How to wash towels that smell – expert tips to banish damp and musty odours for good

And what to do to stop any damp, musty or foul smells from returning

Stack of colourful towels on a metal wall mounted towel rack
(Image credit: Future PLC/Dominic Blackmore)

We’ve all probably encountered a whiffy towel in our homes at one point or another. Whether that be a kitchen towel that you use to dry dishes and mop up spills, or a bathroom towel after a shower, it can be rather unpleasant if your towels smell anything other than freshly laundered. 

You may have also experienced a substantial musty or pungent smell if your freshly washed towels haven’t dried correctly or have remained damp for too long, which is something that can easily happen over the winter months, when drying outdoors isn’t always an option. But there are some quick and easy steps to take to wash towels that smell and to stop them from smelling bad in the future.

Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to washing towels that smell.

How to wash towels that smell: step-by-step

‘It’s normal for your towel to become musty and for smells to linger over time with regular use,’ Lucy Ackroyd, head of design at Christy, says. 

In order to keep your towels from smelling anything other than clean and fresh, you have to wash and dry them properly. Not only does this keep them smelling fresh but Lucy says ‘knowing how to wash your dirty towels correctly can help extend their lifespan and keep them looking and feeling great for years.’

The experts have shared their top tips to keep on top of washing and storing your towels to make sure they don't get smelly.

1. Give your towels a good shake and separate them

Rustic wooden towel ladder against a green panelled wall

(Image credit: Future PLC/Polly Eltes)

Before washing, give each towel a good shake to loosen any residual debris or dirt. Then you'll want to 'separate your towels by colour and fabric type,' says Sophie Lane, Product Training Manager at Miele GB. You may already 'wash similar fabrics and colours together to prevent colour bleeding or damage to the towels.' But if you don't, we always recommend separating anything you wash to keep them looking their best for the longest amount of time.

'Don’t overload the washing machine,' Sophie warns, 'as this can prevent proper cleaning. Allow enough space for the towels to move around freely in the machine.'

2. Pre-soak in a vinegar solution

Next, ‘fill your washing machine or a large basin with warm water and add one cup of white vinegar,’ Ava Wilson, Chief Editor at Unclutterer, suggests. ‘Soak the smelly towels in this solution for at least an hour, as vinegar helps to break down the bacteria and mildew.’ We recommend buying white vinegar in bulk for all your cleaning tasks with vinegar – try picking up 10L Hexeal white vinegar from Amazon.  

‘And fear not - your towels won’t smell of vinegar when you take them out,’ Lucy reassures us. Washing towels with vinegar is a great way to keep them clean and soft.  

3. Run through a regular wash on a high heat

White utility room with towels stacked on open shelves and a basket of washing next to a washing machine

(Image credit: Future PLC/Colin Poole)

After soaking your towels in the vinegar solution, put them into the washing machine and wash them on a high heat setting. Double check the label on each of your towels to determine which hot heat setting is the safest for them. 

You can also add a small amount of your normal detergent to the wash but don’t add a fabric softener, as it can add a residue which will attract moisture and stop your towels from drying fully, thus risking your towels beginning to smell damp or musty again. This is also a top tip when it comes to keeping towels fluffy

4. Add bicarbonate of soda

Open shelf used to store cleaning supplies and a cleaning caddy

(Image credit: Future PLC/Phil Barker)

You don't need to do this step every single wash, but add it to your wash routine when towels are starting to smell. ‘During the rinse cycle, add half a cup of bicarbonate of soda,’ Ava adds. ‘Bicarbonate soda neutralises odours and freshens the towels.’ 

5. Dry thoroughly

If you have a tumble dryer, put your freshly laundered towels in the dryer ‘on a high heat setting,’ Ava advises. Or, if you’re able to dry them outdoors (a great alternative if you're worried about how much it costs to run a tumble dryer), hang them out in the warmth or sun. 

It is incredibly important that the towels are fully dry before you go to fold and store towels away. If they're even a little bit moist, the smell could return because of the excess moisture.

5 ways to stop towels smelling unpleasant

Follow these tricks when looking for how to prevent towels from smelly musty or unpleasant..

