Home Cleaning Tips How to Eliminate Odors from Clothes and Fabrics

How to Eliminate Odors from Clothes and Fabrics

by Catherine

In my previous post, I discussed properly cleaning your washing machine the “mold-safe” way. Honestly, though, even if you are not focused on mold, having a clean, disinfected washing machine will do wonders to improve the health of your home, and the smell of your laundry room, clothing, bedding, towels, etc.

In today’s post, I will focus on actually cleaning your clothes and other textiles, in order to combat all of the odors that sometimes seem to stick with us a little more than we would like. Also, now that we have discussed the two types of odors—chemical and biological—we are going to try to tackle getting rid of the odors that become trapped in your clothing and other laundry. The smells that people tend to be most adverse to, seem to be the biological ones, but I also want to discuss chemical odors in textiles.


First, I want to say that my nose has become extremely sensitive to any sort of chemical smells. I think it is a result of being a watchdog for my son. His skin reacts with an allergic response almost instantly to some chemicals, and his sensory processing issues become magnified and inhibit him from functioning normally when chemicals are in his food and in the air around him. As I understand it, the chemical smells most commonly found on clothing and textiles are plastic odors from packaging and odors due to the presence of chemicals applied to the fibers during their cultivation or manufacturing. For example, a non-water-soluble form of formaldehyde has become a common chemical treatment applied to some 100%-cotton items. Most of these items are labeled “wrinkle resistant,” and if you are chemically sensitive, I would avoid these types of fabrics. Chemical pigments and dyes can also be odor-causing culprits.

Processed with Rookie Cam

I have found, especially for my son’s clothes, that the best and most natural way to remove these chemical odors is with alternating adding 1-2 cups of white vinegar with 1-2 cups of baking soda per wash cycle. Also, always, always wash clothes, towels, linens, etc. first prior to wearing them, if you are chemically sensitive. Soaking is fine. I just caution you that vinegar can have bleaching effects on some colors, if left too long. I also always place any new clothes, bedding or towels that I purchase outside in the fresh air for a few hours to allow all of the chemicals to off-gas into the air, before I bring them into our home. You would be surprised just how much of the plastic smell can be eliminated with fresh air alone.


New sports clothes airing in the sun prior to washing to eliminate plastic and chemical smells.

New sports clothes come home from the store, and I air them outside prior to washing to allow plastic and chemical smells to off-gas.

Now for the biological side of odors. These tend to be bacterial or fungal/mold related, like mildew, musty smells, body odor, food odors, I could go on.

In my home, we are very active, so sweat, sweat stains and damp clothing create many of our “biological odor” issues. The fabrics that I tend to have the most trouble removing smells from are athletic clothes. Gyms are also a breeding ground for mold and bacteria. Exposure occurs with any contact with mats, equipment, etc., and mold spores are released with every step. Thus, the clothes worn to these types of places need special care and attention. These types of athletic clothes are also the ones that we sweat in, and sometimes ball-up to be washed or dried at a later date—in which case, mold can grow. Even with the invention of dry-wicking performance fabrics, there can still be problems with mold and mildew creating odors that are all-but-impossible to remove.

Let’s look at Lycra or Spandex. These materials basically repel water, which is exactly what you want them to do when you’re sweating all over yourself at the gym, but not what you want them to do when you’re trying to get them clean. How are you supposed to get these materials to smell better if you can’t even get them to absorb a cleaning agent?

SO, here are my proven tips to remove those biological odors from your clothes. I actually do these things with each and every load of laundry in our home. Consistency pays off in this case, because you will save your clothes from acquiring the smelly mold, bacteria, etc. in the first place. Once you start, you will never want to go back to just using detergent.

  • Before I get started, on the topic of detergent, please note that residual soap left on clothes can lead to mildew, so more detergent isn’t the answer. Also, I do not recommend liquid detergents or the frequent use of fabric softeners. I use powder detergent exclusively. These liquids can coat your fabrics, trap mold and bacteria, and actually contribute to the problem you are trying to solve, because the detergent residue acts like food for the mold. For example, have you ever seen the mildew ring-around-the-tub phenomenon? The mildew is actually growing on the soap scum, and dirt left behind after the tub is drained! Gross, right?!!!
laundry powder

Powder detergent is a better choice than liquid detergent when concerned with mold and bacteria in your laundry.

  • Add ONLY ONE choice of any of the following to your liquid softener or bleach reservoir with your normal washing detergent and run the load as you always do:

1 cup of vinegar,


2 ounces of EC3 Laundry Additive (EC3 is my preferred option and works best, in my opinion),


A nice arsenal of natural cleaning products.

A nice arsenal of natural cleaning products.

½ cup of hydrogen peroxide,


10 drops of tea tree oil mixed with 16 ounces of distilled water.

(Helpful Tip: The EC3 Laundry Additive and the tea tree oil are the only options I would recommend if you are concerned about your added ingredient having a bleaching effect on your clothes.)

  • Baking soda is another great, natural odor-eliminating option. Baking soda must first be dissolved in the washing machine water with your washing powder, prior to adding your laundry to the machine. Use 1-2 cups of baking soda, depending on load size and size of your machine.
  • For clothes that need extra help with eliminating smells and are not prone to fading, soak them in cold water mixed with 1 cup white vinegar, or 1 cup baking soda, or 2 oz. EC3 Laundry Additive for 30 minutes prior to washing.

clothes soaking

  • On a nice day, opt to hang clothes to line-dry outside and let the sun do the work of getting rid of smells. Make sure you turn clothing inside out first to prevent fading. You can also hang your sweaty clothes outside when you don’t have time to wash them right away. It will prevent the moisture from aiding bacteria and mold growth.
If I can't wash my sweaty clothes for a bit after the gym, I hang them over the railing, so that they don't remain wet and balled-up in a laundry bin.

If I can’t wash my sweaty clothes for a bit after the gym, I hang them over the railing to air dry, rather than throwing them, still wet, into a laundry bin.

  • Use hot water to wash loads that smell. Hot water will kill bacteria and mold much better than cold. I realize that some fabrics cannot tolerate the heat, but if you have smelly laundry, and are able to use hot water, I recommend it.

hot water gauge

  • Use laundry bins without lids. The lids seal in the moisture, creating an optimal environment for bacteria and mold to grow.
I love wire laundry baskets, because they allow air to flow through them.

I love wire laundry baskets, because they allow air to flow through them.

  • Do a load of laundry each day, if possible. This will prevent dirty laundry from piling up, sitting, and getting stale. It will also help you to keep each load smaller. When there is more room in your machine, your clothes will get washed more effectively.

That’s all for now on laundry. I hope you find the way that works best for you.

What types of laundry do you have the most trouble eliminating odors from in your house? Have you found any tricks that work better than others?


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