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On Forgotten, Funky-Smelling Laundry

On Forgotten, Funky-Smelling Laundry

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

In a break from all the recent (excellent) advice about sleeping and in-laws and grandmas, I was hoping you could help with a domestic issue.

I did a load of laundry last week. And then I forgot about it for a couple days. By the time I pulled it out of the washing machine it was pretty stinky. I did run it through again with a bunch of vinegar and a splash of bleach, and that helped. But it didn’t get the stink out entirely. I’d put it all out on my deck to dry in the sun, but we just had Snowmageddon 2013 and there’s no sun in sight.

So what do I do to it now?

I also have this issue in the winter with hubby’s long-sleeve shirts. He won’t let me put them in the drier because he’s afraid they will shrink. So I hang them on my drying rack, but then they get stinky sometimes because they don’t dry very fast. I need a better way.


Ah, yes! I do believe a little break from the recent spate of heavy family drama questions is in order. Let’s get wild and crazy and talk about LAUNDRY. Do we know how to party up in here or what?

First, you are a woman after my own heart. I…uh…routinely forget to take loads out of the washer and am then confronted with that lovely mildew stench. My procrastination (ugggghhhh I don’t feel like dealing with it right now wanna crush candies) just leads to more work for myself since that stink isn’t always the easiest thing to get rid off, but do I learn? Ever? No. Not even a little bit. I bet there’s a load of wet laundry in my washer RIGHT NOW.

Anyway! You had it half right with the vinegar, but I’ve found that you need to let a smelly load soak in it for awhile. I used to soak mildew-y laundry overnight in cold water and a cup of white vinegar, then add detergent and wash normally the next morning. Worked like a charm. Now I have a (#$@-ing) HE machine with limited soak options, so I can only soak for a max of 180 minutes, and it automatically moves to a wash cycle without letting me add detergent separately. So sometimes I’ll just add detergent with the vinegar and let it do its thang all at once; other times I’ll run it a full second time with the detergent. (The irony that I end up having to inefficiently run my HE machine more times to mimic what I used to be able to do in my old dinosaur top-loader is not lost on me, no.) Repeat as needed until the smell is gone, and don’t put anything in the dryer that still smells stanky when it’s wet.

I have hard water, by the way, and vinegar is excellent at dealing with all the related minerals and softening it a bit. If you have soft water, I’d recommend using baking soda instead.

Moving on to the stinky shirt issue, I have to laugh because OMG, our laundry area is a freaking JUNGLE of clothing that my husband refuses to put in the dryer. Forget just his nice work shirts, he won’t let me tumble dry anything other than like, underwear and socks. Pants, jeans, cheap-o graphic t-shirts from Target — all it must be air dried lest it shrink. And I don’t know if it’s Stockholm Syndrome or just a passive-aggressive need to be as precious about it as him, but I admit I won’t put the majority of my clothes in the dryer either.

(Oooh, can I bitch about my HE machine some more? I SWEAR my clothes are wearing out so much faster since we bought that thing. I think maybe having less water in there doesn’t keep things from tangling up and getting all friction-y? I don’t know, but I’m finding more fabric pinholes and worn seams than I ever used to. Am I alone here? Tell me I’m not alone here, Internet!)

The key to keeping clothes smelling nice (or at least inoffensive — I don’t go for overly-fragranced detergents and rather my clothes smell like nothing than like, lavender meadow breezes) is to NOT overcrowd your drying rack and hang stuff UP to dry whenever possible. We have a big metal beam that runs right over our laundry area — basically the central support beam of our townhouse — and it has a lip that we can hook hangers onto. Everything that won’t get damaged by a hanger gets hung up there, with at least a couple inches of space in between so wet fabric isn’t rubbing against wet fabric and stuff can dry as quickly as possible. I hang jeans and pants up by hooking the hanger into the waistband (so they hang full lengthwise rather than doubled over). If you want to get to anything on the other side of the basement, be prepared to duck. Sorrynotsorry.

