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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Removing Odor from Towels

By Dr. Laundry September 8, 2009

Q. Here is an issue I cannot seem to solve. My bathroom towels smell like body odor. They are washed regularly; towels are changed in the bathrooms every 3 days. They are washed straight away, not left to sit wet. They are dried in the sun and I have even tried finishing them in the dryer, just to be sure they are dry. I have tried soaking in nappy soak as well as adding vinegar to the wash. Nothing seems to work and I consider myself a very clean person. The towels are hung in the bathrooms on full length individual towel racks. Any ideas?

A. I’m not clear from your description whether the off-odor occurs after laundering or during usage.

I would suspect that it is one of the following:

  • Mildew or odor-causing bacteria are in the towels. It’s possible the washer has some residual water that allows these “critters” a warm place to live and grow. Each time you use the washer some of this residue is mixed with the water and contaminates the towels. This is especially true in the new HE washers. The solution is to do at least one white load per week using detergent and 3/4 cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 to eliminate the source of the off-odors. Then your towels should come out of the washer, even if you do not use liquid bleach on the towels, without the off-odors.
  • Have you tried using liquid bleach on the towels? If they are white, you should be able to wash them in hot water with detergent and 3/4 cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach1. Most colored cotton towels are NOT bleachable. However, you can always test the towel to see if it’s safe to use liquid bleach. I recommend consumers do the quick Bleachability Test (2 tsp. Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 in 1/4 cup water; apply a drop on a hidden area like inside seam, hemline or cuff; wait 1 minute and then blot with towel); no color change means it is safe to use bleach on the item. You could also do a quick liquid bleach soak (1/4 cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 in gallon of cool water for 5 minutes), then wash immediately in hot water using detergent and 3/4 cup .
  • The towels do not get dried out between use and you have a mildew source in the bathroom which can create the problem. I have seen this in very humid locations like Florida in the summer. You will need to change the towels more frequently or find a way to dry them between uses.
  • The vinegar is usually not strong enough to kill these types of problems. You might also consider a touch of fabric softener whose fragrance can help mask the odor. I would try a dryer sheet as it will have less impact on the absorbency of the towels.

Give these a try and let me know if it solved your problem or if you have any further questions.