Already Prettypoll: Clothing Smell Remedies

I’ve had a couple of folks e-mail me with requests for solutions to smelly clothes, used/vintage and otherwise. And I’ve gotta tell ya: Very few have worked for me. My understanding is that each person creates a specialized cocktail of hormones, sweat, and deodorant/antiperspirant that interacts with various fibers in different ways, so a stink-remedy that works for one person might fail another. I’ve had luck using cheap vodka and sunshine on mild BO and mothball smells, and white vinegar/baking soda takes most of the stank out of my workout tops, but just about everything else has proven weak or ineffective on my own laundry. So I’m hoping you all can suggest a few!

What do you use to keep your clothes from smelling, or to rid smelly clothes of their odors? Share recipes or links if you’ve got ’em!

  • Sue

    For rank workout clothes, I’ve used both vinegar and the enzyme stuff used for pet odors. You can buy the enzyme stuff in liquid form (Nature’s Miracle), but you can also get bulk dry concentrate (OdorMute) to make a stronger solution, and it’s cheaper that way.

  • LK

    One simple thing is to remember to let them air out and not just shove them in a laundry basket. If its really bad hang them outside. This seems to take care of a chunk of it. MY issue is getting rid of stains from sweat and deodorant. Might smell great but then I can’t wear the shirt anymore due to the deodorant stains.

    • Shaye

      I have had pretty good luck with Oxyclean for sweat and deo stains!

  • Sue

    On polyester/synthetic garments methylated spirits will remove BO smells.
    Simply soak the underarm area with methylated spirits and allow to sit for a while before washing.

    • MiZ B

      Wash leather? Umm, noo…

      I’ve had good luck deodorizing non-washables with silica crystals. I fill a few old socks with crystal kitty litter (aka Fresh Step Crystals), tie them off, and stuff them in a plastic bag with the stinky item. Leave for a week or so, repeat with fresh litter a few times if necessary.

      Paper absorbs odors, too. Stuff the garment with paper and let it air out a few weeks. Don’t use newsprint; it stains and has its own smell. I’ve successfully used white tissue paper from the gift wrap dept and brown packing paper from the office supply store.

      • Erika A

        I stuff my boots with paper between wearings (I use kraft paper that comes on a roll – like for art), and it keeps the boots upright and soaks up foot smell really well!

  • CW

    I fell in love with a navy blue leather pencil skirt on ebay. When it arrived, it fit like a glove- and smelled like an ash tray. It would cost nearly as much as I paid for it to ship it back, and considerably more than I paid for it to have it professionally cleaned (and the leather cleaner made no guarantee the smell would come out). I’ve tried hanging it outdoors for a week at a time, Sealing it in an airtight bag full of baking soda, rubbing in citrus essential oils, and Febreeze. No luck so far. Anyone have any ideas?

    • T.

      I had leather boots that developed a weird smell (not from my feet; I think they absorbed something from the atmosphere). After much trial and error, the thing that finally worked for me was sealing them up in a plastic garbage bag for two weeks with a charcoal room deodorizer. The smell wasn’t 100% gone when I took them out of the bag, but a few days later after airing out in the open, they were odor free.

    • cecelia

      Wash it with mild detergent on cold in your washer (add a ton of fabric softener or hair conditioner). Lay FLAT to dry and reshape as it is drying so it doesn’t shrink or wrinkle.

      I’ve done several coats this way and they turned out perfect.

      • AB

        What is the purpose of the conditioner or fabric softener other than to add a smell?

        • cecelia

          Same thing lotion does for your skin after a shower- softens and moisturizes!

      • Heather

        Yup, I’ve washed leather. I wouldn’t do it on a new piece, or boots because you’d lose the shape, but for a thrift store find? Absolutely- I’ve had very good luck with it.

    • Dee

      If all else fails why not try just washing it in cold water with some really mild soap? Then lay it flat to dry, stretching it to shape. If it ruins it,so be it, you don’t want to wear it the way it is now anyway so it might work and you will be happy. Of course if you have any other less drastic choices try them first.

  • Sarah

    Hi Sally – great topic!

    For washable clothes, I wet the smelly area with tepid water and rub with a bar of laundry soap* to get a bit of a lather, then gently rub the fabric between my hands (wearing rubber gloves). Rinse with more tepid water, repeat if needed, then hand or machine wash as normal.