(In our old condo we had no such luxurious beam but were equally neurotic, so we just hung clothes up on the tops of door frames. It was way classy. But hey, no shrinkage!)

Our drying rack is a four-tiered monster, by the way, which should illustrate exactly how insane we are about protecting our precious, precious novelty Old Navy t-shirts from possible shrinkage and early wearing out. The drying rack is totally where clothes are more prone to slower drying and thus a less-than-fresh smell, so I try really hard to hang things strategically and give them as much air flow as possible. If your drying area is in a basement/area prone to a lot moisture in the air, a small dehumidifier might help things dry faster.  My mother-in-law has an oscillating fan near her laundry nook that she’ll turn on to speed up the drying process, but I have no idea where we’d put a fan because we dedicated the last patch of free, non-essential walking space in the basement to our GIANT FREAKING DRYING RACK.

But worst-case, you can always toss your air-dried clothing in the dryer for 15 or 30 minutes to freshen them up. You can toss a dryer sheet in there too, if you want. Just pick “fluff” or “touch-up” or whatever-the-hell no-heat/low-heat option your machine offers. I used to hit wet clothes with Febreze but eh, fluffing in the dryer for a bit seems to work just as well without the need to buy another product. Unless we’ve just become immune to our own mildly mildewy smell. I mean, you’d tell me if I smelled like mildew, right Internet? RIGHT?

Oh, my God.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jo

    December 20, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I know it’s on the pricey side, but I love love love my heated drying rack. Clothes are dry in a few hours:

  • Amy

    December 20, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I love and swear by vinegar for most normal cleaning. But, if you’re dealing with body odor funky smells in your clothing (in addition to mildew) ammonia will knock it out in one load. I use about a half cup of ammonia, and half the regular amount of detergent and boom, funk gone. Its the only thing that got that sweaty gym bag odor out of my towels after I went away on business and my husband didn’t wash them for a few weeks….ugggghhh.

  • Lisa

    December 20, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    I moved into a house that had a clothes line nailed to the bottom of the support rafters in the basement laundry area. Best.Thing.Ever.  I’ve made a point to hang a clothes line in the new houses, if laundry areas are down there…

  • Kelly

    December 20, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    My HE FL machine kicks the s*** out of everything I used before. Of course, I was using either really old in-apartment top load that probably wasn’t ever cleaned, or, laundromat. In fact, when I got my new laundry, it cleaned so well it took the ingrained mildew ick smell out of my old towels the first time I washed them. I do not cloth diaper, though, and realize that an old-fashioned top loader may be the best for this application, and since I work in appliance retail will drop that little gem if I see a mom in looking for laundry. I really don’t have any experience with an HE TL washer, so that may be the difference. I am kind of particular about not forgetting wet laundry so my machine won’t stink, and will use the delay timer to get a load done during the work day if I need to. So basically it will start about 4 pm and when I get home from work I can go down and throw the already washed load in the dryer.

  • Kelly

    December 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Also, FYI, there were some early models of HE top load washers (without the agitator in the middle of the drum) that are NOTORIOUS for wearing out clothes faster than normal. I remember reading about it.
    With an HE top load you should make sure to load your clothes in an X pattern. Criss cross and not round and round like you did when you had an agitator.

  • susan

    December 20, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I have an HE machine and I make my own ‘soak’ cycle by setting a timer for 5 minutes when I put a load in, then going back when the timer goes off to turn the machine off. It stays locked and holds the place in the wash cycle. You can do this on “quick wash” and then go back to do a real cycle once the laundry’s soaked. 

