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What to do when your clothes smell after washing

If you only get to enjoy the scent of fresh cotton by lighting a candle, you have a problem. Here’s how to tackle pongy laundry for good.

Updated

A stack of folded clothing

Does your laundry smell less like fresh cotton and more like a stagnant bog of despair? This guide should help. We’ll share all the different reasons clothes smell after washing and (more importantly) how to get damp smell out of clothes.

Why does my washing smell? 10 Common reasons your clothes smell after washing

1. Your washing machine needs a clean

The inside of a dirty washing machine

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Washing machines have a really annoying habit of holding on to stagnant water, harbouring limescale, bacteria or mould, and getting blocked filters.

 Luckily, there’s usually no need to call a repair service; you can give your machine a deep clean pretty easily, and there’s very little elbow grease involved – we show you how in this in-depth guide to cleaning a washing machine.

2. You’ve used too much (or too little) laundry detergent

Laundry powder on top of  a basket containing towels

Are you faithfully measuring the amount of detergent you use, or do you just chuck a glug in and hope for the best? Excess detergent won’t rinse away properly and can remain trapped in the fabric, encouraging waterlogging and mould growth. On the other hand, too little detergent means you won’t get the clothes clean. Make sure you check the detergent packet or bottle for dosing instructions. They’ll often focus on a 6kg or 7kg load, so if you have a larger machine, you may need to add a bit more soap powder or liquid. And, if you’re only washing a light load, you might not need as much detergent. 

 Some laundry brands provide handy dosing balls. If yours doesn’t, it’s worth investing in a measuring cup (you’ll often find them in the baking aisle). Or you could switch to capsules to make life easier.

Choosing a fragranced detergent or adding fabric conditioner will also help to make your clothes smell fresher for longer.

3. Your washing machine makes your clothes smell because you’ve overloaded the machine

A washing machine with colourful clothing spilling out of it

Now, when you’re having a shower, we’re guessing you move around a bit to make sure you’re getting good and clean. You don’t curl yourself up in a ball. Clothes need space to move too, otherwise they’re not going to get properly clean.

So, it might not be that the washing machine makes clothes smell, you’re just not letting it do its job properly. We know it’s tempting to stuff it as full as possible to cut down on loads, but resist the temptation (unless you want to walk around smelling like gone off milk).

4. Your clothes smell damp after washing because they have been in the machine too long

If your clothes smell damp after washing, it might just mean you need to take them out of the machine quicker. 

The longer you leave them in the machine, the staler they’re going to smell. Try using the ‘delay start’ function on your washing machine so the wash finishes at a more convenient time.  

5. It’s taking too long to dry your clothes

Laundry drying on a clothes horse

Wondering how to get that damp smell out of clothes? Make sure you dry them within a few hours. If washing is left to dry naturally and there’s not enough heat, it can take longer to dry and end up smelling damp and musty. 

If your laundry smells bad after drying indoors, you might want to invest in a dehumidifier to speed up the process. It’ll also help to stop all that water ending up in the air in your home, which can lead to damp problems and make your home feel colder. 

And if you use a tumble dryer, don’t overload it and try to dry similar weight clothes together.

6. You’re not letting them dry properly 

Make sure clothes are completely dry before you take them off the line or out of the tumble dryer. That might mean selecting ‘extra dry’ on your dryer. 

If you prefer to iron clothes while they’re still damp, do it straight away, rather than leaving your ironing pile to mount up.

7. Your clothes have been put away damp

Again, this goes back to the need to dry laundry quickly. If you put sheets, clothes and towels away even slightly damp, they’re going to smell pretty foul by the time you come to use them.

8. They need room to breathe

If air can’t circulate around clothes, they’re going to start smelling musty quicker. Hang them rather than fold them, if you can. And leave space between each item. 

If you do need to fold them, try not to stuff your drawers to overflowing – that might mean having a bit of a declutter.

9. They’ve been stored for too long

If you haven’t worn clothes for a while, they can start to smell stale. Try hanging them outside on the line for a couple of hours to breathe new life into them. Often, the combination of sunlight and breeze will be enough to lift the mildew smell. Even if it's not sunny, some fresh air can do the world of good. 

If that doesn’t work, pop them in the machine for a quick rinse with some fabric conditioner. 

Next time you’re storing your clothes for a length of time (eg because you’re packing winter clothes away in the loft over the summer), place a small scented lavender bag in with them.

10. Your clothes need a hotter wash

If you’ve followed the tips above and are still wondering why your clothes smell after washing, it might be that they need a deep clean. 

Lower temperatures help to protect fabrics, but aren’t as good at getting rid of sweaty smells. Try washing your clothes on a long wash at the highest temperature allowed by the clothing label.

You can also add a couple of teaspoons of white vinegar to the detergent drawer. Don’t worry, it helps to deodorise clothes and won’t leave them smelling like your local fish and chip van.  

If your clothes need washing at 30ºC or 40ºC degrees, it’s worth switching to a more powerful detergent that’s designed for lower temperatures, like Persil.

Originally published