Skip to content
Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Removing “Sour” Smell on Towels

By Dr. Laundry December 29, 2009

Q. I have an HE frontloading washer that I really love. I bought gorgeous, dark brown, hotel-quality towels for my bath. As time goes by the towels and bath mat are getting more and more “sour” and I am afraid of using bleach in my washer with the dark brown color. I never have had this problem before and thought I had fixed it by adding soda and white vinegar to the laundry but that did not work! How can I clean these in an HE without bleaching out my color?

A. I’m intrigued by your description of “sour smell”. A unique problem for HE washers is that they don’t discharge all the water at the end of the wash/rinse cycles. Some residual water actually “pools” in the bottom below the door. This becomes a great breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria and something we call biofilm, which becomes their home. In addition, if the interior is not dried out, it’s possible that mold/mildew can also take hold inside the machine and around seals on the door.

So here’s something to try. I agree that you can’t add Clorox® Regular-Bleach or our CloroxPlus® HE Bleach to the brown towels for fear of bleaching them. However, you can use these products on all of your white loads. This will help control/eliminate the biofilm, odor-causing bacteria and mold/mildew while getting out the extra stains and leaving everything whiter. As you use this process, the sour smell should decrease.

You can jumpstart the process by either adding Clorox® Regular-Bleach to the Clean cycle (if your HE washer has one) or doing a liquid bleach load with or without clothes. Initially, I would do this weekly and then decrease the frequency. Or by doing the bleached white loads each week, you may not need the special cycle/treatment. As you use this process, the sour smell on the towels should decrease or disappear.

A couple of other tips:


  • You might want to check the seal around the door for traces of mold/mildew. Again, wipe the area weekly with a bleach solution (3/4 cup liquid bleach in gallon of cool water).

  • To help reduce the moisture in the inside, leave the door cracked/open after you finish the load to encourage it to dry out.


Finally, your soda and vinegar treatment is not powerful enough to control the bacteria. Thus the reason the smell returns.