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What Causes Smelly Clothes? (And how to fix it)

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You’ve done everything you were taught to be the “correct” way to wash your clothes, but they still have a less than pleasant smell.  What can be done so that you can be confident that once your clothes have been washed, dried, and stored, you will be able to wear them days, weeks, or even months later with the confidence that you are smelling like a rose?

Unfortunately, your clothing tends to pick up and absorb the smell of their surroundings, so ensuring that the area your clothes are stored is one sure-fire way to keep your garments smelling fresh after they have been put away.

Simple solutions are available to you, many taking only moments and costing little if anything to ensure the scent of your clothing will always be fresh.  You will soon be wearing your clothing, whether newly washed or from storage, with confidence.

Why Do My Clothes Smell When I Store Them?

As previously stated, clothes have a terrible tendency to incorporate the scents surrounding them, be that in your closet, dresser, or a place where you feel them appropriately stored.  Looking at the area your clothes are house and determining what might make them pick up less than pleasant smells and changing the scent of the site is the first step to maintaining that freshly-washed scent in your clothing. 

In addition, you may find that your clothes never achieve that level of freshness you expect newly washed clothes to have directly after taking them out of the washer or drying.  These, too, are common issues that, if appropriately addressed, can be prevented, ensuring your clothes will have a pleasant scent from the moment they are removed from your washer or dryer.

Why Do My Clothes Smell After Sitting In the Closet?

To prevent your newly washed clothes or clothes that you don’t wear that often from smelling less than fresh when you wear them, you need to ensure that the scent of your closet itself is a pleasant one.  There are many tips, tricks, and hacks to keep your clothes smelling fresh, whether they have been in your closet for a day, a week, or a year.

Dryer Sheets Can Keep Your Clothes Smelling Sweet

Typically, you use dryer sheets wherever you dry your clothes, and you expect them to keep your clothes smelling fresh simply from their intended use. However, as we do not live in an ideal world, dryer sheets may not live up to expectations. Yet, unconventionally using dryer sheets may be an answer to your smelly clothing prayers. 

As dryer sheets tend to absorb the foul odors around them, they also tend to put out a pleasant scent that can then be taken into your clothing in your closet. Placing dryer sheets on a shelf in your closet or the pockets of items you know will not be worn often or for some time will assist in your quest for fresh scented hanging garments.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are extracted from a natural source and contain the scent of that source.  They can be used in several ways to ensure that your hanging clothes are smelling their very best any day you take them out of the closet. Some ways essential oils can be used to improve the fragrance of the garments in your closet include:

  • Adding a few drops to the water when you wash.  Essential oils are typically strong and long-lasting enough to endure the trials of the washer and dryer, and your clothes will hold their scent longer than that of typical fabric softeners.
  • Dousing a cotton ball or two with your favorite essential oil and placing them on the shelves of your closet.  You will be amazed at how your hanging clothes will pick up the oil’s scent.
  • If you are fortunate enough to have a huge closet, using an essential oil defuser inside the closet will keep your hanging clothes smelling like a rose; if you use rose essential oil, that is.

When using essential oils, make sure that you do not let any of the oil come into direct contact with your clothes, as they tend to stain.

Bags of Herbs

Fresh herbs such as mint, lavender, or lemon balm can be wonderful helpers in your quest for nice-smelling hanging clothes.  Simply fill a baggie or sachets or two with one of your favorite fresh herbs and place them on the shelves of your closet or pockets of garments that are not worn often, and you will be well on your way to fresh-smelling clothes every day.

Baking Soda

Much like it can be used to absorb unwanted scents in your fridge, baking soda can be used for the same reason in your closet.  You can pour some into small containers with lids with holes or without tops altogether and place them around your closet.  If you’re feeling frisky, you can just pop the top off of the baking soda box and put it in the corner of the closet.

While your clothes will not smell special using this treatment, they shouldn’t smell unpleasant either.

Strongly Scented Wood

This was my mother’s go-to to ensure that her clothes always smelled awesome no matter how long they had been hanging without wear.  She made sure to incorporate a strongly scented wood into her closet. 

In her case, she always used cedar, as it has a delightful scent, and it tends to retain its aroma for an extended time.  She used cedar shavings placed in baggies or sachets and put them on the shelves, or, often, she could find pre-bagged cedar explicitly made for the closet. 

In addition to helping your clothes smell good because it smells good, cedar also absorbs moisture which could cause your clothes to carry an unwanted odor.  Its scent will keep moths out of your closet and off of your clothes, as well, making it a multi-purpose item for my mother.  However, other strongly scented woods are great for this job, like sandalwood or rosewood.

Why Do My Clothes Smell After Sitting In a Drawer?

Often, even newly washed clothes sitting in a drawer for a couple of days will come out smelling less than fresh. There are several possible reasons for this clothing-scented debacle. They include:

  • Storing clothing that are mildewed or not completely dry. As mildew spores multiply in dark, damp areas, a dresser drawer is a perfect place for all clothing in that drawer to become musty if one piece of mildewed clothing is left to its own devices. 

