If you're sniffing the air for the source of a mysterious musty smell, we have some bad news. It may be coming from your clothes. You can try washing them again, but once mildew smells penetrate the fabric, it usually takes more than a regular wash cycle to remove them. This is a serious problem since mildew smells aren't only unpleasant, they wreak havoc on your sinuses and allergies.
Don't worry, saving your favorite outfit is easier than you think. We went to Tide Senior Scientist, Jessica Zinna, PhD, to find out how to get mildew smells out of clothes and how you can avoid them, to begin with.
What causes mildew smells in clothes?
Mildew and musty smells can occur in clothes in even the most fastidious of households. Zinna says, "Laundry odor can be caused by a variety of sources including forgetting wet clothes in the washing machine, a dirty washing machine, hard water, or leftover body soils on clothes." According to Zinna, that last one is particularly important. She adds, "Invisible body soils are one of the leading causes of laundry odor. Our bodies are in constant contact with clothes, towels, and other fabrics that trap our body soils over time, causing that stinky and musty smell." In fact, she says, up to 70% of soils on your towels are invisible body soils and dirt. Another culprit? Leaving clothes too long in the hamper, especially if they're damp.
How do you get musty, mildew smells out of clothes?
Sometimes life doesn't go as planned. You get busy at work and the hamper sits too long or you discover a collection of dirty socks under your teenager's bed. It's okay. You can still get those awful smells out of your clothes. Zinna says all you need is a heavy-duty laundry detergent. Look for options like Tide Hygienic Clean or other brands containing polymers to trap dirt and oil so they won't get re-deposited on clothes. She says this is particularly important if you have a high-efficiency washing machine that uses less water than standard models. In most cases, washing as usual with a quality heavy-duty detergent with polymers will remove the mildew smell.
You can also add 5 cups of vinegar directly to the drum with your laundry detergent but Zinna says this is more effective for removing smells than it is for removing stains. In fact, she states that vinegar may interfere with the cleaning performance of your detergent so you might have to be prepared to wash your clothes a second time if the stains persist.
Zinna is also quick to point out that neglected laundry might not be the culprit. Hard water may also be the problem. "Most people don't realize this, but musty odors on clothing, stiff towels, faded colors, dingy whites, and even stubborn yellow underarm spots can be caused by hard water! Hard water is present in 85% of U.S. homes and contains dissolved heavy metals and minerals that can build up on fabrics, creating a residue that is difficult to wash off. As this residue continues to buildup on fabrics, it can start to trap body soils like sweat and sebum, creating odors like mustiness that keep coming back," says the expert. According to Zinna, if you have hard water, you should look for a product with a low pH like 9 Elements Laundry Detergent to dissolve the buildup so it can be rinsed away.
How can you prevent mildew smells in clothes?
The most obvious way to prevent musty smells from attacking your clothes is to stay on top of your laundry. Don't allow piles of dirty, sweaty clothes and damp towels to accumulate in the hamper. Also, be sure to remove your clothes from the washing machine as soon as it's finished running.
Zinna advises leaving the door of your washing machine open a tiny crack to allow it a chance to dry out. She also recommends wiping down the gasket (the inner rubber seal) after each use to make sure standing water doesn't accumulate.
It's also a good idea to clean your stinky washing machine once a month. Check the manufacturer's directions for your washing machine since many units have cleaning cycles. If your machine doesn't have such a cycle, she says to manually wipe the inner rubber seal by hand with soapy water. She also recommends removing the dispenser tray and rinsing it clean with hot water. Lastly, she adds that products like Tide Washing Machine Cleaner can be used periodically to make sure the interior of your washing machine is squeaky clean.