Dealing with clothes that persistently smell bad.

Laundry can be a complicated affair. From labels that demand washing at 30 degrees to laundry detergent with complex dosing directions which reference water hardness, it can be difficult to follow all the directions let alone get your clothes clean and fresh, and unfortunately these may be different things.

Clothes manufacturers choose maximum washing temperatures based on the composition and manufacture of the clothes and are not going to recommend 60 degree washing for garments that will shrink or wear out quickly. However, washing at 40 degrees may result in clothes that are not clean and sterile and can result in a foul ‘laundry smell’ or a body odour that won’t go away.

Because cloth disperses moisture and odour when it is warm and moving, wearing clothes with excessive bacteria can result in some very unpleasant and extreme cases of foul odour, and you may not be the first to notice.

How clean do my clothes get?

Clothes don’t need to be sterile to smell adequately fresh, but bacteria build up in clothing if it is persistently laundered improperly and upon realising that your clothes are not fresh on even the first day of wearing it is necessary to reverse the situation and start winning the war against laundry odour without damaging the clothes.

The unfortunate truth though is that, no matter how you dose your laundry detergent, whether it be liquid or powder, it doesn’t kill bacteria. Yes, it will remove dirt from the clothes and this will mechanically remove a good load of the bacteria, but those that cling to the strands of fabric or the seams, they live on and multiply.

Laundry is more than washing.

When we think of laundry we think of a washing machine dousing our clothes in water and detergent, but as we learned, that detergent will not kill the bacteria, it just helps to remove dirt and stains that go down the drain. This is essential to clean the clothes but is not enough to kill bacteria in the fabric.

To understand how to treat clothes we have to look at all stages of the laundry cycle:

  1. Prior to washing;
  2. In the washing machine;
  3. In the drying stage;
  4. During ironing;
  5. Storage.

Bacteria do not die in a 40 degree wash.

Most bacteria have to be heated to 55 degrees, and held there for over an hour to die. At 60 degrees that time is shortened. This is why a 60 degree wash is very desirable for undergarments, tea towels, bedding or if a member of the household is unwell. However, most clothes worn as outer layers don’t recommend a 60 degree wash on the care label, and if you wash your favourite dark jeans at this temperature they will suffer. That’s okay though, because outer layers of clothing don’t necessarily need to be sterile, and there are tips below to help turn the tide in favour of cleanliness even at 40 degrees or less.

Nevertheless, items that are labelled safe for washing at 60 degrees should be washed so at least some of the time if odour is a concern, and towels, bath mats, undergarments and tea towels ideally should always be.

Dosing of laundry detergent does not need to be perfect.

Too little detergent can leave clothes not quite clean, and too much is wasteful and may remain on the clothes, true. However modern automatic front-loading washing machines will do a fine job of washing out excess detergent. Smelly clothes rarely come down to detergent concentration as long as you’re referencing the back of the box and not overloading the machine.

If you are having problems with laundry detergent dosing then it could be because your water hardness is not as you expect. You can put a water softening tablet in your wash, supermarket own-brand softener tablets are quite inexpensive, and by following the directions, you can reduce the amount of laundry detergent you need to the soft water recommended level. This may improve results. A tablespoon of washing soda will achieve the same result on cotton and polyester, but isn’t suitable for wool or silk.

If you can’t get the dosing right and your clothes still aren’t clean then try adding a scoop of oxidising bleach by the directions. Oxidising bleach powder specifically for clothes is sold in most supermarkets and own-brand products can be relatively inexpensive. You won’t need it in every wash or a lot of it.

Remember though, that detergent alone won’t kill bacteria, but getting your clothes clean is a good start.

Laundry sanitiser.

A suitable laundry disinfectant or sanitiser is a big advantage in the fight against odours, and can even restore smelly clothes in only a few washes. If you have odours on your clothes after laundering them this is an effective tool. Choose a suitable disinfectant or a supermarket own-brand or main brand laundry sanitiser and put a capful in each wash per the directions.