    This works really well for collars, and okay for underarms.

    I have had zero success with getting smells out of the underarms of dryclean only garments. I do hope someone has some advice on this as I have some vintage dresses that need help.

    * In Australia we have a brand of laundry soap called Sard Wonder Soap. However, I think any plain bar of soap (unscented, no fancy additives) would do.

    • Dulcinea

      I had a dry-clean only wool suit I got at a thrift store. It had terrible underarm odor. I decided to experiment: on the inside of one arm, I applied a paste of baking soda and water and vigorously rubbed it into the fibers with a scrub brush. I applied vinegar to the others. I let it dry over night. The next day I brushed the baking soda away with my hands. The baking soda completely removed the smell, while the vinegar actually somehow added its own scent. So I recommend the baking-soda-paste approach for sure!

      • Dulcinea

        PS: Neither approach damaged or discolored the fabric at all; it was a dark gray heathered wool.

  • Bree Bronson

    I’ve had a couple of vintage pieces that had had a terrible “attick odor” from being stored somewhere cold and humid. A couple of washes and tumble dries have often done wonders but I also managed to rescue an old leather jacket just by hanging and abandoning it outside (under a shelter in case of rain) in fresh air. I just let it hang there for a few weeks and voila, the smell was gone.

  • Molly

    Since I switched from anti-perspirant to that salt crystal type deodorant, that seemingly-unremovable pit smell has completely disappeared. Over time my coat and other outerwear will develop lingering BO, but a regular wash takes it right out. So for those who aren’t completely wedded to their antiperspirant and struggle with smelly clothes, there might be a better way.

  • Ashe @ Ash in Fashion

    I have super smelly armpits which, coupled with deodorant, leaves the pits of my shirts yellow and stanky. One thing that I’ve found helps (thanks pinterest!) is a combo of hydrogen peroxide and Dawn dishsoap. I typically use 1-2 tbsps of Dawn and double that of peroxide. Mix, and then use a scrubby brush for the spots. I let it then sit for a couple of hours, and run through the washer. (I’ve occasionally soaked it, mixing with water. Doesn’t work as well, though).

  • La Rêveuse

    Stop using antiperspirant. It builds up on the clothes and traps funk. I switched to Tom’s unscented years ago and it’s fine. My extra-smelly hubby also switched. He has to apply twice a day (and shave the pits so the stink catchers are removed) but it works.

    Secondly, I started making my own laundry detergent from Fels Naptha soap, Borax and Washing soda. It’s much, much cheaper and my clothes are much cleaner. It gets out things that I thought were permanent, and funk is gone. Really! Only takes a few minutes, but so worth it. I use this recipe: Her testimonies were enough to convince me, and once I tried it, I have never had any desire to go back. It works much better than even the best commercial brands.

    And here’s one more trick that I haven’t used for clothes, but it works everywhere else (including on stinky cheese in the fridge). Charcoal briquettes. If your closet is musty, or a drawer, put a few in a coffee mug and it will absorb the musty funk. I even put them in the diaper pail (under the bag) and it makes a huge difference. Helps keep it dry, too.

    Hope those help!

    • Sarah

      Just wanted to say – I tried Tom’s and developed a horrible burning, itching rash, and I’ve heard the same from several friends. Once I stopped using it, it cleared right up. But I recommend anyone with sensitive skin try a test patch of it first. It was quite possible the worst rash I have ever had (worse than poison oak, even!)

    • CW

      I completely agree about antiperspirant- my clothes are in much better condition now that I’ve quit using it. I make my own deodorant now out of whipped coconut oil, baking soda, cornstarch, and grapefuit essential oil (modified a recipe found on Babble & Bloom via Pinterest).

  • AB

    Vodka! It’s a theater trick I learned. Spritz the clothes with vodka and let it evaporate.

    I have also had some luck using ammonia on work clothes, just add some to the wash.

  • sarah

    ammonia or baking soda in the laundry works great for funky workout clothes. Baking soda has worked better than most other options for both brightening and deodorizing my sports bras.