  • Jillian Descaro

    December 20, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Dissolve a half cup of borax into hot water, and add after machine has filled up, then proceed with normal cycle.  FYI, since were on the subject of laundry I bought Molly’s suds wool balls, and they beat the crap outta my clothes, and make them oh so soft.  They are also free of chemicals, which is a win too! I freakin love my wool balls lmao

  • Autumn

    December 21, 2013 at 1:46 am

    For the soaking with my HE machine that I haven’t figured out how to do, I have a big rubbermaid container that fits in my utility sink.  It’s awkward, but cheap and less frustrating than the user manual.  For stripping/soaking my cloth diapers, my kid’s outgrown “whale of a tub” is just the right length to prop up under the faucet of the utility sink so I can even use the tub drain to empty it.  Doesn’t work for huge volumes, but for a bunch of inserts, gets the job done

  • Cass

    December 21, 2013 at 3:07 am

    While I’m still trying to figure out vinegar/baking soda stuff, I have found that for drying it’s easiest if I put the clothes in for 15 mins (w/a dryer sheet) and then pull out the stuff I don’t want to shrink. My husband is the same way with his clothes so I usually set a timer on my phone and remind myself the magic # of items. After I hang them up on hangers in our laundry room.

  • Claire

    December 21, 2013 at 4:35 am

    Our tumble drier has died and I’m back to air drying. With a toddler and a baby! Argh! Though my drier tip to get rid of mildew smell – soak a cotton ball (or baby sock!) in your fabric conditioner of choice and throw it in with your load. Comes out smelling fresh. We don’t use anything bio/scented due to my crazy sensitive skin but it still seems to work.

  • Jenn

    December 21, 2013 at 6:08 am

    I hated our HE washer… LG front load. Clothes wore out faster and never seemed as clean. Moved to go back to school and sold the HE to my parents and now I have an ancient top load again. I love it. Clothes are clean again and they seem to last longer. No Amy, you are not alone.

  • Cheryl

    December 21, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    I forget loads in the washer very regularly too – I just rewash with another Purex sensitive skin pod and it gets the job done. Hubby wonders why we go through it so fast though!! And – I hardly dry anything in the drier either – towels, bedding and underwear are about it. Everything else goes in for about 5 minutes and is then hung up to dry. I use the plastic hangers that you can buy from WalMart for dirt cheap – and everything from dress shirts to sweaters to jeans get hung on those. Like Amy – I put the hanger inside the waistband of pants/jeans and just use plastic clothespins to hold them on the hanger. And I find if you shake everything really hard first, then ironing of the dress shirts is kept to a minimum. I have a large laundry area, so can spread the laundry out on several of the coat racks that I also get at WalMart for dirt cheap. I leave a couple of inches between each article. Dry by morning!!! And – just cause I have not used enough words yet – would not buy a front-load HE washer again!!!!!

  • Frances

    December 21, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    My front-loading HE machine is much easier on my clothes than any of my old-school machines were, but I do find I have to use good detergent (Tide Free&Clear is the current fave) and sadly none of the eco-friendly versions seem to cut it.  I use Oxy-Clean on stinky or forgotten loads, works like a charm.  I just put the detergent in the cup, run the machine enough to rinse it it, pull the cup back out again for the oxy-clean, and let it go.   

    I don’t have a laundry room, just a laundry closet, & have discovered that leaving the washer door open an inch or two stops it from getting stinky on its own, but if someone forgets I just run a hot cycle, empty, with Oxyclean.  Done.   The real trick, though…don’t forget.

  • Leah

    December 21, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    I was skeptical of this tip when the cloth diapering message boards lo these many years ago told me it. But stinky forgotten washer loads need 5 or so drops of Grapefruit Seed Extract, rerun a short cycle, and then the stink is gone. It sounds crazy. But I’ve used it for years and have never had it not work

  • Ak

    December 21, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Also check the back of the dryer. The hose that carries the hot air out was slightly loose and was letting a small amount of humid air out in our laundry room. It was causing our hanging clothes to stay damp longer and start to smell.

