Do you know that terrible smell you experience when you open a cabinet of towels (or even clothes) that you kept closed for far too long? That sour, mildew smell you do not know how to avoid? Many of us do. That pungent smell is a result of humidity, dampness, or heat. Mold and mildew sometimes appear deep within the structure of towels, while improper laundering or drying cause your fabrics to acquire that stench in time (and inside small, crowded cabinets and drawers that get too little aeration).

Let’s see today how to remove the sour smell from towels and bathrobes. Most importantly, however, we will look at some methods of preventing the dreaded odor from returning!

How to Remove Sour Smell from Towels: Part 1 - Preparation

Before you start dealing with the sour smell of your towels or bathrobes, you have to wonder if you clean your sheets correctly in the first place. While we understand the appeal of fabric softener and the promises it makes, you should know it is one of the prominent causes of fabric buildup and pungent scents.

In case you are still using it to wash your bath towels, reconsider your entire washing procedure. The same goes for bathrobes as well, especially the thick warm fleece or terry bathrobes you love so much in the cold season.

Now that we made things a bit clearer, let’s see how to prepare the smelly towels for a makeover:

  • Get them out from the cabinet or drawer and separate them by colors;
  • Separate the towels again by smell; it is a daunting task, but you have to do it. Some towels have just a bit of an unpleasant stale odor (and you will tackle the problem easier and faster). Some of your hand towels; however, being stacked for a long time in a cabinet, may have acquired a foul odor that needs a special kind of treatment.

The mildly smelling towels can go directly into the washing machine. The foul smelling ones may need a pre-wash treatment. Here is how you can do it:

  • Pick a large plastic basin and fill it with hot (boiling water) and 1 cup of baking soda. Let the soak well, squeeze them, turn them, and agitate them, so the sodium bicarbonate does its trick of neutralizing odors and dissolving dirt and grease.
  • Wring the towels after about an hour of this treatment and put them in the washing machine, cleaning them according to the following rules.

How to Remove Sour Smell from Towels: Part 2 – Washing Machine

The first thing you need to do after placing the towels in the washing machine is to set the temperature at the hottest level your equipment allows (or the items can handle).

  • Read the labels on your towels or bathrobes carefully so you can learn what the highest temperature you can choose is;
  • Ignore everything the detergent industry has taught you for the next hours; even if now we have detergents that can clean anything on cold wash cycles, remember that the sour smell of your towels represents bacteria breeding. To remove the odor and the bacteria, you need the hottest water you can get.

Set the washing machine on the most extended heavy-duty cycle it features. This program exists precisely for issues like these. To regain their cleanness and get free from the odors and bacteria embedded in their fabric your towels need plenty of hot water and all the agitation they can get.

  • Use liquid detergent as it rinses off better than a powder
  • Pour a generous scoop of baking soda in the fabric softener dispenser (you should do this for both dry towels and the pre-washed ones);
  • Let the machine finish its long heavy-duty cycle;
  • Pour 2 cups of white wine vinegar in the detergent dispenser and set the washing machine on a shorter period (but try to keep the temperature as high as possible); allow the cycle to end.
  • To finish, set the machine on the rinse cycle and let it rinse all previous detergent and baking soda traces, together with the vinegar smell.

Tips on how to remove the sour smell from towels that are large

One issue that may lead to towels smelling bad is that you overload the washing machine. Even if you wash them correctly, detergent and overcrowding may lead to smelly buildups in time.

  • To remove the sour smell of problematic towels, make sure you wash one or two oversized bath sheets at a time to allow for thorough heavy-duty cleaning.
  • Similarly, if one of your beloved heavy terry velour hooded winter bathrobes got a foul smell to it, wash it by itself in the washing machine; it may seem like a waste of water and energy to clean one item at a time, but in this way, you will make sure the stench disappears entirely from the fabric.

By this time, your towels should smell clean, fresh, and look like new. However, you should test them for odor residues and repeat the procedure in case you have to deal with some stubborn stenches.

How to Remove Sour Smell from Towels: Part 3 – Drying

Among the causes of smelly towels and bathrobes, improper drying is one of the most critical ones. Here are some general rules to monitor when you wash towels and robes:

  • Immediately remove towels, robes, linen, and clothes from the washing machine;
  • In the case of smelly towels, you just treated, make sure you hang them to dry in fresh air and sun.
  • If you have no available clothesline in your yard or apartment balcony, get a portable one. Place it in an open space so your towels get as much fresh air as they can.
  • Some people cannot dry laundry in open spaces. However, even if you have to use a dryer, make sure you set it on the hottest temperature it allows and let it work until your towels and bathrobes are completely There is no place of negotiation or compromise in this regard, as if you store damp towels and bathrobes in your cabinets, you will have the same foul odor to handle again in the future.

  • When you place towels on a clothesline, make sure you correctly stretch them, and they have enough space (with no creases or stacking); use one line for an oversized bath towel or beach towels.

A word of advice: as we said above, repeat the washing machine process before you even consider drying the towels. Heat can set in smells and stains – and you will have to individually remove stains from towels afterward –. As daunting as it may seem, stubborn towel smells may require 2-3 washing cycles (with baking soda and vinegar rinsing) until you make the items usable once more.  

Storing Tips

Storing is another essential step when you learn how to remove the sour smell from towels.

  • If the problem occurred due to small, crowded spaces inside cabinets preventing air from circulating, make sure you store the towels and bathrobes in larger, more aerated areas.
  • Moreover, make sure you do not stack vertically your everyday hand towels or washcloths but instead place them side by side as books on a shelf.
  • Even small bathroom spaces can accommodate your towels in a healthy and gorgeous manner with a bit of imagination and smart towel storage ideas!


Now that we saw together how to remove the sour smell from towels, it is time for your feedback! Do you use other home ingredients besides baking soda and vinegar to remove foul odors from your clothes, bathrobes, linen, etc.? Do you mix any essential oil with the baking soda in the pre-wash stage? What other tips and tricks are you willing to share regarding bad smells’ removal from your laundry?