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How To Get Smells Out of Towels: Non-Toxic Methods

Let’s aim for that five-star hotel freshness!

Towels go through a lot in a household. From cleaning up spills to drying our hair, they can become a sponge for bacteria, stains, and of course, odors.

If you feel you wash your towels thoroughly, but they still stink, you’re not alone. But don’t fret — we are experts in removing these smells. We’ve tested out various methods to find out the most effective ones.

Are you ready to learn how to get smells out of towels, with or without bleach? Whether your towel smells like body odor, dampness, or some other stink — these methods can freshen it up.

Key Takeaways

  • Wash towels in a hot cycle with one cup of distilled white vinegar added to the detergent drawer, followed by a second hot cycle with ½ cup of baking soda.
  • Ensure towels are completely dry before storing them to prevent bad smells and bacteria growth.
  • Avoid using fabric softener on towels, as it can cause buildup and make them less absorbent.
  • Clean your washing machine once a month to maintain its effectiveness and prevent odors from transferring to your towels.

Why Do My Towels Smell Bad Even After Washing?

There are a few reasons your towels don’t smell fresh and clean, even after spinning around the machine with detergent.

  • Your washing machine is dirty: It’s important to deep clean your washing machine once a month to remove odors and bacteria. If your machine is dirty and stinky, then your clothes will be, too.
  • They didn’t dry fully: Once you’ve washed your towels, ensure they are 100 percent dry before putting them away.
  • Too much or too little detergent: Too much detergent can build up and cause unpleasant odors. Too little detergent won’t clean away all the dirt, leaving the towels smelly.
  • Fabric softener: While fabric softener seems a great idea for fluffy towels, we don’t recommend it. Using fabric softener on towels can lead to a buildup of chemicals, making them stinky and less absorbent. If you still want soft towels, we have an alternative hack.
  • They sat in the washer: When the washing cycle is finished, remove the towels within the hour. Otherwise, they can cling to that damp smell which is impossible to remove unless you rewash the towels.
  • The towel was super dirty: Finally, it just might be that the towel needs a deep clean rather than a regular clean. If the towel got particularly filthy, sat in the hamper for a while, or was used too many times before washing it, odors might be deep into the fibers.

How To Get Smells Out of Towels With Vinegar and Baking Soda

In our home, this is how we deodorize our towels. It works every time — and the vinegar acts as a natural fabric softener, leaving your towels fluffy!

  • Time: 10 minutes (plus waiting time).
  • Difficulty: Easy.

What You’ll Need

  • One cup of distilled white vinegar.
  • ½ cup of baking soda.
  • Laundry detergent (optional).
  • Washing machine.

1. First, Wash With Vinegar

Toss the towels into the washing machine and add your laundry detergent (if using) to the drum. You can either use a laundry pod, powder, or pour the liquid over the towels. The reason we’re adding the detergent to the drum and not the drawer is because that’s where the vinegar is going.

The white vinegar is enough to clean your towels, so you don’t need to add extra detergent. When we use this method, we only add detergent if the towels are stained or dirty. But if they’re just stinky, skip the detergent.

Many people recommend adding vinegar to the rinse cycle, but in our experience, it’s even more effective when it’s added to the entire cycle. So pour one cup of vinegar into the detergent drawer.

Close the machine door and set the cycle to as hot as the care label of the towels will allow — this is usually 130 degrees Fahrenheit. However, your machine might just have a hot wash option: use that.

2. Second, Wash With Baking Soda

Once the cycle finishes, add ½ cup of baking soda to the drum or the detergent drawer. The baking soda will remove further odors, giving you the freshest results.

You can add detergent if you want, but it’s not necessary since the towels should be clean by now. Run a hot cycle and let the baking soda work its magic.

3. Repeat if Necessary

If your towels were particularly odorous, repeat the above steps once or twice more.

4. Dry the Towels

Once the odors are gone, it’s time to dry the towels. You can either line-dry or tumble-dry, but we recommend a mixture of both.

Remove the towels from the washing machine and give them a good shake to encourage fluffiness. Hang them outside on a dry, sunny day or inside in a warm room. Once the towels are nearly dry, toss them in the tumble dryer for 30 minutes to fluff them up.

Once the cycle is done, take them out of the dryer and check they’re 100 percent dry before storing them.

Other Ways To Get Musty Smells Out of Towels

While the baking soda and vinegar method above is super easy and non-toxic, it’s handy to have some alternative methods under your belt. This is useful if you don’t have baking soda or vinegar in the cupboard or if you want extra disinfecting power.

With Bleach

You’re probably wondering about bleach when figuring out how to get the mildew smell out of towels. If the odors are caused by mold and mildew, we definitely recommend bleach, as this disinfects the towels, removes stains, and kills odors.

Remember that bleach will discolor towels, so you might want to stick to bleach for whites only.

  1. Add towels: Put the stinky towels in the washing machine.
  2. Add detergent: Add the detergent to the drum or drawer.
  3. Start the cycle: Start a hot cycle.
  4. Add bleach: Dilute the bleach according to the packaging instructions. If using Clorox, this will usually be ⅔ cup of bleach per quart of water — but this depends on the specific product you buy and what type of machine you have. Once the machine has begun agitating the clothes, wait five minutes, then add the bleach.
  5. Dry: Remove the towels from the machine and dry them thoroughly.

No Fabric Softener

Don’t add fabric softener to this cycle, as it will build up on the towels, trapping the odor. Plus, you should never mix bleach and fabric softener as, depending on the chemicals within the softener, this could lead to an adverse chemical reaction.