  • Trish

    December 23, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    If you can find it, I actually prefer Arm & Hammer washing soda (not quite the same as baking soda) to Borax, because it works better IMO. It has to be thoroughly dissolved, however, or it will leave a white residue on dark clothes. Fantastic at stink and stain removal, though.

  • Nora

    December 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    We got a dehumidifier for our lower level (ahem, basement) and a pleasant side effect is that hung clothing dries so much faster and no mildew smell!

  • Susan:)

    December 26, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    Ah so that explains why my shirts get holes. As far as drying, I wear nothing but Old Navy t shirts and they have never shrunk in the dryer. In fact, I’ve never had anything shrink in the dryer. But I do get holes.

  • Jessica

    December 27, 2013 at 8:32 am

    OMG THAT EXPLAINS IT ALL.  Our stuff is clean, but we do get holes.  HE Bosch machine that is great at cleaning everything from cloth diapers to comforters but anything jersey or stretchy is full of holes.  I live in an apartment, no drier.  

  • Lilly

    December 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    For HE machines, I found setting the spin to med or low eliminated the wear on them. Only do maximum spin for towels, sheets etc.

    I second a dehumidifier in the laundry room. my laundry is in a space shared with our basement bathroom (which has a shower) so humidity is an issue. Clothes dry really quickly with it running.

  • Kira

    January 1, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Must be a husband thing…I’m not allowed to dry ANY shirts in case of shrinkage. We found this on clearance at Kroger of all places a few years ago…and we love it. If we need something for the next day, we put it on here, run it overnight, and it’s dry by morning. Boom. 

  • B.A.

    January 3, 2014 at 10:03 am

    So glad to hear this is a husband thing and not just mine…I put most of my stuff in the dryer and have never understood his aversion to it. Will definitely check out that drying rack.

  • sb

    June 2, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Well I’m sitting in mildewy clothes right now at work. Omg ..I feel stinky awful. I will definitely take most of your advices when it comes to line drying. Yup, I too left a load in overnight. Had to rewash entire load. Only used regular detergent and found today that it wasn’t enough. Will try the vinegar route and spread out wet clothes more. I too line dry most of our clothes, especially mine, due to shrinkage. Love the alphamom article. Too funny.

  • Clara

    August 23, 2015 at 11:28 am

    OK I have a different dryer- husband question. My husband seems to think that the dryer is for drying out his stinky workout clothes. So he comes in after a run and throws the shirt in there to dry it (no, he doesn’t wash it – he just wants to get the moisture out of it so it isn’t soaking wet) before he goes back out to do something else. I tried to explain that he cannot do this, that this was repulsive and disgusting and..well, I ran out of adjectives. He’s an engineer and calmly explained to me that this is the function of a dryer. He also told me I was completely irrational. Did I mention that his sense of smell is WAY off so, of course, he can’t smell how badly the dryer now smells or how badly he smells? HELP PLEASE!!

  • Rina khan

    August 25, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Hi. I hate ironing long sleeve shirt. Do you know any trick to iron it faster and it will still be neat.

  • Angela mcswain

    September 14, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    I have always used vinegar for getting odor out of the laundry. But it just was not doing the job for my husbands work clothes or our towels. So I did some research and found this site. I am the happiest women In the world right now. The ammonia work wonders on everything. Towels my husband clothes ( he works out of state so two weeks of dirty laundry in a gym bag…well you can imagine.) Best thing so far my 2 year olds sheets and blankets. We have been going threw the I just wanna be naked stage and which has caused a lot of accidents in the bed. Vinger was not working. I finally started throwing away sheets just because I could not get the smell out. The ammonia and laundry degerent in hot water and it is like nothing ever happen. I am ever so grateful for my discover, as will my husband be. He came home this weekend for work and multiple hotel rooms. After getting out of the shower he informed me I was going to the next hotel with him so the women their could teach me how to wash towels cause our smell so bad!!! Well after wanting to slap him I figured I start trying something else. So greatful form the wonderful smells in my house. Awesome guys!!!