Cleaning Tips, Guides & Resources

What Causes Bad Smells in Clean Laundry and How to Get Rid of Them

cause of bad smells in clean laundry custom graphic

If you've ever had to endure an unpleasant smell from your freshly washed laundry, you're not alone. Although it is a more common problem than most people think, the causes for it tend to be subtle enough to not notice the odour immediately. 

Thanks to moisture, detergent, and dirt left behind, peculiar smells in clean laundry can develop over a period of time. This problem, of course, can be solved, and even prevented with a few simple measures. With that said, let’s find out why your clothes smell after washing them, and how to get rid of bad odour in clean laundry.

A Dirty/Unsanitary Washing Machine

woman looking into smelly washing machine and holding her nose to block the smell

More often than not, the primary cause of unpleasant-smelling washed clothes is the washing machine itself. Since washing machines are designed to be able to hold water, this means that water can stagnate sometimes and, in turn, develop bacteria, mould, and limescale. All of this can also block filters in the machine, thus worsening the problem. On top of this, the buildup of detergent residue combined with dirt can also cause bacteria in your washing machine; therefore, a good place to start is to clean the washing machine itself

This involves using warm water and a mild cleaning product to thoroughly clean and rinse the detergent drawer, the filter, and the rubber seals in the washing drum. From there, wipe down everything with a clean, dry cloth, and run an empty wash cycle with hot water to finish off. 

Using Too Little or Too Much Laundry Detergent

woman with blue nail polish holding gold laundry detergent container and pouring the liquid into the cap

The reason why labels on laundry detergent bottles recommend the amount of detergent to add to your washes is because less soap (obviously) doesn't wash well enough, leaving you with a smell. On the other hand, using too much laundry soap does not rinse well, thus leading to soap scum. With that in mind, always rely on proper measuring cups, and follow the detergent's instructions to ensure that too little or too much laundry soap is not the reason behind bad smells in washed clothes.

Overloading the Washing Machine

front view of a white front load washing machine overloaded with clothes with its door open

If you try to cram as much fabric into a single wash, you are potentially doing more damage than good. While it makes sense to get as much washing done in a single cycle, overdoing it can defeat the purpose. The reason being, when a machine is overloaded, there isn't enough room in the drum for the detergent and water to get around and, ultimately, into the clothing. When you're dealing with patchy washing like that, dirt and staining will retain after the wash, leading to bad smells and inevitably forcing you to wash the clothing again. 

To avoid this, make sure that the load of laundry you are washing is in accordance with the load setting on the machine (i.e. small, medium/regular, large, etc).

Not Drying Clothes on Time

four assorted coloured t-shirts hanging on a clothes line

If you are not already aware of this, letting washed clothes sit in the machine is a major no-no! While it's fine to pull them out after a few minutes of finishing a wash, letting them sit there for too long means that the moisture inside the clothing is stagnating which, in turn, makes them start to smell stale. Setting a timer or reminder on your phone so that you are aware of when the wash cycle is complete is a good idea. That way, you can dry your clothes before they have a chance to languish and develop a damp smell.

Improper Drying of Washed Clothes

assorted clothes being dried on a gold wall mounted oil heater

Whether you are air-drying, or using a dryer to dry your laundry, there could be something going wrong there, too. With air-drying, it's best to make sure the air around the clothing isn’t ‘hovering’. What you need is good ventilation that blows the evaporating water away from the clothing, thus helping to dry the clothes fast enough to prevent the musty, damp smell from developing. With that in mind, humid air can keep clothing damp, regardless of ventilation. So, if you're drying indoors, consider investing in a dehumidifier.

Similarly, when using a dryer, you ought to make sure that you haven't overloaded the dryer or else the drying will be in patches. When this happens, moisture stagnates in the fabric even after the dry cycle is complete. 

Not Airing Out Fabrics

clothes hanging using coat hangers in a closet

Going back to the question of ventilation, storing away already dried clothes also requires some care. Stale air around clothing stuffed in a drawer can cause a musty or mouldy smell that is not only unpleasant but can trigger allergies as well. Therefore, it is advisable to hang clothing rather than folding and piling them up. This maintains ventilation around the fabric and, in turn, prevents a musty smell. If you must keep them in cupboards or drawers, ensure that there is enough room inside so that the fabrics can air out.

Storing Fabrics for Too Long

woman carrying a large heap of winter clothes

Seasonal clothing tends to suffer the most here due to sitting idle for parts of the year. Since you're only going to wear thicker or more insulated clothing during winter, those clothes are going to be untouched in your closet for a few months at least. This means that even a wash may not get rid of any lingering smells entirely. The best way to solve this problem is by sun-drying the fabrics outdoors. The breeze and sunlight will do wonders for the clothing, ensuring no microbes are left behind, and no smell is either.

When putting clothes away for extended periods like this, it is a good idea to include a scented bag in the wardrobe where you are storing them. This mitigates the effort to remove any smells.

Lack of Fabric Softener or White Vinegar

bottles of white fabric softener and laundry detergent with two white front load washing machines in the background

Another effective way to get rid of a bad smell in clothes after washing is by using a fabric softener or white vinegar. Softeners smell great and therefore, aid the situation in that manner while white vinegar will neutralise the odours that develop in clothing. For a win-win, you can add both fabric softener and white vinegar to the wash cycle and enjoy all the benefits they bring!

Running Cool/Cold Wash Cycles Only

woman with white nail polish adjusting water temperature on a front load washing machine

Although cooler water temperature is advised for many types of fabrics because it protects them from extensive damage, it can limit the cleaning potential of your washing machine and the detergent used. Simply put, hot water cleans more deeply than cool water. Therefore, if the washing symbols/instructions on the care tag of the clothing items permit, consider running them through a hot cycle instead. On the other hand, for fabrics that cannot be washed in hot water, upgrade your detergent to a more capable one in cooler temperatures, and consider running a longer wash cycle.

If you want to prevent your clothes from smelling after washing them, the information above will serve you well! By learning of the causes and adhering to the tips shared in this article, you should have no trouble keeping your fabrics smelling as fresh and neutral as possible. Additionally, it is important to follow the cleaning instructions on clothing labels, laundry detergent labels, and on the washing machine's manual as well. In doing so, you will run no risk of damaging anything in the process while your clothes come out smelling fresh and pleasant!

Adriana Aziz is the operations manager at MaidForYou. With over 6 years of experience managing cleaning operations, she knows all the best hacks when it comes to cleaning residential and commercial buildings. With expert experience in managing house cleaning operations, interior design and logistics. She spends her free time with her family and as a freelance food critic.

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