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Why Your Shirts Smell (And How to Fix It)

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More than any other item of clothing in your getup, your shirts are the first to attract attention. They also say more about you than you’re comfortable sharing. The cut, color, and design of the shirt reflect your personality, style, and worldview. So the last thing you’d want is to face the world with shirts that smell. If that happens to you, you need to know why your shirts smell.

Shirts give off an unpleasant odor for many reasons. It could be the washing machine is overloaded with laundry or it needs cleaning, you’re using too much or too little laundry detergent, or you leave the laundry in the washing machine for too long. Or maybe the shirts smell because they’re not really dry or because the wardrobe is musty. 

Every one of those reasons can make your shirts smell. But more often than not, it’s more than one reason that produces that awful odor in the shirts. Read more to find out why your shirts have a certain funky odor and what you can do in each case.  

Why Your Shirts Smell

It’s not a good sign when you leave your home with a shirt that smells. All the deodorants and perfumes in the world cannot disguise the funky smell of a damp shirt that has been folded before it had time to dry out fully. And don’t think that others around you will not notice the bad smell coming from your direction. If the shirt smell bothers you, then it sure will disturb those in the room as well.

So why do shirts smell? The causes have to do with the washing process itself. This includes the washing machine, the laundry detergent, the fabric softener, the drying process, and finally the wardrobe where you store your clothes. Each one of those can cause the shirts to have a bad smell after washing. So let’s go through them one by one.

1. Washing Machine Needs Cleaning

This might sound like an oxymoron, but washing machines do get dirty. Bacteria and mold build-up turns the machine into a Petri dish where bad odors fill the machine from inside. When you put clothes to wash, the mold penetrates the fabric and gives them that awful smell that lingers long after the clothes have dried.

Learn to clean your washing machine in the guide I wrote.

2. Too Much (or Not Enough) Laundry Detergent

The laundry detergent does more than clean the dirt and stains off the clothes. It also has a scent that the shirts absorb during the washing. That scent can be too strong that even the rinsing and drying steps can’t get rid of. That often happens when you use too much laundry detergent. If you use too little of the stuff, it will not wash off the smell of sweat and smoke in the shirts.

Here is why your clothes smell like detergent.

3. Cold Wash

Contrary to what the detergent manufacturers would have us convinced, using cold water to wash the laundry doesn’t do a good job of getting them cleaned out. Shirts in particular are subject to armpit sweat and are good at absorbing the odors and smoke in the air. So if they still smell bad after washing, this might have to do with you using cold water to do the laundry.

Washing machine temperature guide here.

4. Overloaded Washing Machine

When you put too many clothes to wash in the machine, it will not do a good job cleaning and rinsing the dirt off that huge load. At best, you’ll have half-washed clothes where the odors under the shirt’s armpits still linger. So the next time you have a big load of laundry to do, try splitting it into two loads and wash each one separately.

I also have a full article on loading washing machines that will interest you.

5. Leaving Laundry in Washing Machine

It often happens that you put the clothes to wash in the morning and then go to work. Your logic is that you’ll put the laundry out to dry by the end of the day. Or you could start the washing machine at night then go to sleep. In either case, you’re leaving damp laundry in a closed space for too many hours. Dampness and lack of air circulation are an open invitation for mold build-up and bad odors.

At this point, you probably know that I have an article you can check out on leaving clothes in the washer (and dryer!)

6. The Shirts are not Dry

If you’re in a rush and don’t have time to let the shirts dry out completely before you take them in, the shirts will have that unmistakable smell of dampness that no amount of ironing or perfumes could hide. When you fold the damp shirts and keep them away in the dark and unventilated wardrobe, bacteria will thrive and cause that bad smell.

Learn if you can fold damp clothes here in this article.

7. It’s Too Humid

Humid conditions mean that the laundry will take longer to dry out. This has the same effect on the fabric as keeping the laundry for hours in the washing machine. By the time the shirts have dried out, fungi would have thrived among the damp threads giving the shirt an unpleasant odor that lingers until the next wash.

Here is how to line-dry your clothes.

8. Long Storage Time

There’s a reason we use mothballs in the wardrobe. Not only does it deter moths and mites, but it also prevents mold and bacteria build-up. So if your shirts have been stored for a long time, they will either smell of mold or of mothballs. Neither of those is a good smell as far as shirts are concerned.

Check out the folding damp clothes article I linked above for more on this.

9. Stuffy Wardrobe

A wardrobe packed with blankets, quilts, unused linen, and extra pillows that have been lying there for months is a wardrobe that already has an obscene amount of germs and fungi. When you keep your freshly washed shirts in that wardrobe, they’ll absorb the bad smells lurking in the nooks and crannies.

Aaaand lastly, here is how to fold clothes to save space to make more room in there.

How to Fix Smelly Shirts

It’s one thing to know why your shirts smell and it’s a totally different thing to take steps to remedy the situation. For one thing, it’s usually more than one issue behind that bad shirt smell. It could be a dirty washing machine combined with a long dry time and a poorly ventilated wardrobe. So don’t stop looking once you come across a possible cause for the smelly shirts. Just keep digging and follow these tips.

