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Why Sweaters Smell (And How to Fix It)

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You expect to feel and smell fresh when you don your favorite sweater. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen. Instead, sweaters can leave a trail of odors that have people twisting their noses as you pass by. This is indeed a huge confidence dumper, whether on the street or at work. To avoid this embarrassment, let’s find out why this happens and how to fix it.

Odors in sweaters can be caused by multiple factors. The smells could range from the use of fumigants and anti-mildew chemicals for new clothes, cigarettes, campfires, perfumes, deodorants, and body odors, among others. To remove the smell, you need to identify the specific cause of the smell.

Finding Out the Cause of the Smelly Sweaters

There is no universal cause of smelling sweaters. To find out the specific problem, you need to investigate. Here are a few possible culprits.


This is a common cause of the smell, especially for unwashed or improperly washed sweaters. Sweaters have wicking properties as most are made of wool, making them quite absorbent of sweat. Retained sweat attracts bacteria that cause foul smells. When cleaning, especially lookout for certain parts of the sweater that retain sweat more than others. 

Overuse of Detergent

Detergents are effective in eliminating bacteria build-up causing smells in clothes. But detergent use can also be a problem rather than the solution when it comes to smells. Too much of it in laundry makes rinsing difficult, leaving a trail of smell afterward. 

This is especially worse for those detergents that are manufactured with strong scents. Furthermore, leftover detergent traps tiny pockets of detergents that act as propagating points for odor-causing bacteria.

I wrote a full guide on how to remove the smell of detergent from clothes that may interest you.

Odors From Unclean Washing Machines

Draining all the used water from the washing is not always possible. This retained detergent water mixture becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and mold inside the washing machine. When you load your machine next, the slimy mixture contaminates your sweater and your other clothes. 

The result is an unpleasant musty-smelling sweater. Related to this are the duration and the quantity of your load. It is not uncommon for people to overload their washing machines to get a faster output from their laundry. Don’t do this since overloaded washing machines might hurt your washing machine and make clothes smell. Detergents get trapped inside the folds of the crumpled clothes and make it hard for proper rinsing. That creates a fertile environment for foul smell-producing bacteria.

More on washing machine care here.

Improperly Dried Sweaters

Compared to other lighter fabrics clothes, sweaters’ are heavier, meaning they will take longer to dry. In addition, storing improperly dried sweaters makes them develop mold that stains clothes and causes a foul smell. 


As we found above, most sweaters are made of heavy fabric with high absorbency properties. So, a sweater you wore weeks earlier around a bonfire on a camping trip could retain the smell weeks later. Another way for sweaters to retain a foul smoke smell is if you’re a smoker or live with smokers.

For wool sweaters, I wrote a separate article as it likely smells because of a different reason.

How to Fix the Smelling Sweater Problem

Thoroughly Dry Them

Whether you’re using the dryer or hanging the clothes out, you should allow for sufficient drying. Drying out in the sun is preferable to a dryer to eliminate the foul smell. The reason is that odor-causing bacteria cannot survive sunlight and sufficient airing. 

In contrast, sometimes, the dryer vents might be blocked by lint or other debris, reducing its effectiveness in the drying process. However, keep in mind to avoid drying them out for a long time or exposing them to direct sunlight to prevent fading.

Use White Vinegar

White vinegar has many uses in homes. From water softening, to stain removal, among others. But did you know white vinegar is fantastic in purging foul smells? Soak your sweaters with half a cup of vinegar, wash and rinse normally. 

Be sure to avoid excess use, or else it will increase the foul smell instead of reducing it. Excess white vinegar traps pockets of moisture which creates a build-up of foul smell, causing bacteria. 

Here is my complete guide to mixing vinegar and laundry detergent. Check it out for more details.

Baking soda

Baking soda is wonderful in eliminating foul smells in clothes. Add a ¼ or ½ cup of baking powder to your washing machine and load normally. The baking soda will kill the bacteria and mask the foul smell.

Using Hot Water

Washing with hot water is one of the most convenient ways to eliminate the foul smell because hot water kills bacteria. But remember to check the manufacturer’s recommended temperature rating, as each fabric reacts differently to different water temperatures.

Reduce the Amount of Detergent Used

Using too much detergent runs counter to the problem you are trying to solve. Excess detergent makes it difficult to rinse off clothes creating an enabling environment for bacteria and mold to grow. Furthermore, the retained detergent continues to emit an undesirable smell. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Leave My Sweaters in Vinegar Overnight?

Vinegar is a fantastic agent for removing offensive-smelling clothes. Soaking for up to 30 minutes in vinegar is sufficient for its acidity to kill the foul smell-causing bacteria. But even soaking the clothes in vinegar overnight doesn’t hurt your sweater. Rather it even gives better results as vinegar has enough time to dissolve the smell.

Can I Remove the Smell From My Sweater Without Washing Them?

It is possible to remove the smell from a sweater without washing them. The most convenient method is to avoid returning them to your closet immediately after you remove them. Keeping them separate from other clothes allows for proper airing to eliminate the smell.

Can I Use Vodka to Remove the Bad Smell on My Sweater?

Vodka is a fast way of eliminating foul smells, especially when you have no time for other slower methods. Vodka is fast-acting but evaporates fast, so unlike other methods, you do not have to wait for the sweater to dry. Instead, put pure vodka in a small sprayer and hang the sweater in a place you can spray it all around.

More on mixing alcohol with laundry detergent here.

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