1. Hang your towels up to dry after each use

Patterned towels hung on a heated towel rail above a bath in a tiled bathroom

(Image credit: Future PLC/Alisdair McIntosh)

If your towel is damp but can be used again, you’ll want to ensure that you hang it somewhere to dry. However, ‘hanging  too many, too close together can lead to mildewed, stinky towels,’ warns Sue Caldwell, Managing Director of Clean Living

‘Wet towels need plenty of space to breathe. For best results, hang them individually, with as much surface area exposed to the air as possible.’

2. Avoid placing wet towels or clothes in your laundry hamper

Stack of grey towels on top of a wicker laundry basket in a green and grey bathroom

(Image credit: Future PLC/Lizzie Orme)

As you may expect, leaving wet towels in your laundry hamper for even a day or so can cause them to smell even more. So, try not to let them sit too long before you wash them.

3. Deep clean your towels every month or so

‘Once a month, repeat the vinegar and baking soda wash, to keep towels fresh,’ Ava advises. Keeping on top of these regular tasks should mean your towels stay at their best for as long as possible.

4. Don't leave them in the machine for too long

It's much better to dry towels immediately after the wash has finished. Essentially, you want to limit the amount of time that your towels are wet, as excess moisture is one of the biggest reasons that towels begin to smell. As soon as you wash your towels, either pop them in the dryer or out to line dry, if the weather permits. If drying indoors, the best dehumidifier is a great investment to help dry clothes and towels. 

5. Only store your towels once they are completely dry

Pink towels in a transparent plastic storage box

(Image credit: Future PLC/Andy Woods)

You’ll also want to wait until your towels are completely dry before storing them away, as any trace of moisture can cause them to smell. And when you do go to store them, keep them ‘in a dry, well-ventilated area to prevent moisture accumulation,’ Ava advises. An organised linen cupboard is one of the best spots. 


What causes towels to smell?

Bacteria growth

‘Towels, especially in bathrooms and kitchens, are in constant contact with moisture, making them a breeding ground for bacteria,’ Ava explains. ‘This bacteria growth causes the musty, sour smell.’

Mould/mildew and poor drying practices

If towels remain damp, whether that be after a shower or when many of us struggle to dry our washing indoors over the winter months, this excess moisture can cause mould and mildew to develop. And both can lead to a foul odour.

Residual detergent

Even though you may have added detergent to your wash to add a pleasant fragrance to your towels, too much detergent can actually be counterproductive. ‘Using too much detergent can leave a residue on towels, which traps moisture and contributes to odour,’ according to Ava. 

Fabric softener can also build up on towels, which ‘can lead to a reduction in absorbency and softness,’ Sue details. So, it's best to use this sparingly or forgo it altogether. 

Are there any top tips for keeping towels smelling good?

One of the best tips, weather-permitting, is to air dry your towels outside. ‘Natural sunlight and fresh air can help to kill bacteria and eliminate musty smells,’ Lucy reveals.

A few natural solutions can help too. ‘Add a few drops of tea tree oil to your washing machine when washing your towels,’ Lucy adds – try this Australian tea tree oil from Amazon. ‘This natural oil has antibacterial properties that can help to kill odour-causing bacteria.’

Fragrant herbs, such as lavender, can also be used when you go to store your towels. If you keep your towels in a cupboard or drawer, add some lavender sachets to keep them smelling fresh.

Combine the best methods for washing towels, with this expert advice on how to keep them smelling fresh, and you'll be the proud owner of fluffy, fresh-smelling towels, all the time. 

Ellis Cochrane

Ellis Cochrane has been a Freelance Contributor for Ideal Home since 2023. She graduated with a Joint Honours degree in Politics and English from the University of Strathclyde and between her exams and graduation, started a lifestyle blog where she would share what she was buying, reading and doing. In doing so, she created opportunities to work with some of her dream brands and discovered the possibility of freelance writing, after always dreaming of writing for magazines when she was growing up.

Since then, she has contributed to a variety of online and print publications, covering everything from celebrity news and beauty reviews to her real passion; homes and interiors. She started writing about all things homes, gardens and interiors after joining Decor & Design Scotland as a Freelance Journalist and Social Media Account Manager in 2021. She then started freelancing at House Beautiful, Country Living and in Stylist’s Home team. Ellis is currently saving to buy her first home in Glasgow with far too many Pinterest boards dedicated to her many design ideas and inspirations.