If you find that your clothes are mildewed after being in your dresser, the starting point to ensure the issues go away is to rewash all of the clothing housed there, assuring that each garment is completely dry before being put away.

You should also allow the drawers to air out for a few hours and ensure that any visible mildew is removed.

  • Your drawers themselves needing to be cleaned. There could be countless reasons why your drawers are causing your clothes to smell.  They include:
    • Spilling something into the drawer.
    • Bacterial buildup.
    • Mildew spores in the drawers themselves.
    • Bugs or rodent infestations.

If you find your drawers themselves to be the actual culprit that is causing your smelly clothes, then it is time to fight back and regain your right to freshly scented clothing. 

Cleaning Your Drawers

Disinfecting and deodorizing your drawers is typically not a difficult task, provided the issue has not been allowed to go on too long.  The longer the smells remain in the drawers, the longer it will take to remove them. 

It is also relevant to keep in mind the material your dresser is made of.  If your dresser is made of expensive wood, then investing time and effort to get the furniture back to where it needs to be to house your clothing properly is probably in order.  However, if the piece is made of inexpensive material, it might be to your benefit to scrap it and start over. 

If you opt to go for it and disinfect your drawers, one item you are almost sure to already have on hand that will work wonders to rid your dresser of bacteria, fungus, mold, and mildew is vinegar.  While it may have a distinctive, less than pleasant odor of its own, it does dissipate quickly, but its results won’t.  You will be rocking a stinky-free set of drawers for your clothes in no time after following these directions:

  • Mix one quart of warm water and two tablespoons of white vinegar.
  • DAMPEN a clean rag in the vinegar solution, and wipe the entirety of the drawer’s interior surface.  Again, DAMPEN, don’t douse!
  • Dry the drawer with a clean towel.
  • Place the drawers outside for at least 24 hours.  If you do this on a sunny day, you will ensure your drawers are completely dry, and you will get a boost in your bacteria-killing, as sunlight will further sterilize your drawers.

Now that your drawers are disinfected, you can use the same methods mentioned above to freshen your closet to deodorize the dresser. You should expect nothing less than fresh scents to engulf you as you wear the clothing housed in your newly refreshed dresser.

Why Do My Clothes Smell After Being Stored?

When it comes to keeping your garments from coming out of storage with a less than pleasant scent, an ounce of prevention in this area is worth a pound of cure.  There are several simple tips to follow to ensure your fresh-out-of-storage clothing is not offensive to your olfactory senses.

  • Make sure that the area you will be using for storage is clean. It’s helpful to give your closet the once-over twice a year when you rotate your wardrobe.  Using the vinegar solution from above will work great on the walls and surfaces of your closet, too.
  • Make sure your clothes are completely dry before folding for storage.  While this tip was given earlier, it’s worth repeating.  If your clothes are even slightly damp, they will mold and mildew.  
  • Make sure that the area you use for storage is dry.  What does the damp promote? Say it with me! MILDEW! 
  • Don’t store your clothing in a cardboard box. They are like a welcome mat for rodents and insects.  If you can, keep your clean seasonal gear in an airtight plastic container or a vacuum seal storage bag.  
  • Toss in some dryer sheets, a small container of baking soda, or use another of the tips we’ve already reviewed to keep your clothes smelling great. Isn’t it awesome that a household hack has multiple uses?

Following these suggestions will start you off on the good foot when you bring your clothes out of storage next season. 

Why Do My Clothes Smell Directly After Being Washed or Dried?

Now we move on to a completely different issue in the stinky clothing realm, but it is just as irritating, if not more, than the ones we have already battled. You have just removed your garments from the washer or dryer, and they ALREADY smell funky.

No worries! Just like before, there are simple solutions available to you to eliminate this clothing-lack-of-freshness headache. Most of them can be done for little or no cost other than a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease.

What issues possibly plague your washer and/or dryer, causing you to fall further behind on that perpetual pile of ever-persistent laundry?

  • You are using too much or not enough detergent in the wash. It is essential to measure your laundry detergent before adding it to the washer. If you add too much, it tends to cause a buildup on your clothes and your machine, which breeds mold.  Too little will not properly clean your garments, leaving them smelling less than fresh.
  • You have overloaded the washer. This is problematic because your clothes can’t get clean without proper “wiggle room” in the washing machine.  You are basically allowing your dirty clothes to tumble around a bit with one another, but 

nothing good is going down to get the gross gasses out of your garments. 

  • You left them in the washing machine too long. We are all guilty of this, and it stinks, literally.  You think MAYBE sitting for 23.5 hours in the heat of summer won’t be too long, so into the dryer they go.  And they come out smelling soured. 