With Borax

Borax is like baking soda on steroids. It’s super powerful and has impressive odor-removal abilities. This is an excellent method if your towels have a musty, sour, moldy, or mildewy scent.

  1. Add Borax: Add ½ cup of Borax to the washing machine drum.
  2. Add towels: Toss your towels in the drum.
  3. Add vinegar or laundry detergent: Add one cup of distilled white vinegar or your regular laundry detergent to the dispenser drawer.
  4. Start: Choose a regular hot cycle and run the machine.
  5. Dry: Dry the towels thoroughly.


Borax is quite toxic if you ingest it, get it on your skin, or breathe it in (1). It can cause rashes, nausea, vomiting, irritation, or even kidney failure. Make sure you work in a well-ventilated spot and wear gloves, protective clothing, a mask, and glasses.

With Ammonia

Our final recommendation for how to get musty smells out of towels is ammonia. It’s also great for removing stubborn smells, like smoke odor.

  1. Add towels: Put the towels in the machine.
  2. Add detergent: Add the detergent to the drum.
  3. Add ammonia: Put one cup of ammonia in the detergent drawer.
  4. Start the cycle: Start a hot cycle.
  5. Dry: Remove the towels from the machine and dry them thoroughly.


Never mix ammonia with a laundry detergent that contains bleach. This creates a toxic gas called chloramine which can cause death (2).

How To Dry Bath Towels After Showering

We recommend using a towel three times before you wash it. However, between uses, you must ensure that it remains dry to prevent germs and odors.

After a shower, the best thing to do is hang the towel over a rail. Make sure it’s nice and flat so the air can circulate. This is best done on a heated rail — but if you don’t have one, ensure it’s hanging somewhere with minimal humidity.

If your bathroom is super humid, install an extractor fan or open the window.

The last thing you want to do is leave the towel on the floor or hang it on a hook where it can’t get thoroughly dry. When wet, a towel will become majorly smelly.

Tips for Keeping Towels Smelling Fresh

If you want your towels to boast that hotel freshness, here are our top hacks:

  • Hang them: When you’re done with the towel, hang it over a rail to air dry between uses. Don’t toss it on the floor or hang it on a hook.
  • Three-use rule: Use a towel three times before washing. The longer you use it, the more odorous it becomes. However, you don’t need to clean the towel after one use — this will lead to extra laundry cycles, which can be bad for the environment.
  • Clean the machine: Ensure your washing machine is clean before washing your towels. In general, you should deep clean the washing machine once a month.
  • Skip the fabric softener: Even if you’re not deep cleaning the towels, use vinegar instead of fabric softener in your regular cycles. Add one cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle or in the detergent drawer for the main cycle. This is a non-toxic but super effective fabric softener — plus, it removes detergent buildup.
  • Dry thoroughly: Don’t skimp on the drying process. Make sure towels are 100 percent dry before storing them.
  • Use hot water: When washing, it’s eco-friendly to use cold or lukewarm water. But for towels, you can wash them in hotter water, which will remove bacteria and odors.
  • Go easy on the detergent: Don’t overuse laundry detergent. Too much can build up on clothes. Our hack is to use half the recommended amount, as this will still clean your towels well without that awful buildup.


Can You Use Vinegar in an HE Washer?

Absolutely. Using vinegar with an HE washer (high-efficiency) or standard washer is safe.

Where Do You Put Vinegar in a Washing Machine?

If you have a top-loading washing machine, you can add vinegar directly to the drum during the last rinse cycle.

You can also add it to the drum before you add your clothes.

In a front-load washer, add the vinegar to the fabric softener compartment during the last rinse cycle.

If using the vinegar as a detergent, add it to the detergent drawer before you start your cycle. This is what we do, and it works a charm!

How Often Should You Wash Towels With Vinegar?

You can add vinegar to every single towel wash if you’d like. It won’t harm the towels, so why not enjoy the benefits during every wash?

What is the Best Laundry Detergent for Stinky Towels?

Using the right laundry detergent for towels helps prevent the odors from building up. Our research has found that Tide Ultra Oxi Liquid is a fantastic option. It can remove set-in and stubborn odors as well as tackle stains.

Why Do Hotel Towels Smell So Good?

The classic hotel towel smell that you’re familiar with is likely bleach. This adds a chlorinated scent while disinfecting towels between guests.

Another reason they smell so good is because the hotels will use soft water, which ensures the detergent works to the best of its ability. They also use a hot wash to remove odors.

Why Are My Towels Hard After Washing?

It’s super disappointing when a towel adopts that stiff, scratchy texture. This happens because of a few factors:

  • Too much detergent: Too much harsh detergent can strip the towel of its softness.
  • Fabric softener: Fabric softener builds up on the towel.
  • Cold water: Cold water is rougher on the fabric.
  • Poor tumble dryer: The tumble dryer is too rough and too hot.

Overall, if the towels have a buildup of detergent and fabric softener and then are overdried — they become hard. Another reason they are hard is that they’re too old. If you can’t eliminate the stiff texture using any of our methods, it might be time to replace the towels.

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About the Author

Beth McCallum

Beth McCallum is a freelance writer & book blogger with a degree in creative writing, journalism, and English literature. Beth firmly believes that a tidy house is a tidy mind. She is always looking for new ways to sustainably clean and tidy her house, that's kind on the environment but effective in the house, too!