4 ways to remove smelly smells from towels – The Try Files

We tried different ways to remove the mildew smell from towels. See which one worked better.

Are your towels starting to smell as funky as your kid’s gym shoes? Been there. Smelled that. I tried the best internet advice I could find and determined there are a few reasonable ways to remove those smells from your towels.

A quick scan of Google told me I needed baking soda, vinegar, laundry detergent, and my washing machine manual. Armed with determination and a pile of towels that smelled of mildew, I started my mission: remove stale smell from said towels.

Trying 4 methods

Don't have time to try several different ways to remove smells from towels?  I've got you covered.  I tried the best advice the internet and old wives have to give and came up with the perfect solution.  #Cleaning #Laundry #Stepmom #ChronicIllness #Fibromyalgia #Baking Soda #TheTryFiles

This is the first-ever edition of the ‘Try’ files. Every-other week, I’ll be trying out some of the best advice the internet and old wives have to offer. I expect to have some real winners and some absolute losers. With any luck, I can save you the time and energy it takes for trial-and-error and you can skip forward (metaphorically speaking) to success.

This week I was pretty lucky. No real winners or losers.

I condensed pages of Google research into 4 main methods for removing smells. More or less, these were repeated, with some variation, over and over again.

  • 1 cup of vinegar in the wash with the towels
  • 1/2 cup of baking soda in the wash with the towels
  • Soak the towels in laundry detergent for 48 hours before wash
  • Clean mildew from washing machine

I’ll get into the results below, but it’s safe to say that each of these items hold some value in removing smells from your towels.

Let’s jump right in.

Vinegar for removing smells

If you’ve never googled internet cleaning advice before, you may not realize that vinegar is a clean-all miracle substance. Everything from smells, to grease, to mold don’t stand a chance. Or so the rumors go.

I’ve used it in various instances in the past with mixed results. However, it was also the method that first came to mind when I decided to tackle my bath towels.

First things first, supplies:

  • White vinegar – 1 cup (I’ll admit, I didn’t try other types of vinegar… you can expect to see that in the ‘Try’ files in the future)
  • Washing machine
  • Pile of smelly towels

As far as the method goes, there are A LOT of variations on how best to do this. Some say the towels need to soak for a while before the laundry detergent. Others say just throw it all in there and go to town. I ended up just taking my best guess based on the majority of advice I read. What we ended up with was this method:

  1. Put towels in washer (obviously)
  2. Put detergent in detergent container and add 1 cup vinegar to pre-wash container**
  3. Select the normal cycle for towels and make sure pre-wash is also selected**
  4. Wash
  5. Dry immediately

**I know each washer is set up differently. You might have to play around with yours to get a good combination. The point of the ‘pre-wash’ time is to get the towels soaking in the vinegar for a little bit before adding the detergent. You might have to do this manually if your washer doesn’t have this function. Luckily for me, my husband and his ex picked out a great washer before she left!


This method and combination worked great! The smell was definitely gone immediately after the wash and stayed gone through a few uses. All in all, it gets a two-thumbs up.


Baking soda for smelly towels

Baking soda is well-known for its power to mitigate smells. I remember it being in our refrigerator growing up to keep any smells down. Or sprinkled in shoes to get rid of the feet smell.

It only makes sense that we’d be able to give it a shot for taking care of smelly towels. You may recognize this list of supplies, with one exception:

  • Baking soda – 1/2 cup
  • Washing machine
  • Pile of smelly towels

This experiment faced a similar difficulty as the vinegar experiment in that there are tons of recommended methods. Here again, I took the best guess I could based on the advice available.

  1. Put towels in washer (again)
  2. Put detergent in detergent container and add 1/2 baking soda with detergent
  3. Select the normal cycle for towels
  4. Wash
  5. Dry immediately

That’s all on this one. Not a very complicated method and doesn’t take as long since you’re not running a pre-wash.


A sniff-test immediately after washing indicated that the smells were not present. However, I did notice that they came back after just a few uses. I think we’re looking at mixed results here. The problem was lessened after 1 wash, but returned quickly. I think this method might be more useful if you do it regularly. Because the mildew smell returned quickly, I can only give it 1-thumb.

Soaking towels to remove smell

I was a bit skeptical about this one, but saw it too often in Google advice to not give it a fair shot. The idea behind this is relatively easy…soak for 48 hours. However, I immediately ran into some problems. The first is, I had a large load of towels needing soaked.