    I have had some limited success using an activated charcoal deodorizer for getting the stink out of my down jacket. I hang it and my jacket on a hanger and then zip them both in a plastic garment bag and leave them for a day or more.
    link for the deodorizer:

  • AEG

    Borax. Have been adding it to laundry for a few weeks now, soaking workout clothes in Borax + hot water for a little extra oomph. Seems to do the trick.

    • anotherjen

      We also use borax, and it really does seem to help. We have a lot of stinky hockey gear in our house so we wash that in borax and a detergent with eucalyptus oil in it. We probably all smell a bit like a cough drop when we skate on to the ice, but that’s a pleasant change from rank-smelling-hockey gear!

  • Mrs.M in MI

    When I bring home secondhand clothes, I have a little process to rid them of any odors and pests. First, I stick everything in Ziploc bags and keep them in the freezer for 24 hours. Then I hang them in the basement close to a fan to aerate them while they come back to room temperature. (If it’s nice out, I’ll hang them outside.) Then everything gets washed or Dryeled.

    As for gym clothes, I take them off as soon as possible and hang them up to air until they get washed.

  • Becky

    I find a baking-soda soak works well.

  • LinB

    The commercial product Odoban is very effective against most smells. Smelly vintage polyester, though, and cigarette-smoked leather, are probably excellent candidates for the dump.

  • Franca

    I have no tips. I have tried soaking in vinegary water for a day, which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t (no pattern to it as far as I can tell), so I am reading with interest!

  • Heidi L.

    If you’ve gotten most of the stink gone,but a teeny bit lingers,you could consider storing the garment in a garment bag, or other bag,with some whole cloves(if you like this smell)to help diminish the stink.Their smell is fairly strong and lasts for years.It might make you want pumpkin pie though :)


  • Mia

    Ooh, this is a good topic right now–I went to a clothing swap and brought back an adorable green sweater dress, but it is permeated with some extremely rank BO. Most of my clothes get stinky but not STANKY, if you know what I mean, so my usual methods have failed. I’ll be combing these comments for good ideas!

    (Also a good reminder for everyone to LAUNDER YOUR GARMENTS before bringing them to a swap. For realsies.)

  • Sufiya

    Polyester holds on to body oils (and anything else greasy), so what is needed is something to break them down; I saturate the arm pits and any greasy spotting on anything polyester with a good brand of stain pre-treatment or Dawn dishsoap (undiluted or with only a very little water to improve penetration) and let them sit for at least 15 minutes prior to washing/ overnight if possible. I also boost my laundry cleaning power with So Clean! washing soda (really helps breaks down grease and protein-based stains/body soil so, DON’T use on wool or silk!) and borax.

    I haven’t yet found a way to instantly remove “Value Village smell” though- you know, that sickly perfumey stench that pervades anything bought at a Value Village; I assume it’s some sort of deodorizer/sanitizing agent they spray all over everything! Eurgh. For the smokey smell on the leather skirt, you might want to rub the outside down with fine cornmeal to help scrape off and absorb the smoke residue and then hang it outside for several weeks (out of the sun and rain).

    I am thinking that the lady with the stanky sweater dress might want to try Prell shampoo on her sweater dress, if it’s made out of wool fiber of any kind; wool is HAIR, after all! I also know Prell is notorious for stripping out hair dye, so why not body stank, eh? Try rubbing a good bit of it into those pits first and let it sit, before actually washing it Make sure you use cool water and a minimum of agitation though, and I would also recommend a vinegar rinse to keep ‘felting’ down to a minimum

  • Katie

    VINEGAR!!! Most of my workout tops started holding BO (stinky before sweating – ICK! – even the ones that were supposed to be anti-odor), but I’ve had zero issues since I started putting 1/2 cup of white vinegar in each load of laundry.

  • Sarah

    I am a huge fan of off-brand Oxi-Clean for getting smells out of clothes. My roommate is a smoker and the smell on my clothes is so awful. I buy off-brand Oxi-Clean at Aldi for a few bucks and add it into the washing machine. I have never had it not get the cigarette odors out, and it works great on stains too!

    Also – I used to smoke and when I quit, I found that most of my heavier winter items (thick sweaters, winter coats) retained the smell. I tried getting the smell out at home by hand washing and also took them to a dry cleaner. No bueno. Finally I stored them in one of those seal-tight, zipped bags with an entire box of off-brand dryer sheets. Six months later, I took them out and no smoke odor! Kind of a pain in the butt but it worked with winter clothes because I quit in the spring.

