Skip to Content

Why do my clothes smell musty even after washing?

Quick Answers

Even after washing, clothes can still retain a musty, mildewy odor for various reasons:

  • Using too much detergent can cause buildup in fabrics that leads to musty smells.
  • Not using enough detergent means dirt, bacteria and odors aren’t properly removed.
  • Leaving wet clothes to sit for too long before drying can allow mold and mildew to grow.
  • Washing in water that’s too cold prevents killing of odor-causing bacteria.
  • Dryer sheets and fabric softeners can leave a chemical residue that smells musty over time.

What Causes Musty Smells in Clothes After Washing?

There are several potential causes of persistent musty or mildewy smells in clothes after washing:

Excess Detergent Buildup

Using too much detergent in your wash can lead to detergent residue being left behind in your clothes. This buildup traps dirt and bacteria next to the fabric, providing food for odor-causing microbes. The result is a lingering musty or sour smell.

Insufficient Detergent

On the other hand, not using enough detergent means you aren’t properly removing dirt, body oils and microbes that cause odors from your clothes. This allows smells to persist even after washing. A sign of insufficient detergent is clothes coming out of the wash still looking dirty or stained.

Leaving Wet Clothes Sitting

If you wash clothes but don’t transfer them to the dryer soon after, wet clothes sitting for prolonged periods can start to smell. Damp clothes allow mold and mildew to grow, releasing that telltale musty smell. This is especially common if clothes are left crumpled up when wet.

Washing in Cold Water

Washing clothes in cold water often doesn’t get rid of odors properly. Warm or hot water helps kill bacteria responsible for body odors. But cold water washing fails to wash away bacteria and odor molecules stuck in fabrics.

Dryer Sheets and Fabric Softener Residue

Dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners are meant to leave a light scent on laundry. But over time, some ingredients in dryer sheets and fabric softeners can leave behind a chemical film. This film traps odors, causing a musty smell. This is especially true if you overuse these products.

How to Get Rid of Musty Smells

Here are some tips to help get rid of persistent mildew or musty odors in clothes after washing:

Wash Clothes in Warm or Hot Water

Wash clothes in warm or hot water (around 105°F to 140°F) to help kill odor-causing bacteria. Avoid washing clothes solely in cold water. However, some athletic and performance fabrics may need colder washes.

Use the Appropriate Amount of Detergent

Use enough detergent to lift dirt and odors, but not so much that residue gets left behind. Start with the recommended amount on the detergent bottle based on your load size. You can adjust up or down from there.

Remove Wet Clothes Promptly

Don’t leave wet clothes balled up in the washer or laundry basket. The moisture promotes mold growth. Transfer clothes to the dryer as soon as the wash finishes. If line-drying clothes, hang them up with space between items.

Dry Thoroughly

Clothes that don’t dry fully can retain musty smells. Make sure clothes are dried completely by running an extra drying cycle if needed. Check for any damp spots.

Sun-Dry the Clothes

For line-dried clothes, the sun’s UV rays help kill mold and bacteria that cause odors. Sun drying clothes thoroughly can help remove musty smells.

Clean the Washing Machine

A buildup of dirt, bacteria and soap scum in the washing machine can lead to musty-smelling laundry. Clean the washing machine regularly to avoid this, using bleach or a cleaning cycle.

Soak Clothes Before Washing

For particularly musty-smelling laundry, try soaking the clothes for 30 minutes in warm water with a cup of white vinegar or baking soda before washing. This helps break down odors.

Add Baking Soda to the Wash Cycle

Baking soda helps absorb and neutralize odors in laundry. Add 1/2 cup baking soda along with the detergent into the main wash cycle to tackle musty smells.

Use an Odor-Fighting Detergent

Look for laundry detergents containing odor-fighting enzymes or odor neutralizers to better eliminate musty smells from fabric. Or use an oxygen-based laundry booster on top of your regular detergent.

Air Out the Clothes

If clothes have a slight musty smell after washing, hang them outside or open the closet doors to air them out. This allows any lingering odors to dissipate.

When to Discard Musty-Smelling Clothes

In some cases, clothes may have a buildup of mold, mildew and bacteria that permanently causes a musty smell resistant to washing. Signs that smelly clothes are beyond saving include:

  • Visible mold growing on the fabric
  • Pervasive musty smell remains after multiple washes
  • Clothes have been left sitting wet for days or weeks
  • Musty smell has persisted for months

At this point, it’s best to discard the clothing item and replace it. Leaving musty clothes in your closet can allow odor to transfer to other clothes as well.


Musty odors can linger in clothes due to excess detergent, insufficient cleaning, leaving laundry wet, cold washing and fabric softener buildup. Washing in warm water, adding baking soda, removing clothes promptly from the washer and line-drying in the sun can help eliminate smells. Severely musty clothes may need to be discarded. Checking for proper detergent use, washing machine cleaning and drying can help prevent musty odors from returning.