musty towel smell won't wash away

July 15, 2019

I am at such a loss. I have light blue towels we use in spring and summer and dark brown for fall and winter. I wash them all the same - on cold (so they don't fade) in free & clear detergent (I can't deal with many artificial scents) and dry them on low without dryer sheets. They hang on a long towel bar in the bathroom (my husband folds his over once and I hang mine spread out). The blue towels are all one brand and were all bought about a year ago, and the brown towels are different brands bought at different times. The blue towels have a gross smell. It's musty and *almost* like they are repurposed dog towels (we don't have a dog). I have done a cold water baking soda soak, and I recently washed them on hot with both baking soda (in the tub) and vinegar (in the bleach tray) and it didn't make a difference.

What could be causing this? And what can I do? I don't get how I can treat them the exact same and have such a big problem. They are not even our thickest towels. I am on the verge of getting rid of the blue towels, but they match perfectly (so hard) and I don't really want to throw away 6 towels that aren't that old. Should I try a color-safe bleach? Anything else? I can't hang them outside because we live very close to the X-way and not too far from 2 airports, so our air isn't exactly fresh. And I'm not using febreze or something like that on them. Hailp!

Comments (75)

  • dadoes

    Be helpful for others to respond if you cite the brand/model of your machine.

  • twebbz

    A bit of scent booster helps too. I like Arm & Hammer "Purifying Waters". I use 1/8 cup.

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  • stillpitpat

    The info is kind of buried in the comments: LG WT5270CW. It's a discontinued HE top loader we got in 2015.

  • Moxie

    Since you have a top loader, you can boil water in a pot on the stove and add it to the wash when you are stripping the towels if your tap water is only warm. You can also increase the heat setting on your water heater temporarily. (Long term it's expensive to keep water that hot. It's also a scalding risk.)

    Unless you have soft water, you can also add sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) to your wash water. A tablespoonful or two is usually enough to make the water feel slippery, which is what you're looking for. It will react with the minerals in your water and make it easier for the detergent in your towels to be washed away.

    Note: STPP is NOT the same as trisodium phosphate (TSP).

    Like Larissa, I wash almost everything in hot water.

    Edit: Corrected typo. It's STPP (not STTP). Thank you, dadoes. Don't know where my head was!

    stillpitpat thanked Moxie
  • dadoes

    STPP (Sodium TriPolyPhosphate).

  • beaglenc

    Adding scent boosters won't alleviate the problem, just masks the odor. You want to rid the source.

  • twebbz

    True, but by using the extra high speed spin of my HE washer, my towels have very little scent even when using fabric softener so I add a little scent booster. I don't know why but it's only a towel situation.


  • Larisa Batchelor

    For towels I find using any scent booster, fabric softener, or dryer sheets they not only prevent the towels from absorbing well they can actually hold onto stink a lot more. Basically masking the scent.

    I know many who add bleach to their hot wash and good detergent and that helps keep the musty smell away. A few hot washes with good detergent and hot water should solve your towel issue. Properly diluted bleach (not talking about a ton, maybe a quarter cup or less) will not fade even colored towels.

    stillpitpat thanked Larisa Batchelor
  • stillpitpat

    I don't add anything scented as oftentimes the fragrance bothers me. I practically have to hold my breath when I walk down the detergent aisle at the store.

  • littlegreeny

    Have you tried any of our suggestions? Have you seen an improvement?

  • stillpitpat

    Not yet, I have been running around and have barely done any laundry. Perhaps tonight!

  • Cavimum

    Fragrance just covers up whatever is wrong with our laundry.

  • dadoes

    My sister washed everything in cold water with her old Maytag toploader. The machine had a musty odor, and I recall her fussing once that she had trouble finding a detergent with a strong enough scent to make her laundry smell clean. Put those clues together ...

  • HU-31974562

    I think many people are fooled by laundry care labels in clothing. Many towels now have labels that say wash in cold water, a recipe for disaster for both your towels and your washing machine.

  • stillpitpat

    Should I be washing everything in hot (except for obvious items like silk or shrinkables)? I pretty much follow the labels. I separate lights/darks and colds/warms, and currently only wash my kids' underwear in hot. Bath towels get their own load, as do kitchen and dining rooms textiles.

