A laundry basket with colorful towels and clothing sits in front of a front-loading washing machine

How to Remove Mildew Smells from Your Clothes

When you slip on your favorite t-shirt or sweater or reach for that dress or suit for a big night out, the last thing you want is to detect an unpleasant odor in the fabric. Unfortunately, the scent of mildew is common and can occur due to a variety of causes. In this post, we’ll explore them and provide tips on how to remove mildew smell from clothes.

What Does Mildew Smell Like? 

Mildew is a term for a number of species of mold and fungus. It spreads by producing spores and performs chemical processes to do so. During the growth and reproduction stage of the mildew life cycle, the mold releases gases that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These VOCs have an unpleasant scent. You may describe it as musty, stale or earthy. Some people say it smells like rotting wood. 

Not only is the smell of mildew unpleasant, but it can also cause health problems. Many people are allergic to mold and may develop symptoms like sneezing and itchy eyes when exposed to it. In addition, mildew can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people and can irritate the airways, nose, throat and eyes, even in those who don’t have asthma or allergies. 

How Does Mildew Smell Get on Clothes? 

Mildew loves damp places that don’t get a lot of airflow, and it’s capable of growing on any damp surface within just 24 to 48 hours. It can grow on clothes if you leave wet laundry in the washing machine for too long. Stuffing sweaty or wet clothing and swimwear in a gym bag or beach bag can also lead to mildew growth. Storing clothing in damp, poorly ventilated areas like basements may also result in a mildew smell. In addition, your clothing might develop mildew if your home is damp due to flood damage. High levels of indoor humidity can also support mildew growth, so it’s common in houses that lack air conditioning during the hot, sticky summer months. 

How to Remove Mildew Smell from Clothes

Although a mildew smell in clothes is unpleasant, it’s not permanent. Follow these steps to get rid of it. 

  1. Wash the Clothes

Place the clothes in the washing machine. Check the care tags as you load. Add a heavy-duty laundry detergent and set the temperature of the wash to the highest that your clothing can tolerate. If you have a mix of delicates and other fabrics, run more than one load, so you can use the maximum temperature settings for each type of clothing. 

Oxygen bleach and white vinegar can boost the odor-fighting actions of the wash cycle. You can also add a laundry booster that absorbs VOCs and adds fresh scents like Fresh Wave Odor-Eliminating Laundry Booster. Its water-based formula contains natural ingredients that are skin friendly and nontoxic. The biodegradable laundry booster neutralizes VOCs rather than simply covering them up and leaves behind a pleasing scent of lime, clove, anise, pine needle and cedar wood. 

  1. Dry Clothes Thoroughly

Putting clothes away while still damp can invite mildew to return, making it important that you thoroughly dry everything in the load. Tumble on the highest heat setting in the dryer. If you find that trace of moisture lingering when it comes time to unload, turn the dryer back on. 

For delicate clothing that can’t take the heat in the dryer, hang it outdoors in an area that receives full sun. Do a touch test before you take the clothing off the line. You can also try tumbling these items on a low heat setting for a longer amount of time. 

  1. Store Clothes Properly

Storing your clothes properly can go a long way in preventing mildew growth. Follow these tips to keep things fresher: 

  • Never put clothing away while it’s still damp. 
  • Avoid storing clothes in the basement or other areas prone to moisture. 
  • Empty gym or swim bags and hang items up to dry as soon as possible. Never put damp clothes in the hamper. 
  • Store out-of-season clothing in airtight plastic bins. 
  • Keep suits and dresses that you don’t wear often stored in hanging ventilated clothing bags. 
  • Don’t dump wet towels into the hamper after use. Let them hang from a towel bar or ring until dry. 

How to Remove Mildew Smell from Clothes Left in the Washer

If you accidentally leave clothing in the washing machine and come back a day or two later, the smell of mildew can be very intense. The above steps may work to eliminate the scent, but you might need to take a few extra measures, such as: 

  • Soaking the clothes with laundry booster for an hour or two before washing 
  • Wiping out the inside of the washing machine with a cleaning product and following up with a laundry booster 
  • Running clothes through the wash and rinse cycle twice 

Keep Your Clothes Smelling Fresh

When you detect a mildew smell on clothes, follow the above steps to get rid of it and then investigate the cause of the odor. Making small changes like setting a reminder on your phone to empty the washing machine or switching to a gym bag with mesh ventilation pockets could help prevent mildew smells in the future. If you have to store out-of-season clothing in the basement, put the clothing in airtight containers and attach a Fresh Wave pod filled with an odor-fighting pack to the inside of the lid. Change the packs every 30 to 60 days to keep everything smelling fresh. Get more tips on how to keep your clothes and your home smelling great by checking out the tips in our other articles.