I contemplated using my step daughter’s bathtub and soaking them all, but decided against it in the end. I ended up just using one towel and a single bucket. By the time I’d thought through my options, my supplies were:

  • 5-gallon bucket
  • Towel – 1
  • 1 cup laundry detergent

My method was pretty simple:

  1. Put towel in bucket
  2. Fill bucket to cover the towel
  3. Mix in laundry detergent
  4. Soak for 48 hours
  5. Wash like regular

Overall, before I ever even got to results, I could say this isn’t my preferred method. It was a pain having that bucket, with a single towel, sitting around for two days. If you’re doing more than one towel at a time, you’d have to use a bathtub or something similar.


Even if the annoyance factor wasn’t there, I would still avoid this option. The towels smelled fresh immediately after they were removed and after their first wash. However, they came out of the dryer smelling like dried mildewy towels. This is essentially the “put perfume on a stinky pig” method. It temporarily covered the smell but didn’ really work. Unfortunately this method has earned two thumbs-down. Not only was it annoying, it didn’t work.

Clean mildew from washing machine

I’ll admit, this is one I already knew about. And it’s less of a method than a maintenance practice.

The ‘amazing’ washing machine I mentioned earlier does have one particular quirk. It can get mildewy.

This quirk is caused by a few things: first, mildew can grow behind the plastic gaskets that help keep the door from leaking, and second, a draining tube that drains waster from the pump filter.

Because we are already aware of these issues, we’ve learned how to mitigate them regularly. We dry the gaskets after we’re finished using it and drain the pump filter area every few months very easily from the front of the machine. This is where your washing machine manual may come in handy.

You should probably peruse through it and make sure you’re doing any regular maintenance it recommends. If you’re not, staying on top of this may help improve your washer’s cleaning over-all!

Also, if any areas don’t dry out well, make sure to dry them between uses so it doesn’t get mildew growing in there.

Finally, consider running an empty load to kill off anything that may be hanging out in the pipes. To do this, you’ll need the following supplies:

  • Bleach – 1/2 cup
  • Baking soda – 1/2 cup
  • Empty washing machine

Don’t ask me why, but these two combined in an empty washer just works! Run them through then run a quick rinse to make sure you’ve got all the bleach removed. Your towels and all your other clothes will thank you!


As I said previously, this wasn’t a ‘try’ for me as much as a regular practice. However, I’m giving it two thumbs up because it is a really useful thing to do semi-regularly!

Bottom Line

Ok, let’s bottom line this thing. Or summarize for those of you who skipped straight to the end.

Of the 4 methods for removing smells from towels (vinegar, baking soda, soaking, machine maintenance), 3 are worth exploring again.

  • Vinegar worked great and had a lasting affect.
  • Baking soda worked well at first but didn’t last. Use this method more regularly.
  • Soaking was a pain and didn’t work.
  • Removing mildew from the machine is hugely helpful and should be done regularly.

I hope one of these methods can help you deal with any stinky towel issues you may have!

Stay tuned for more “Try” files on the Winding Willows and let me know what works best for you to remove smells from towels!

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Don't have time to try several different ways to remove smells from towels?  I've got you covered.  I tried the best advice the internet and old wives have to give and came up with the perfect solution.  #Cleaning #Laundry #Stepmom #ChronicIllness #Fibromyalgia #Baking Soda #TheTryFiles
Don't have time to try several different ways to remove smells from towels?  I've got you covered.  I tried the best advice the internet and old wives have to give and came up with the perfect solution.  #Cleaning #Laundry #Stepmom #ChronicIllness #Fibromyalgia #Baking Soda #TheTryFiles
Don't have time to try several different ways to remove smells from towels?  I've got you covered.  I tried the best advice the internet and old wives have to give and came up with the perfect solution.  #Cleaning #Laundry #Stepmom #ChronicIllness #Fibromyalgia #Baking Soda #TheTryFiles

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2 thoughts on “4 ways to remove smelly smells from towels – The Try Files”

  1. I was just getting ready to Google this exact thing! I was browsing your site and saw your article and had to read it. Our front loader washing machine is a pain in the butt to keep dry. It holds water around the door gasket badly. Anyway, our towels are funky so I think I’ll try both the vinegar and the baking soda methods to get them as clean as possible. Then just the vinegar method, regularly. I wonder if a touch of Dawn dish-washing liquid in the detergent cup would do anything? Have you tried that?

    1. I actually haven’t! I’ll have to give it a shot. When we have to replace our machines someday, I’d really love to not have to deal with this silly front-loader that gets mildew so easily!! Since writing this I’ve started putting about a 1/4 cup of vinegar in every time I wash the towels and they haven’t gotten stinky since! I’m going to try the dish soap the next time I was towels:-)

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