  • Clean the Washing Machine: This usually is the starting point. Pour two cups of vinegar into the detergent drawer and use hot water then set the machine to the longest cycle and let it wash itself thoroughly.
  • Dry the Shirts Thoroughly: Before you collect the laundry, give it the smell test and make sure it smells fresh before you fold it.
  • Keep Your Loads Small: Don’t stuff the washing machine with more than its maximum capacity of laundry. A lighter load washes better and gets rid of any odors.
  • Wash Hot: Bacteria in the shirts can survive cold water and even the laundry detergent. So wash the laundry with hot water to eliminate the bacteria and all the bad smells.
  • Use the Right Amount of Detergent: The odors in the shirt might be that of too much laundry detergent. Always measure the detergent and remember that less is more.
  • Change the Detergent: There’s a chance the current detergent is not powerful enough to remove the odors. You should try a different detergent with a different formula.
  • Use Vinegar or Baking Soda: Some stains and odors are too strong for the detergent alone to remove. Add a half cup of vinegar or baking soda to the laundry detergent and let it work its magic on the smell and bacteria. 

How to Get Damp Smell Out of Shirts

Where you keep your shirts folded can give them a damp smell that lingers for hours on end after you have put them on. This is especially true if the wardrobe is against an external wall or shares a wall with the bathroom. The dampness in the wardrobe seeps into the shirt and causes that foul smell.

To get rid of the damp smell in the shirts, put them in the washing machine and add a half cup of vinegar to the load and let the washing machine take care of the rest. Vinegar is an excellent deodorant that doesn’t leave a bad smell of its own on the clothes.

How to Get Rid of Musty Smell in Shirts

The musty smell in the shirt is a dead giveaway that the shirt has been stored in a damp place or maybe the shirt itself was damp when you folded it. Unlike the damp smell, the musty smell is a strong and lingering one. If you could see the shirt fabric under a microscope you’d be stunned at the number of teeming and live bacteria thriving there.

One way to get rid of that musty smell in shirts is to wash them with baking soda. However, there’s a chance the baking soda could interact with the colors or material of the shirt. So test it on a hidden spot in the shirt. If the color doesn’t change, go ahead and add a half cup of soda to the washing machine and wash the musty smell of those shirts.

How to Get the Smell of Smoke Out of Shirts

The smell of smoke on your shirt is not uncommon if you attend a lot of barbecues or you have a friend who smokes. The fabric of the shirt traps the smell of the smoke and keeps it there. It will even survive washing and rinsing. So how do you get that stubborn smell of smoke out of the shirts?

The solution is quite simple. All you have to do is air the shirt. Make sure it’s hanging in a breezy area where the wind will blow the trapped smell away. When you wash the shirts, you won’t have that lingering smell of smoke on them anymore. 

How do you Keep Shirts from Smelling like Fabric Softener?

For all their benefits, fabric softeners can leave a smell on the shirts which is the exact opposite of what you want when you wash those shirts. The problem is that when you fold those shirts, the smell doesn’t go away. It will even affect other clothes in the wardrobe. So how can you prevent the fabric softener from leaving that smell on the shirts? Here’s how.

  • Clean the Air: You read that right. The smell buildup of the fabric softener builds up inside of the wardrobe and becomes unbearable contaminating every piece of clothes you put there. Put a cup of baking soda into a bowl and let it sit inside the wardrobe for a couple of days to clean the air inside of the wardrobe.
  • Use Dryer Sheets: Dryer sheets give the laundry that fresh smell. So use them to line the drawers and shelves in the wardrobe to get rid of the fabric softener smell.
  • Ventilate the Place: One of the reasons the shirts still have the smell of the fabric softener on them is because the house itself is poorly ventilated. Open a few windows and doors and let the air circulate inside the house and carry out any bad odors.
  • Use Air Fresheners: Air fresheners do an excellent job eliminating odors in the air. You can use them inside of wardrobes to get rid of any lingering smells especially those of the fabric softener. 
  • Apply Coffee Grounds: Much like baking soda, coffee grounds are great at freshening up the air and chasing away odors both good and bad. Pour some in a bowl and keep it at the bottom of the wardrobe for a few days.

I also have a guide on using too much detergent here.

Conclusion

Your shirts trap the odors in the air around you and keep them there until you give them a good washing. But sometimes the shirts would smell right after washing. In that case, you should clean the washing machine itself and consider changing the laundry detergent. 

If your shirts still smell, add vinegar or baking soda to the detergent to eliminate all stubborn odors and bad smells on the shirts. Then let them dry thoroughly before folding them and keeping them in a freshly cleaned wardrobe.

I also have guides on stopping your shorts from smelling and stopping wool sweaters from smelling that may interest you to read next.

Jamie

Friday 11th of August 2023

Hello,

Thank you for all the useful information regarding laundry. I have learned many new things. I have one question, you state in this article to put vinegar in with the detergent to help with odors, but in a Youtube video, you say not to do this as they cancel each other out. I've always put vinegar into the rinse cycle. Will it help in some circumstances to add it with the detergent?

Odors in my spouse's clothes are a big issue for me. He has an autoimmune disorder that causes him to sweat constantly.

Thank you!

Tor Rydder

Saturday 12th of August 2023

Hello Jamie!

I am glad to hear that the information is useful.

As for the vinegar, the way you are doing it is completely fine. They cancel each other out if they are mixed together in the tub.

But since you add it during the rinse after the detergent is washed out they won't interfere with each other. A trick I like to use is to add the vinegar to the fabric softener slot in the tray as it won't be released while detergent is in the tub.

I hope this helps.

Happy laundry day!

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