If you don’t want to use a specific laundry sanitiser then many household disinfectants have directions on the label for laundry use and you can obtain one without a strong smell.

Finally, some people swear by baking soda (Sodium bicarbonate) which can be found in bulk in many stores.

Washing soda (Sodium carbonate) can be useful for brightening whites but it won’t deodorise clothes and is quite bad for wool and delicate fabrics.

Rinse Hold.

Most machines will optionally hold the clothes in the final rinse water indefinitely until you return. If you place your laundry sanitiser in the rinse section of your detergent drawer, it will be dispensed into the final rinse water. Simply measure a suitable amount into the fabric softener section of the drawer and close it gently, select the rinse hold option and start the machine.

Some machines will wash this compartment away if you start the machine with the drawer open, so close your drawer gently before starting the wash. If necessary you can usually remove the detergent drawer by pressing a catch on top or bottom of the drawer and wash out the detergent dispenser drawer to clean it and make it accurately dispense at the right time. Remember that front loading machines are connected to the cold water supply only. The water is heated in the drum and so the detergent drawer never benefits from being in contact with hot water and can be a source of odour.

Rinse hold can be an effective way of giving your clothes a soak in sanitiser immediately after cleaning when they will benefit from it most. If your machine doesn’t have a rinse hold function or you are opposed to using it you may prefer to put your laundry sanitiser in the main wash with the detergent.

Adding liquid products to the wash.

Regrettably some washing machines drain the drum briefly before the start of a wash. While well intentioned this is a problem if you are adding liquids to the drawer for the main wash as they will run down into the drum and get drained out immediately when the wash starts.

Additionally even liquid detergent, while usually thicker than laundry sanitiser will eventually drain to the bottom of the drum if you don’t start the wash promptly.

Listen carefully to your machine when you start your next wash to determine if it is draining away your valuable detergents and additives. If your machine unhelpfully drains at the start of each wash you may need to wait until the water starts flowing into the drawer before adding thin additives like laundry sanitiser. To do a delayed start wash in such a machine you will need to fill a bottle cap and balance it amongst the clothes, or use powdered products.


The prewash cycle on your machine should be used only for clothes that have caked-on dirt that can be removed quickly by the mechanical action of a brief additional wash cycle. So if you’ve been frollicking in the muck or spilled cheesecake mix all down your pants, go for a prewash. This means that the loose soil is removed before the main wash.

Prewash is not, however, a general solution for stained clothes, or very dirty clothes where the dirt is not loose. For this you need to choose the stain care or another extended cycle. Prewash will not remedy smelly clothes.

Of course you can’t put liquid detergent in the drawer if you are doing a prewash as it will drain immediately and the main wash will have none, so you’ll need to use powder for the main wash.


Without help, cool washes don’t kill bacteria … but there’s a good chance your drier does! The clothes washed in your machine should be clean and a good deal of the water has spun out of them. Now placing them in your drier causes the water to evaporate and the resulting heat and steam your clothes get every time help to keep bacteria down. Ironically, in the absence of a laundry sanitiser your washing machine is physically removing dirt and the bacteria in it, but your dryer is likely doing the real work of killing bacteria that remain in the fibres of the fabric. Of course both of these steps are necessary.

If you don’t use a dryer then you can put clothes in bright sunlight and the ultraviolet light in the sun will help.

Indoor drying.

Where clothes are dried indoors on a clothes horse the greatest challenges arise. This is not an ideal way to dry clothes, and is a big cause of smells in clothes. If a dryer is not available or you don’t want to use the built in drying function on your washer-dryer because it is harsh on the clothes, and it is not possible to dry them in the sun then you are at a significant disadvantage and you will have to resort to laundry sanitiser and careful handing of detergent in every wash.

Fabric softeners and freshness.

