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Why Your Clothes Smell Like Detergent After Washing

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Ah, laundry, it can be the best of times and the worst. There are times when a load comes out fresh and perfect. There are others when a freshly washed load smells like a boy’s locker room. But then there is that puzzling problem of washing your clothes, and they still smell like detergent. How does this happen? 

The most common culprit when clothes smell like detergent after washing is using too much detergent. Other reasons include a clogged drain hose, a broken drain pump, and even moving from an area of hard water to soft water. It can also be a sign your machine needs a good clean. 

Clothes smelling like detergent don’t seem like the worst problem. But it can cause skin irritations, make clothes feel weird, and colors dull. Towels will feel stiff and as if they’ve lost their fluff. It can also lead to stains. That’s right, the stuff that is supposed to remove marks can cause them. Lastly, excess detergent is hard on the machine and your bank account. 

7 Reasons Your Clothes Smell Like Detergent After Washing

It is frustrating when your laundry doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. We’re going to tackle the seven most common culprits. Many are simple fixes. However, some problems might not be your fault. These, we’re afraid to say, are the most challenging to tackle. 

Overabundance Of Detergent

Look, measuring out detergent is a pain. Eyeballing it seems good enough. But excess detergent is such a pervasive problem that even the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have reported on it. It isn’t just Americans; Samsung revealed that the UK is also notorious for using too much. This is a costly mistake and doesn’t make clothes cleaner.

The recommended amounts on the package are the maximin needed. Most modern machines need far less. You may discover you need only half to a third of the amount.  Reducing the amount will not only fix your problem but mean you need to buy detergent less frequently –– hurrah!

Incompatible Detergent

The humble washing machine has quite a history, as Popular Mechanics demonstrated. But the progression of the machines also changed detergent. Once upon a time, lye (wood ash) and tallow (that’s beef fat) were your main soap ingredients. This same bar washed hair, body, clothes, and everything else. If you used that now, you’d probably break your washer.

Technology marches onwards. Thus, many washers are now HE machines (high efficiency). They use less of everything, including detergent. In fact, due to the way they function, HE machines don’t work great with the regular stuff. The results are not great for the washer or your clothes. Thus, if you have an HE machine, check your detergent is an HE formula. 

Accidentally Used Too Much Laundry Detergent? Do This Next

Your Washing Machine Is Filthy

It seems odd to think that a machine made to clean things needs to be cleaned. However, it is true. Typical signs of a washer needing clean are clothes coming out musty and less fresh. But sometimes, there is just so much soap scum in there, especially in the gaskets, that you need to strip that machine good.

Vinegar and baking soda are a popular mix, washed on high. However, do not put vinegar into your bleach dispenser. Accidently killing yourself is one way to get out of laundry, but it’s awfully drastic. 

Washing Machine Care: A Complete Guide (Step-By-Step)

Drain Hose And Filters

When cleaning the machine, do not forget to check the drain hose and filters. If these are clogged and not working in good order, detergent residue will linger, even if you are doing everything else correctly. 

Your Drain Pump Is Broken 

If your machine finishes its job and there is a lot of water still in there, your drain pump is almost definitely broken. If it is just a little, it might be failing. There will also be a sound of effort like the machine is trying really hard. 

Your Water Changed

The hardness of water can impact a laundry routine. What works in an area with hard water might cause a bubble party in an area with soft water. Using less detergent is the first trick to try. But sometimes, the brand you loved in hard water is now sabotaging your clothes in the land of softness. If that’s the case, you need to try something new. 

Finding a new detergent brand is a bit like dating; it might take some time to find your new lover. 

To help out, I wrote a guide on the best detergent for hard water and a really comprehensive guide on the best washing machines for hard water that may interest you.

You Are Not The Only Person Using The Machine, Part I

Unfortunately, if you are not the only person using the machine, the problem might not be you. If the person before you has used too much detergent, then the excess clinging to the machine is now your problem. There you go, following the directions, but now the “correct” amount is too much thanks to the previous wash’s residue.

The best fix is not the easiest: making sure everyone uses the machine correctly. Even if you love them dearly, some people will not care and just roll their eyes. If this is your woe, then you can run an empty rinse cycle before popping your load in. Drawbacks are the excess water, cost, and time. However, it is cheaper than divorce, and murder is illegal. 

You Are Not The Only Person Using The Machine, Part 2

Teaching children to do laundry is an excellent parental decision. It gives kids an essential life skill. Unfortunately, it is common for the young darlings to mix up the dispensers. This isn’t typically a big deal when the detergent ends up in the bleach dispenser, as there is plenty of rinsing still to come. But detergent in the fabric softener dispenser is another matter.

Unfortunately, when chatting to parents, it does seem that the mix-up is almost always the fabric softener dispenser. Maybe because most parents don’t even teach how to use bleach until much, much, later. So the bleach dispenser is just a, “Don’t touch that.” So now the kids are down to two dispensers and just dump something in each.

If you are using liquid fabric softener and liquid detergent, this may also be confusing. Yes, the bottles are labeled. Yes, the children can read. And yet, the number of stories where the kids have switched them is plentiful. So they could be using the correct dispensers but mixing up the bottles. All we can say is, maybe try powder, and best of luck. 

Can You Put One Item in the Washing Machine?


Clothes smelling like detergent after washing is a sign they still have soap in them. But through a bit of troubleshooting, you are bound to figure out the source of the problem. It takes a dollop of patience and dashes of trial and error, but overall, it can be fixed. If only the rest of life were so easy. 

Next, you can learn how to fold your clothes fast and neatly.

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