    I don't have an odor issue with anything but these light blue towels, but if washing basic "cold wash" stuff on warm or hot cleans better and won't do any damage, then I will change it all up.

    A lot of our kid clothes are from Old Navy, and pants, shorts, and shirts from there are all labeled cold wash. It seems kind of gross, but I have been following the care labels anyway....

  • Moxie

    In most cases, I prefer hot water. There are exceptions: wool and certain other fibers will shrink a lot; some stains need to be addressesd first because hot water will set them.

    At the very least, I use hot for kitchen linen, bath linen, underwear, and sheets and pillowcases.

  • jwvideo

    @stillpitpat --

    When it comes to wash temperatures, there is something of a disconnect between standards for fabric care instructions and the actual temperature settings employed in many washing machines. The fabric care standard for "cold" allows temperatures up to 30°C/86°F. But in many top load washing machines, the ATC's "cold" setting yields temperatures of 18°C/65°F or even colder.

    The washers' "warm" setting is sometimes 85°F/29°C but more often 80°F/27°C or less.

    My quick google search failed to turn up specifics on your washer's ATC temps, but there are any number of current top load machines where the "hot" temperatures are mixed down around 90°F/32°C . That's barely above the range for the "cold" wash fabric care label.

    I did find the service manual for the LG WT5270CW here. May have missed it in my hurried skim-through, but I did not see any specification on what the actual ATC settings are supposed to be. However, there was this interesting passage on page 10 of the Service Manual which has "recommendations" for washing temperatures:

    "The machine sets the appropriate temperature automatically according to the wash program .

    "• We recommend temperatures of:

    "- HOT 120°F (120-140°F) White items, diapers, underclothing and heavily soiled, colorfast items.

    "- WARM 90°F (85-105°F) Most items

    "- COLD 66°F (65-75°F) Only very bright colors with light soil.

    "• When washing in COLD water additional steps may be needed:

    "- In addition, detergent manufactures and care labels define COLD water as 26~29°C (80-85°F)." {emphasis added}

    stillpitpat thanked jwvideo
  • stillpitpat

    Looks like I do need to change things up!

  • dadoes

    The huge irritation with washer temperatures nowadays is the designated Normal/Casual cycle and some others provide that cold is cold, warm is cold to cool, hot is warm-ish. The only way to get anything above warm-ish is choose a maxed-out cycle such as Heavy or Sanitize with the heaviest soil level which runs for 2-1/2+ hours ... when often a shorter cycle would be fine IF it could pull full tap-hot water.

    My sister's 2006 Samsung frontloader (that friends gave to her when they destroyed it with cold washes and softener chronic softener overdosing, and I repaired to take the place of the aforementioned ancient Maytag toploader) gives 80°F-ish for warm, 90°F to 95°F for hot. It starts with COLD water, flushes the detergent and saturates the load, then switches to hot or warm for the last 40 to 60 seconds of fill. Except the Sanitary cycle which runs 2+ hours and heats to 150°F.

  • Cavimum

    I have some garments that I wash in cold (86°F) or they would shrink horribly or be otherwise ruined. I use all the temps, depending on the garment and color, because I wear a lot of natural fibers and loys of dark colors in winter. Sheets and other whites get a hot wash weekly with oxygen bleach. After 7 1/2 years, our washer smells fine.

  • Cavimum

    "I don't have an odor issue with anything but these light blue towels,"

    i wonder if there is something different about the threads/grey goods used to weave those towels. Possibly bamboo or something different, or if they were problematic from the start. if everything else is washing fine, you are probably doing everything right and the problem has to be those towels, or even the dye used, finishing chemicals, the fiber, who knows?

    I have bought new fabric that stank of chemicals, and if it didn't go away after a few washes, it got thrown out instead of sewn up. There was one denim I bought at JoAnn's that smelled fine ... until I washed it! I finally had to toss it.

  • stillpitpat

    I probably won't get to treating the blue towels for a few weeks. We are gearing up for a 2-week trip, most of which will be camping, and I am freaking out. We are not big campers so this whole thing is an experiment. Anyway, I am attempting to do all our regular laundry today and tomorrow, which does not include the blue towels. I will just deal with those when we get back. Right now I am running a load on warm, which includes the Old Navy clothes that say cold wash on the label.

    I wear mostly linen/cotton blend pants in the summer and wash those on cold. Is that necessary? I can't afford to have them shrink.

