A Simple Solution For Better Smelling, More Absorbent Towels

I’ve noticed that “smelly towels” is a subject that is pinned a lot on Pinterest, and lately I’ve been receiving emails asking about this as well. This leads me to believe it’s a pretty big problem. So, I thought it was high time I addressed it. For heaven’s sake…we can’t have people suffering needlessly from “Smelly Towel Syndrome” when there is such an EASY FIX!

To be honest, I have never had much of a problem with smelly towels because where we live is SO DRY that towels don’t really have a chance to get moldy or mildewy.

Good thing! My boys are notorious for leaving their wet towels in a puddle on the floor, in the sink, in the bathtub, everywhere BUT the hamper! And wet towels = mildew…and mildew = smelly! (That unpleasant odor is actually the smell of bacteria breeding. GROSS!)

But I HAVE noticed that sometimes my towels aren’t as absorbent as they used to be, and what I have discovered after looking into this phenomena is that both problems stem from the same source. Detergent and Fabric Softener Build-up!

Over time, your bath towels will build up detergent and fabric softener residue. This not only attracts SMELLY mildew, it can essentially “waterproof” your towels. If water can’t get into the fabric to clean it, the towel won’t BE or SMELL clean.

The GOOD news is that there is a very simple solution for getting rid of the build-up (and thus the SMELL)!

What you’ll need:

  • 1 cup of white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup of baking soda
  • HOT water


Put offending towels in washing machine and fill with HOT water! You might want to turn up your hot water heater temporarily for this, or  I usually just boil some water on the stove and add it to the load.

help for smelly towels

Add one cup of vinegar to the load and run through an entire wash cycle.

help for smelly towels

Leave towels in the washer and refill again with HOT water, this time adding 1/2 cup of baking soda. Run through another entire cycle.

help for smelly towels

Now dry towels THOROUGHLY in the dryer or outside on the clothesline.

The “science” behind this method:  Vinegar (which contains acetic acid) breaks up water mineral deposits and dissolves buildup, and baking soda (which contains an alkali—sodium bicarbonate) neutralizes odors and dissolves dirt and grease. 

This combination should take care of the problem 9 times out of 10.  If you are still experiencing “smelliness”…try repeating the same process above until it is gone.

help for smelly towels

I am not recommending this method for EVERY TIME you wash your towels…only when you start to notice that “funky” smell or the towels don’t seem to be absorbing the way they should.  

So now that your towels ARE better smelling and more absorbent….let’s KEEP them that way….OK??

Tips for KEEPING your towels CLEAN and FRESH-SMELLING:

  • Be sure to check that your towels are 100 percent dry before putting them away. Even a small amount of moisture can make towels smell sour.
  • Mold and mildew love it when towels are left in a puddle on the floor. They should be hung up to air-dry after each use. Bathmats, too, should be hung to dry.
  • Make sure you’re not using TOO MUCH DETERGENT. Too much detergent leaves a residue, especially with high-efficiency washers that use less water.
  • Don’t use commercial fabric softener on towels; it coats towels with a thin layer of chemicals which makes them less absorbent. White vinegar is a GREAT natural fabric softener. It prevents further build-up, eliminates static, and makes towels softer.
  • Make sure towels are drying quickly enough after using them. Hang them on towel bars or spread across two hooks until they’re completely dry.


How do you keep your towels fresh, clean and absorbent?


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  1. EcoMama says

    When this method doesn’t work, I boil the offending towels. I learned this trick from Martha Stewart.

    • ninghaoma says

      Ok, so wash
      1. in hot water with 1 cup vinegar
      2. in hot water with half a cup of baking soda.
      3. dry

      When do you put the soap?

      • Tanya says

        u don’t, not in this application. it’s to strip off the build-up. after this time, go back to using detergent.

  2. heather says

    Here is what i have done in the past….works great too. I have a front loader he washer. I put towels in set washer for rinse/spin cycle. When that is done i use a hot wash with half the normal detergent. Which is homemade and i add my softener which is homemade. Then i do another rinse/spin cycle. Both rinse/spin cycles are with cold water. I also do this faithly with cloth diapers and hubbys work clothes. He is a mechanic. Both homemade recipes can be found here on jillee as welk. Goodluck.

