Skip to content
Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Mysterious Odor on T-Shirts

By Dr. Laundry April 13, 2010

Q. I have a laundry issue that is driving me nuts. I use bleach in every white load and separate towels from underwear, socks and tee-shirts. The towels always come out clean and sweet-smelling with no underlying odor. However, when I wash the underwear, socks and tee-shirts, the t-shirts come out clean, but with a strange, underlying odor. The socks and briefs smell fine (clean), but the t-shirts always have this less-than-clean smell. Also, after they are dried, folded and put into a drawer, the smell seems to intensify; so much so that I leave the drawer open to promote circulation. The loads are always white cotton and I have tried more bleach, less bleach, different detergents, vinegar, baking soda, and still, the same result. Even after using a fabric softener sheet (which I rarely use), the smell is still there. My husband says it smells like old man clothes, or something that came from the thrift store. Do you have any suggestions?

A. This certainly is baffling and I can understand why you would be frustrated. If all the items had a similar “smell”, then I would suggest some laundry technique changes. Given that it only appears to be on the t-shirts, I suspect that it is some type of body secretion that is not fully removed and/or reacting with the laundry products.

  • Sometimes diet, medicines, etc are absorbed/held and then released through sweat glands. Garlic is an example with some people but not others.

  • Are there any discolored areas on the t-shirt? Sometimes people who sweat a lot can have targeted areas of un-removed body oils or antiperspirant staining in the pit area. Sometimes the un-removed material will change color with age and this may be a clue.

  • What happens with new t-shirts? How long before you notice the problem with them?

If you can isolate the problem, then specific action steps could be formulated. For instance, if you have specific areas, then pre-treating them with liquid detergent or soaking them in liquid bleach might be appropriate.