  • C J

    I have been washing even linen blouses on hot, and I have not seen any shrinking or fading. It’s the dryer that’s problematic for shrinkage more than anything else. Your hot water wash just isn’t going to be that hot. I hang shirts and blouses to dry before ironing.

    I do not wash wool or silk on anything but the specialized wool or silk cycles, which keeps water at warm and much reduced agitation.

    I cant imagine that washing old navy clothes in hot would be a problem for most items (and would be beneficial in terms of cleaning). I wash my husband‘s old navy clothes in hot without an issue.

  • skmom

    I know you’re not going to get to the blue towels washed for a bit, but I was thinking about it and I wonder if your blue towels are made with a cotton/polyester mix instead of being all cotton? Maybe that’s why only the blue ones have the funky odor... kind of like so much athletic wear that hold onto odors. FWIW, I was the one above who mentioned using tea tree oil in the wash, and I said I don’t have to do it very often. That’s because I don’t wear ANY polyester, I’m slightly allergic to it and break out in hives when I wear it or nylon. But some of my teens wear athletic wear (which is usually polyester) and that’s what I was having trouble getting odors out of. (Actually, they do all of their own laundry, but they couldn’t get it out and asked for my help, LOL! I tried ALL kinds of stuff until I discovered the TTO and that’s what finally worked and actually got the odor GONE and not covered up) Anyhow, just brainstorming and I wonder if polyester is the issue with those blue towels.

  • stillpitpat

    Possibly? Is that common? I don't tend to check the fiber content of towels the way I do with sheets or clothes (I wear very little polyester myself as it makes me sweaty and stinky). They feel the same as any towels. But yes, something is holding onto odor.

  • littlegreeny

    With today's modern washers and how they dumb-down temps, you're probably safe washing most items on "hot". My washer's "hot" setting is around 100F.

    And since the Kirkland detergent is so concentrated and hard to rinse out, use no more than 2 tablespoons per load.

    stillpitpat thanked littlegreeny
  • skmom

    I don’t know whether it’s common or not... but I do know it’s possible to get a cotton/poly blend towel. Also, fwiw, I find that I’m washing some stuff I only used to wash in cold water in warmer water now and it’s rarely affecting anything. Now I really only wash my dark, delicates in cold/cold anymore. (I did accidentally wash some dark delicates in warm/cold a couple of weeks ago and something in there that was hot pink stained a pair of hubby’s Khaki work pants, except nothing in that load was new clothing. The load did sit overnight before I transferred it to the dryer. Bummer.)

    stillpitpat thanked skmom
  • enduring

    With regards to hot warm cold. Its rare that you will find temps posted in machine manuals. I have the good fortune to know what my temps are, because the manufacture lists them. I have 4 machines, and I like to brag about that, lol, please don't judge ;)

    So all my blacks, and I have a lot, are washed in warm or very warm, meaning 104f or 120f (I believe). I use a blacks liquid detergent. I never have shrinkage or fading, but most of the clothes are poly. On the other hand, my DH clothes are farm clothes and they all get washed in 140f, period. I dry them too. My dryer is gentler than many and doesn't get so hot. I DON'T dry the flannel shirts, because they will shrink in the dryer. Anyway all his clothes still fit. The flannels don't shrink, because I hang them to dry.

    I'd be washing those towels in hot water and drying them. I actually wash all my towels on hot or very hot water, to almost boil wash. My old Mieles go up to 190f. I use only white towels. I use that hot of water because the hand towels get a lot of grease and grime on them from DH. I have now been washing the towels this way for 6 years and they are still white. I use the Costco hotel towel packs and haven't needed to replace yet.

    Since I wash towels in such hot water, I think the enzymes deactivate but I might be getting some benefit with the enzymes in the prewash that I do, on cold.

    I never use fabric softener. Just my choice. Its been mentioned on the forum to not use dryer sheets, as they gunk up the dryer parts with oils, they coat the lint filter too and prevent air flow, supposedly.

  • WalnutCreek Zone 7b/8a

    Here are my thoughts. For all towels, sheets, and all white laundry, I run the hot water, usually at night, no detergent, then a scoop of OxyClean, and let it soak at least overnight or longer. When I am ready to run the machine, I add the laundry detergent and start the machine. I have done my laundry that way for many, many years. One time, for laundry that I did not follow this method for, it became musty smelling, so I put in back in the washer with hot water and a scoop of OxyClean and let it sit overnight, and the result was no smell. Before OxyClean, I use a product called Snowy White, but it is no longer manufactured. You might try my method. It has always worked for me.

