Why Do My Towels Smell Bad Even After Washing?

Have you ever noticed that even after washing, your towels still smell bad? It’s frustrating when you can’t get rid of that musty smell, no matter what you do.

In this article, we’ll explore the main causes of stinky towels and share some helpful tips to freshen them up. With the right washing methods and care, you can keep your towels smelling fresh and clean.

What Causes Towels to Smell Bad?

Several factors can contribute to the mildew and dirty smell that persists in towels between washes.

1. Mold and Bacteria Buildup

The #1 cause of persistent bad smells in towels is a buildup of mildew, mold, and bacteria. Since towels are used when our bodies are warm and damp after bathing, they easily accumulate microbes, especially if they don’t fully dry out between uses.

According to microbiologists, towels provide the ideal environment for microbes to thrive when not washed and dried properly. The moisture retained in the fibers allows odor-causing bacteria to rapidly multiply.


2. Residue From Body Oils, Lotions and Detergents

Towels are used to wipe dirt, sweat, and body oils from our skin. Traces of these oils and dead skin cells can build up over time. Lotions, soaps, and detergent residue also get stuck in towel fibers. This results in a bad mix of trapped natural materials.

Detergent buildup is particularly common with liquid detergents, as the sticky residues bind to cotton fibers. Fabric softeners also leave behind a coating that can trap odors.

3. Hard Water Mineral Deposits

Hard water contains high levels of minerals like calcium and magnesium. These minerals bind to fabric fibers, causing dingy-looking towels.

With repeated washes, more and more mineral deposits build up. This makes the towels take longer to dry and creates a wet environment that bacteria like.

How to Eliminate Musty Towel Odors

If your towels are stinky even after washing, don’t despair. You can take these actions to freshen them up:

1. Wash Towels in Hot Water with Vinegar


  • Fill a bucket with warm water and add ½ cup of white vinegar.
  • Put the smelly towels in the vinegar water for about 30 minutes.
  • After soaking, thoroughly rinse the towels to remove the vinegar solution.
  • Put the towels in the washing machine and wash them with mild detergent like you normally do.
  • Once washed, air dry the towels on a clothesline or rack.

The vinegar soak helps dissolve odors, but make sure to rinse the towels well before washing them normally.

2. Use Baking Soda

Baking soda is a natural deodorizer and cleaning booster. Add 1/2 cup of baking soda along with detergent to help remove musty towel odors and residue. Its alkaline composition also helps soften hard water deposits.

3. Avoid Excess Detergent and Fabric Softener

Excessive soap and fabric softener leftovers can accumulate on towels, trapping unpleasant smells. Use only a small amount of soap necessary for washing. And consider skipping the fabric softener.

Tips to Prevent Towel Odors

Practice these habits to keep your towels fresh:

someone smelling a clean towel

1. Hang Towels to Air Dry After Each Use

Hang your towels over a bar or rack so that air can flow around them and they can dry completely before any germs can develop. Don’t leave damp towels crumpled together, as that can trap moisture.

2. Wash Towels Regularly

To prevent odor buildup, wash towels after every 3 uses or at least once a week. Wash towels in hot water. This kills bacteria and fully rinses away residues.

3. Use Less Detergent and Skip Fabric Softeners

Detergent leftovers and the waxy stuff you put in with clothes to make them soft can get stuck in towels. Use less soap and don’t use the fabric softeners when washing towels.

4. Disinfect Your Washing Machine

Dirt, soap leftovers, and germs may build up in your washing machine, causing unpleasant odors in your clothes. To prevent this, run a hot wash cycle once a month using white vinegar to clean and disinfect the washer.

5. Store Towels in a Well-Ventilated Area

Don’t leave wet towels crumpled up in laundry baskets between washes. Hang towels separately to let them dry completely.

Store clean towels in a linen closet or shelf that gets good airflow. Avoid sealing them in plastic containers or bags.

When to Discard Stinky Towels

At some point, it’s a good idea to get rid of your old towels and replace them with new ones. Here are some signs that indicate it’s time to toss your towel in the trash:

  • It still smells bad even after multiple hot water washes.
  • Towels are starting to wear out and become thin due to frequent washing.
  • There are visible mildew or mold spots.
  • Towels feel stiff and scratchy from built-up residue in the fibers.

Keeping towels with lots of bacteria on them can be bad for your family’s health. Buying new, good-quality towels often helps keep things clean and fresh. The best towels are usually made from materials like Egyptian or Turkish cotton, which are good at absorbing moisture. Try to avoid cheaper towels because they can hold onto more bacteria.


Musty, mildew towel odor is a common problem, but you can easily keep your towels smelling nice by using the right washing methods and taking good care of them. Make sure to completely dry your towels after using them and wash them weekly. Also, use the right amount of detergent and give them some space to air out.

By being careful with these easy steps, your towels will stay fresh and free of bad smells.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I throw away smelly towels?

Not necessarily. Smelly towels can often be refreshed with proper care. Try washing them in hot water with vinegar or baking soda, and ensure they dry thoroughly after each use. However, if towels still smell after multiple attempts and show signs like mold or wear, it might be time to replace them.

Is my washing machine making my towels smell?

Sometimes, washing machines can contribute to towel odors due to built-up dirt, soap residue, or germs. Regular cleaning and maintenance can help prevent this issue.

How do I make my towels smell good in the washing machine?

To make your towels smell good, try adding 1/2 cup of baking soda to the detergent compartment. For a pleasant fragrance, use a few drops of your favorite essential oil on a small cloth and toss it in with your towels.


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