over all of your shoes too! Make sure to air the contents of your closet out in the open to make sure all the mildew is gone.

Next, you need to clean the closet. Grab a spray bottle with a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water and spray everywhere inside the closet. Vinegar is a natural deodorizer and works as a treat on musty smells.

Allow the vinegar and water solution to dry completely before refilling the closet. A good way to air the closet is to leave the doors open while it dries. A more permanent way of ensuring good airflow through the furniture is to install air vents in the doors or at the side of the closet.

A small floor fan will help circulate air through the closet. It will also keep air moving in the room, which is another good way of getting rid of mildew.


Now you know how to get a musty smell out of clothes, your laundry days should be less fraught. Following the tips in this article will help keep the musty smell out of your clothing.

Let me know in the comments if you liked this article. Have you had a musty smell in your clothing? How did you get rid of it?