  • Viktoria

    We used to have smell problems, but then we read in the news that bacteria doesn´t get cleaned away in washing temperatures as low as 40 Celsius, and most or our clothes says to wash at 30 or 40. We resolutely upped the temperature to the recommended 50 or 60 and we haven´t had a smell problem since. Also, a bit off topic, we quit using softener on anything with a stretch. Softenener kills elastane and such, apparently. And after two years, yes, we can say the clothes lasts a lot longer. Even though we wash them hotter.

  • sarah

    sun and fresh air are the ultimate cures, I think; (harder to do in Seattle, when it’s always raining).

    For sweaters and other items that can’t go through the wash (but can stand up to a quick hand-wash – silk chiffon CAN’T!!), I find that a wash or two with ecover will go a LONG way toward removing thrift store/febreeze stank (it seems like every piece of clothing I buy on ebay comes reeking of Febreeze, gross). Usually I let the piece air-dry near a heat vent in my house, then repeat the wash a few days later.

    • Heather

      Really, I wash silk all the time! Even chiffon, it is one of the strongest natural fibers out there!

  • Megan Mae

    Vinegar and sunlight are the only things that really get the smells out in my experience.. and that’s only for the ‘thrift store smell’ – anything truly smelly I won’t buy.

    I don’t really get stinky unless it’s high summer and even then a good run through the washer takes care of it. I attribute it to rarely wearing deodorants which often make me smell worse in the long run and stain clothes.

  • mariah

    The best stuff **ever** is The Original Bad Air Sponge (which is in a canister, it’s not a sponge). I had some sweaters that couldn’t shake that thrift store funny smell. I put them in a plastic bag with an open canister of this magic stuff and a week later – BAM – all the smell was gone. These things are great to keep in your closet, and especially where you keep your shoes. Amazon has them:

  • Kris

    I get terrible stress-sweat odor (kinda embarrassing to admit, but it happens!) that won’t come out unless I use an enzyme cleaner. If it’s a stubborn one, I spray it with the spray stuff and hang to dry. If it’s not so stubborn, I will use a laundry booster (Nature’s Miracle has one) in the wash. The bonus is it keeps my allergies in check because it helps remove the cat allergens. I use the crystal deodorant, as I found that using antiperspirant when stressed just stained, and was even harder to get out of the fabric.

    I’ll have to try the hydrogen peroxide and dawn trick. I’ve used oxyclean, and while it’s good for stains, I don’t find it works so well on my t-shirts.

  • WA_side

    I also use a crystal (“natural”) deodorant, so I’m only removing perspiration from my clothes, not residue. In saying that though, I have used the same method to clean deodorant stains and perspiration from clothes passed on to my by my rellies on occasion.

    I use homemade laundry powder (laundry soap, borax, washing soda) and keep a spray bottle of (approx) half water, half vinegar with 1/2 teaspoon laundry powder and 1/2 teaspoon bicarb. Prepare for plenty of foaming when mixing (I haven’t figured a tidy way to do this yet)! I spray this on my clothes armpits, necklines and on any other new stains and bung it in the cold water wash.

    The soap is a newish addition, previously it was only water and vinegar, which I felt was fine on armpits, but not as effective on necklines and stains. We use approx 40 mL vinegar in the rinse cycle (no shop bought conditioners), so I find most moderately smelly 2nd-hand clothes clean up ok with a wash.

    As most of my clothes come from 2nd-hand shops, I machine wash everything, including wool, dryclean only and handwash only items, though of course I use wool or gentle wash cycles. Having awesome clothes is exciting, but I don’t have time/money to give them fussy care, so if they are meant to be part of my wardrobe, they need to survive the machine. They may occasionally get hand-washed too, but I can’t rely on that, or they would be worn once and waiting forever to be washed.

    Other than that, I agree with those who suggested hanging undercover and airing, and persevering on the odd garment that requires a few washes before giving up its scent. There are lots of great ideas to try in the comments above for the next time I get something a little whiffy.

  • Katharina

    Hi all! Thanks for the article and for all those great advices! I was always wondering, if I am alone with the fact that some shirts just can’t be worn again due to the stains that never disappeared after washing.
    Will read through the comments again now, writing my shopping list.