If your newly washed getup has overstayed its welcome in the bottom of your washer, don’t try to test fate.  Just rewash them to prevent embarrassment later on when you find yourself outside your house and smelling stinky.

  • Did they REALLY get dry? We understand that laundry seems to consume your life, but if you do it right the first time, you will save time in the long run. If your clothes are still damp even after the dryer should have done its thing, let them go around a few more times. If your clothes come out damp, what will they do? MILDEW! And that stinks!
  • You need to wash them in hotter water.  Sometimes when your clothes have some extra funk on them, even after you have followed all of the directions and tips given here, washing in cold is not going to cut it.  Hot water will help to kill the bacteria that has built up on your garments. 
  • Your machines need to be cleaned. While this might sound like a daunting task you are not prepared to undertake, it isn’t that bad. We will take a look at ways to gussy up the guts to on your machines, helping the stinky laundry to surrender.

How to Clean Your Washer the DIY Way

You can let the Maytag man keep on waiting for a call because it won’t be you making it today.  There are four super easy steps to follow to have your washer cleaning your clothes like the day you brought it home from the showroom.

To keep your washing machine doing its thing, you should follow these steps at least four times a year.

  • De-Gunk your detergent drawer. No doubt, it is caked with enough detergent to do a month’s worth of laundry, and it is causing you more problems than you know.  Leaving that drawer to its own devices can lead to your machine shutting down for good.
Powder detergent often gets stuck here.

Get after the goop with a toothbrush to loosen it and wipe away as much as you can. If possible, remove the drawer altogether and soak the crud off, returning it in pristine condition and ready to help your clothes smell great.

Clean the filter. Just like your dryer, the washer has something similar to a lint trap that grabs the little junk in your machine.  To clean it, simply unscrew the filter cap, take it out, and make it shine again. Keeping the filter free of fluff will help your washer produce sweet-smelling stuff for years to come.

  • Clean the rubber seal. They are porous and are mold breeders.  Easily clean them by taking a detergent-saturated wet cloth and rubbing all around the seal, including the grooves it sits in, ensuring to remove any stray debris trapped there. Then go over it with a dry cloth. Done! You have tackled one of the biggest offenders in stinky washing machine land.
  • Run a rinse cycle on hot with the machine empty.  That step will eliminate any remaining junk you might have loosed and not removed during the other steps.

If you’ve completed those steps and you feel your washer isn’t quite where it needs to be, there are a couple of extra things you can do to give your treatment a boost.

I have a comprehensive guide on how to care for your washing machine that may interest you.

Vinegar, You Say?

Yes, once again, it’s white vinegar to the rescue.  It disinfects. It deodorizes.  It just about does it all! To get it to work its magic on your washing machine, add a couple of cups to an empty cycle ran on hot, and you’re good to go.

Baking Soda for the Win

Again, another repeat customer.  When turned into a paste, baking soda is excellent for cleaning the machine’s drum, making it shine like a new penny and ready to wash away all of those offensive odors. Simply apply the pastes with a rag or sponge, let it sit for a bit, wipe away the residue, then run a hot rinse cycle.

Vinegar and Baking Soda

This true.  If you want the ultimate in washing machine washing, these two together make an unstoppable team. Simply run an empty cycle on hot, adding two cups of vinegar to the detergent dispenser. 

Next, wait a few minutes for the water to fill, and toss in ½ cup of baking soda. Then, stop the washer once it is full, allowing it to sit for around half an hour. Finally, turn it back on, allowing the cycle to complete. DIY washing machine clean complete!

How to Clean Your Dryer the DIY Way

Place your faith in me one last time: you CAN do this! Let me show you the route to clean your dryer the DIY way.

  • Wipe all the surfaces in your dryer, including the door, with a hydrogen peroxide-dampened cloth, and allow it time to dry.
  • Using a solution of ½ cup of white vinegar (who knew?) and ½ gallon of water, saturate a towel, ringing out the excess.
  • Put the dryer on high for 45 minutes, ensuring the towel is the loan piece in the dryer.
  • Remove that towel, spray another with any sort of pet stain remover until it is thoroughly dampened, then toss it in the dryer for about half an hour.
  • Repeat the process with the pet stain remover once more, and there you have it!

This simple process could very well be the answer to your smelly clothing issue. And it probably didn’t cost a dime.

Final Thoughts

You have high expectations for your washer and dryer.  You have high expectations for your closet, dresser drawers, and places you store your clothing. You have a right to. But you need to hold yourself to high standards, as well.

The majority of issues you may find with your clothes not being as fresh as you would like them are things you have total control over; you just might not have known it.  Some quick tips for the road: Always have white vinegar and baking soda on hand. Moisture makes MILDEW, and that is bad for the scent of your clothes.  Everything needs to be dry before you even entertain the thought of putting it away.

Don’t allow laundry that is less than fresh to ruin your day. You’ve got this, and most of it is the DIY way.

Did you know you can remove odor from shoes with this simple trick?


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