  • ci_lantro

    light blue towels we use in spring and summer and dark brown for fall and winter.

    Ah--I betcha' the reason the brown ones don't get stinky might be because the brown ones actually do dry after being used. Because, depending on where you live, the heater is on and the humidity in the house is lower during the cool months.

    I live in central WI. During the summer, we don't necessarily need to turn on the air conditioner most of the time but the humidity is a lot higher. Towels & dishrags can get stinky in a heartbeat. Not a chance of that in the winter because the humidity in the house is much lower.

    Whenever I mop floors in the summer, it can take forever for them to dry. Mopped a couple of days ago & had to turn the AC fan to run & turned on the ceiling fan to get the air moving some more just to dry the silly floor! DH is recouping from surgery & complaining about being cold all the time so we haven't had the AC on since he got out of the hospital. The humidity is building up in the house so he's going to have to wrap up in a parka so I can turn on the AC and get the house wrung out!

  • stillpitpat

    I thought about that ^ and, while it makes perfect sense, I think it is something about the fibers of the blue towels. I only started switching towels by season a few years ago. We used to use brown ones all the time because it was so hard to find blue ones that matched well enough, and we never had this problem. In fact, when we use the thickest brown towels in fall or winter (almost too thick for our hands), I can sometimes still feel a little moisture at the end of the day, but they still smell fine. It's so weird.

    Anyway, we are home from vacation and once I get all that crap washed (and some is pretty gross) I will work on these towels!

  • mxk3

    I didn't read thru all the posts, so not sure if this was mentioned somewhere above. Two things helped when I was having problems with musty towels -- washing in HOT water, and making sure not to wash too many towels at once. They don't stink anymore, I figured I was probably jamming them all in there to max washer capacity and the water/soap/rinse weren't able to fully do their job; same story for stuffing too many towels in the dryer at the same time -- probably weren't tumbling enough to ensure even drying. My bath towels are navy BTW.

    stillpitpat thanked mxk3
  • stillpitpat

    I will definitely do them in hot, today or tomorrow. I have caught up on the vacation laundry, including washing the sleeping bags. I probably do sometimes put too many clothes in the machine, but not with towels. We only have 6 of these towels, and they are not that thick, so there is room for washing and drying them.

    Now, I did make a fatal mistake the other day when I put the dish cloths and towels in and forgot to put them in the dryer. I hate when I do that. I have learned that a re-wash isn't always good enough, so I did a baking soda soak in cold and then a re-wash in hot. And then I put them in the dryer right away. I can see why it's nice to have your w/d in the kitchen or attached room. Ours are in the basement, and it's so easy to forget things in the washer. The house I grew up in had a long narrow laundry room off of the family room, with a bathroom at the end. You had to go into the laundry room to go to the garage, the back porch (only back door to the house) or use the one downstairs bathroom, so it would be hard to forget about the laundry. I live in a much smaller house, and I drool remembering the laundry room of my youth.

  • Larisa Batchelor

    When I forget to put clothes in the dryer and they smell the only way to get them clean again is to dry them then rewash. Works every time and don’t have to add more stuff in the washer.

  • jimaendel

    Hi. We discovered the Lysol laundry additive. The instructions direct to add to rinse but we add a splash to wash cycle. We farm and we find it work amazing from stinky coveralls to the microfiber shirts, even works nicely when we prewash cloth diapers with this product.

  • Larisa Batchelor

    Adding Lysol sanitizer to the main wash with detergent is just a waste of product. I called Lysol about this. Any contact with surfactants and enzymes makes this product ineffective. Also the contact time for this in the rinse has to be at least 16 min. Most he washers do not give a 16 min rinse (shorter than that) so again would be a waste of a pretty expensive product.