Fabric softeners and fresheners are usually added to the relevant compartment of the detergent drawer and dispensed automatically by the machine in the final rinse. You can buy freshener granules to add to the entire wash. These can smell nice if they last to the end of the wash, but they will do nothing for clothes that have smells from bacteria. At best you will end up wearing clothes that have both a floral and foul smell all at once which may even be worse. Until your laundry smells neutral I’d advise leaving these out.


For clothes that can tolerate it, which is most cottons, an encounter with a blast of steam from a hot iron will also help reduce bacteria in the fabric. Make sure that clothes are dry before ironing, at least dry to the touch or ‘Iron dry’ as ironing wet clothes will only warm them, you need the steam to blast through the dry fabric unimpeded. After ironing put your clothes to hang for an hour to allow any residual water to evaporate before storing, longer if there is any lingering dampness.

Ideally towels and undergarments should be ironed too. This helps to sanitise the fabric and in the case of towels helps them to keep their shape for many years. If a garment is too intricate to iron like boxer shorts and life just seems too short (I agree) then hold a hot iron near the fabric and discharge steam into it. Even if you don’t plan on ironing every crease, ironing the large flat parts of the garment and steaming the rest is a good compromise and will help the garment to keep its shape and stay fresh.


Particularly problematic for odour is the heavy seams in jeans and cotton garments. Often the garment may appear dry but the seams harbour moisture, and even if ironed will not heat up enough to kill bacteria. Clothes should be evenly dry, and if they have wet patches then you may need to look at your dryer to see if it is up to the task, or leave the clothes hanging in the open air longer.


The process of doing laundry should be brisk, the clothes should never sit while damp. If clothes are damp after wearing they should make their way to wash pretty soon. Once washed and after spinning they should move directly to the drying stage. It is bad to let freshly spun clothes sit in a warm pile in the washing machine for hours or overnight as this promotes bacteria growth.

Sports clothing can be a conundrum as it usually requires a 40 degree wash while being often the most soiled laundry. Whatever method you choose to sanitise it, do try to get it into the washing machine quickly.

You may be able to use the delay function of your washing machine to ensure your wash finishes at a time when you’re ready to transfer it to the dryer or hang it out. Or you could use a rinse hold with laundry sanitiser to kill bacteria while your clothes rest, particularly good for sports and polyester clothes.

Cleaning the machine.

Even if your washing machine doesn’t smell, it’s a good idea to do a tub clean wash about every 30 washes. Do one immediately if your machine smells bad. A well maintained washing machine should smell as fresh as a daisy, any lingering laundry smell suggests bacteria buildup, and it isn’t necessary to tolerate this as the machine will clean itself with a little help.

If your machine is new you should consider regularly treating it for limescale so that buildup never has a chance to form. Limescale provides a porous surface that can harbour bacteria deep inside your machine and can be very difficult to address if it gets out of hand. Regular maintenance however requires only limescale tablets from the supermarket and can usually be incorporated into your tub clean schedule. Trying to recover a machine that is suffering from limescale from years of abuse may be too much for the machine. If you have very hard water you may need professional advice and possibly an external water softener to protect your domestic appliances.

You should consult the manufacturer’s directions but a tub clean is usually a 90 or 95 degree wash which is as hot as the machine goes. No clothes are placed in the drum, and either laundry detergent, bleach, washing soda, limescale remover tablets or a commercial cleaning product is added to the wash depending on the directions you follow. Your machine may also have a built-in tub clean cycle and you should follow the directions in the manual. If you are often washing cold, drying your clothes indoors or have a difficult laundry smell problem to beat you may need to do a tub clean more regularly than every 30 washes, especially if your machine has gone without one for a while.

If you take steps to ensure that your clothes come out of the wash smelling neutral then it is likely that your machine will smell better as well over time.


Your clothes should be completely dry before storing if you want them to be fresh when you take them out to wear. Your wardrobe should be free of any dampness which sometimes afflicts fitted wardrobes placed against external walls. You may need a suitable dehumidifier if this is not the case. Items like towels and folded garments can be stacked in piles once thoroughly dry.

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