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What is the longest you can leave clothes in the washer?

There are a few factors that determine how long clothes can safely stay in the washer before they start to develop an odor or mildew.

How Long Before Clothes Start to Smell in the Washer?

Most experts recommend moving clothes from the washer to the dryer within an hour or two after the wash cycle finishes. This helps prevent odors from developing as wet clothes sit bundled together in the warm, moist environment of the washer drum. Here are some general guidelines:

  • 1-2 hours: Best practice for preventing odors
  • 6-8 hours: Clothes may start to smell from bacteria growth
  • 12-24 hours: Bacteria and mildew start growing rapidly leading to strong odors
  • 48+ hours: High likelihood of set-in smells and mildew formation

So the ideal time to remove clothes from the washer is within 1-2 hours. After 6-8 hours, you risk clothes starting to take on a foul odor. And leaving them for longer than 24 hours almost guarantees an unpleasant smell and possible mildew.

Factors That Speed Up Odor Formation

Several factors can accelerate the rate at which wet clothes begin to smell bad when left in the washer:

  • Warm temperatures – heat speeds up bacteria growth.
  • Lots of dirt/sweat – provides food for bacteria.
  • Delicates/synthetic fabrics – more prone to holding odors.
  • Full loads – less air circulation.
  • No laundry detergent – contains antimicrobials to inhibit bacteria.

Warm, sweaty workout clothes left in a full wash load for 6-8 hours may already start to smell. Meanwhile, lightly soiled clothes in a half load may last 12-24 hours before an odor develops in cooler temperatures.

Does Water Temperature Matter?

Wash water temperature doesn’t make a huge difference. While bacteria grow quickest at body temperature, they can thrive even in cold water over time. The warm, wet environment of the washer is ideal either way.

One exception is washing in very hot 130°F (54°C) or higher temperatures. This can kill bacteria and significantly delay odor formation. However, such hot washes are not recommended for most clothes.

Water Temperature and Odor Formation

Water Temperature Bacteria Growth Rate
Cold wash (~60°F / 15°C) Slower growth, but still favorable
Warm wash (~80-100°F / 26-38°C) Ideal temperature for quick bacteria proliferation
Hot wash (130°F+ / 54°C+) Kills bacteria and delays odor

Does Laundry Detergent Make a Difference?

Yes, using laundry detergent helps delay odors in wet clothes left in the washer. Most laundry detergents contain ingredients like enzymes, alcohols, and antimicrobial agents that inhibit bacteria growth for a period of time.

Detergents help, but aren’t a cure-all. Bacteria can eventually start growing even on clothes washed with detergent if left too long. So it’s still best to remove clothes promptly after washing.

Tips to Prevent Odors and Mildew

To keep clothes fresh smelling and mildew-free, follow these tips:

  • Remove clothes from washer within 1-2 hours after the cycle finishes.
  • Use laundry detergent and avoid overloading the washer.
  • Leave the washer door open between cycles to allow drying.
  • Inspect rubber gasket for mildew and run cleaning cycles.
  • Hang or fold clothes promptly after drying.
  • Disinfect washer periodically with bleach or other cleaners.

Removing Odors From Clothes Left Too Long

If you’ve left wet clothes in the washer too long and they’ve started to smell, here are some ways to help get rid of odors:

  • Rewash with detergent, bleach, and baking soda.
  • Add white vinegar to the rinse cycle.
  • Air dry in sunlight.
  • Use activated charcoal deodorizers.
  • Treat with a enzymatic odor remover.

Severe odors or mildew may require repeat washing with extra treatments. Unfortunately smells can sometimes set permanently in fabrics if left too long. So it’s best to stick to the 1-2 hour rule for moving clothes from washer to dryer.


Wet clothes left bundled in the warm washer provide ideal conditions for bacteria to multiply quickly. While it’s best to remove washed clothes after 1-2 hours, you may have 6-12 hours before you notice sour odors in cooler temperatures. But after 24 hours, strong odors and possible mildew are almost inevitable. Follow the storage guidelines, use detergent, and promptly transfer clothes to the dryer to prevent foul smells and stains from developing.