  • jimaendel

    Hi Larisa. Have you tried the product yet? As I mentioned in my post I do not use the product as instructed. I also mentioned it removes odors from my laundry. If you haven’t used the product, why would feel the need to dispute my claim when is say that for me this product helps my laundry come out free from odor. I dare you try the Lysol laundry additive and then comment when you find it doesn’t work for you. I have 30 years of experience doing laundry with strong odors and over the years have tried all kinds of products and methods. I like vinegar, bleach, fresh air, baking soda and now Lysol is on my fresh smelling laundry arsenal list. Layering odors with ridiculous scented laundry detergents is a joke for farming odors. As someone else mentioned in a post earlier on, I also believe product residue causes odor and love to rinse with vinegar to get clean fresh laundry. I do not like the idea of adding a product to coat my laundry when rinsing. That somehow does feel right for me. I want clean product free cloths touching my skin. Thanks

  • Larisa Batchelor

    I have used it but didn’t work because my washer does not do a 16 min rinse. Was useless for me.

  • dadoes

    I've never run across a washer that has a 16 mins of agitation in any one rinse ... although, of course, I haven't experienced every model in existence.

    Whirlpool/Kenmore toploaders way back in the day typically had 2-mins of rinse agitation. Our 1962 model was 1 min 15 seconds. Vintage Maytag, GE, Norge, Westinghouse and other brands were a couple/few mins longer. I'd consider 6 to 8 mins to be long. Some HE toploaders and frontloaders nowadays may be in that range but seems highly unlikely any are 16 mins.

  • Larisa Batchelor

    My new he machine the rinse that dispenses fabric softener (where the Lysol is supposed to go) the whole rinse (includes filling, agitating and draining) is 8 min.

    Basically Lysol said the only way it would be effective is if you had a old school washer and was able to pause they cycle for the desired time. Otherwise it’s a waste. Using it with detergent kills the enzymes so that’s not a good option either.

    Its too expensive to waste like that for myself. Plenty of other options to get clean clothes without having to time things in the rinse. I also don’t like how the product is left on the clothing. I don’t use vinegar in my washer at all.

  • ci_lantro

    The Lysol product's active ingredients are quaternary disinfectants. You could buy a gallon jug of quats at Menard's, etc., to treat the laundry--in a top loader. I would soak for the requisite time, spin out and then run the laundry in a regular cycle with detergent.

    Since the objective is to kill odors & bacteria & virus, just kill them at the get-go, then launder to avoid having residual product left on your clothing.

    I'm going to guess that buying a gallon jug of quaternary disinfectant is going to be a lot cheaper in the long run. I have a couple of gallons of it around that I've found at garage sales. Useful stuff to have around for exterior use if you live where you have lots of rain/ humidity.

  • Donna S

    well I had the same problem with all my moms washcloths! no matter what I did - all of the above - they stink! so I thru them out! costco has great towels for great prices so just got new..whatever it was it seemed to be in the fabric for good.

  • stillpitpat

    I am running the towels thru a bunch of hot cycles right now. I will let everyone know what happens.

  • doreycrouse

    stillpitpat, let us know if the results. A wash in true HOT like on the Whites or Towel cycle on your machine should be great. Maybe some Ammonia too.

  • stillpitpat

    So far so good! I tried the easiest possible route and just ran 5 or 6 hot washes without detergent. I didn't measure the temp or add boiling water. Then I did a hot wash with a small amount of detergent and a second rinse. I showered and washed my overly long hair, which is a bit of a process, and it always gets the towel good and damp. No smell! We'll see how it goes tomorrow and what my husband thinks of his towel when he gets back into town.

  • stillpitpat

    Took another shower and the towel still smells great! This is the real test. In the past, they would smell fine coming out of the dryer, even if I buried my face in them and inhaled. They we would use them and they would stink. I'm going to call this one a win!

    Thanks so much to everyone who helped. I have learned a lot about laundry and have already started washing most of my "cold wash" clothes on warm. Towels and sheets will go on hot from now on.


    Glad to hear it. If you have extra hot on your washer, you can use that for extra clean towels and sheets.

    stillpitpat thanked SEA SEA
  • Jerrod

    One other thing. I would wash your towels by themselves and not with dish towels. I think dish towels and cloths that have been in the kitchen around food and items that are candidates for the garbage just introduce another avenue of entrance for bacteria into the picture that is not needed.

  • mxk3

    Glad to hear you fixed the problem! I've learned a lot from this board too -- especially about washing in hot water.

  • stillpitpat

    Oh god no, I only wash kitchen textiles by themselves. I am too much of a germaphobe to combine them with bath towels.

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