Entertainment, Health and Lifestyle

A Simple Solution for Gross, Smelly Towels

If my inbox is any indicator of what’s going on in the world, and I believe it is, smelly towels are a growing problem for consumers — and certainly for my dear “Everyday Cheapskate” readers. And it’s a rather new problem, the result of modern things like front-loading high-efficiency washing machines, detergents, fabric softeners and damp conditions.

If you’ve noticed gross, smelly towels in your houses, albeit appearing to be washed, dried and ready to go, perhaps you’ve also noticed that your towels have begun to repel rather than absorb water.


That moldy, mildewy, gross smell? It’s the result of the buildup of detergents and fabric softeners that have not been rinsed out properly, together with damp, moist conditions. What you have there is a breeding ground for bacteria. No wonder you’ve got a big, gross, smelly laundry problem.


If your towels have stopped doing what they’re supposed to do well — absorb water — that problem stems from the same source: detergent and fabric softener buildup. Seriously! With detergent and laundry, more is decidedly not better.


You are going to use white vinegar and baking soda to fix this skanky problem once and for all. But do not use these products at the same time. This will be a two-step process.

Vinegar contains acetic acid that breaks down mineral deposits and dissolves the buildup of detergent and fabric softeners. Baking soda is alkaline and breaks down dirt and grease and neutralizes odors. Used together, they counteract each other.

For this process, we want them to do their work independently. This will strip the residue and leave them fresh and able to absorb more water again.


Load towels into the washer loosely. Set it for a long wash cycle and fill with the hottest water you can manage. Turn the water heater up to 140 F for this event, or boil water on the stovetop and carefully transport it to the washer. The point is that the water must be very hot to kill the bacteria. Add 2 cups of white vinegar to the load. Allow it to run the entire cycle and then leave the towels in the washer.


Fill the machine once more with the hottest water possible. This time, add 1 cup of baking soda. Run the entire cycle.


Whether you hang the towels outdoors or put them in the dryer, make sure they are completely and thoroughly dry. Now smell them. If they do not smell fabulously clean, repeat Wash No. 1 and Wash No. 2 as necessary until the odor is completely gone. The investment you’ve made in these towels makes them worth the effort.


Find your owners manual, and discover the exact amount of detergent you should be using in your washing machine. Measure it every time. Never add more than recommended, especially if you have a front-loading, high-efficiency machine that uses very little water.

Never use softening products — liquid softener or dryer sheets — on your towels. These products coat the fibers with a thin layer of chemicals, which make towels less absorbent and prone to produce buildup, aka smelly towels!

Instead, add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the last rinse. This will get out the last of the detergent, which causes towels to become scratchy, and prevent that horrid product buildup that can turn smelly.

Always dry towels thoroughly before folding and storing them.

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Mary Hunt

Mary invites you to visit her at EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/contact/, "Ask Mary." Tips can be submitted at tips.everydaycheapskate.com/ . This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."

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