    • Chanda says

      My smelly towel problem has been SOLVED since I made and started using the homemade detergent powder. And I no longer need fabric softener since, either. I thought my towels would get more absorbent w/ new detergent and no softener.. But I will try this vinegar trick! I love all the uses for vinegar I am learning from you jillee!! I have enzyme cleaner fermenting currently. The wait is killing me.

  3. CraftyMamaT says

    Towels are always washed separately in my house. Always with hot water, and half the detergent recommended, and no fabric softener. I haven’t had smelly towels in quite a while, unless I left them in the washer because I forgot the load.

  4. says

    Hey Jillee,

    Thank you for this tip! I too suffer from smelly and non- absorbent towels. I have a question though. My washer is a front loader and it has different programs I can use. Can you tell me how hot the water should be? I can choose 60 degrees or 90 degrees Celsius (that’s 140 or 190 degrees Fahrenheit I think)? I normally wash at 40 degrees Celcius.

    • Lauren says

      I have a front loading machine as well. With towels and bedding, I always wash them separately to clothes, and wash them at 60 degrees C, as that should be hot enough to kill off things like dust mites and bacteria. So far, I don’t have a problem with smelly towels. If they are particularly dirty/smelly, then perhaps try 90 degrees. =)

    • Jeannie says

      Me, too. I realize some people want to avoid bleach at all costs, but, quick as a flash, it takes such a tiny amount to do a thorough, lasting job. I can’t not.

      • Kelly says

        I get a horrible rash anytime I use hotel towels. I have to travel with my own. No bleach for me.

    • Jesse says

      Clorox works for me, but you can’t use it on colors; so I bought a dozen smallish fluffy white towels just for myself. The problem went away just like that. Turns out the problem was me. I dry my bath towels outside after each use and put them in ‘my bath towel’ wash basket when they have any oror at all. I’ve used clorine on the towels now and then… and the washing machine doesn’t smell funky any more either.

      My wife has no trouble at all with her bright colored towels. She hangs them on a rack in the bathroom and washes them with ordinary wash after many uses.

      I started using nothing but 100% merino wool socks two years ago too; no more foot odor or peeling skin on the bottoms of my feet. Like I said – the problem is me.

  5. Lou says

    I usually soak my towel in tea tree oil and vinegar over night, and add the baking soda in the wash. I do Bikram yoga 4x a week, and my towels were getting really smelly before I started doing this.

  6. Ken says

    Add one scoop of Borax, (20 mule team) to the wash, and set controls for an Extra rinse. Don’t need to run an extra time or use the vinegar.

      • Cydne says

        We do use the vinegar as a natural fabric softener for towels and sheets, but I also just do an extra rinse and this has worked for us instead of an entire extra load.

  7. says

    There seems to be no household problem that Vinegar and Baking Soda can’t solve! My mom taught me to just make a “towel soup”, by putting water and vinegar in a pot with the offending towels and boiling them for half an hour. Also works great with discoloured and smelly dishtowels.

  8. Heather says

    Love this article and the comments! I have to say, the solution isn’t very ‘green’. My family lives very Eco-friendly, and VERY HOT water and TWO wash cycles is a ton of WASTE. Some of the comments offer greener solutions to the problem. This is why I love Jillee’s blog! For Jillee AND us followers!

    • says

      Heather….this method isn’t necessary EVERY time you wash your towels, but when you DO use it, very HOT water IS necessary to kill the bacteria.

      • Mary Alice says

        And if you are only washing towels, it’s quite likely that you do not have a full load, so it’s not necessary to fill the washing machine completely. My machine lets me set the water level so I don’t have to use more water than necessary.

    • Angie says

      Actually, you can increase efficiency by boiling some of the water on the stove and pouring it into the washing machine as it’s filling with hot water. As others commented, this doesn’t need to be done with every load – only when the towels begin to get smelly.

  9. Angela says

    Can you add the vinegar and baking soda to the same wash cycle or do they cancel each other out?