How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Clothes

By: Natalie Kilgore & Austin Henderson  | 
An unshaven man grimaces as he looks into a basket of dirty laundry.
In some cases, you can use a washing machine to get rid of mildew, but if that doesn't work, you'll have to use a bit of elbow grease. rbkomar / Getty Images

Mildew is a nuisance — it's smelly, offensive and a hazard to our health. It's produced by mold, fungi that grow in damp places, including dresser drawers, garment bags and the space behind your closet doors.

But have you figured out how to get mildew smell out of clothes once it's embedded in the fibers? While it can be a tricky task, this fungi (and its lingering, musty odor) can be defeated.


What Is Mildew?

Mildew is a type of fungus primarily known for its presence on various surfaces, including damp clothing and textiles. It is often characterized by its white or grayish patches and creates a distinct musty smell, particularly prevalent in closed, humid environments or where wet clothes are stored.

This musty odor is a common issue in households, particularly in laundry contexts where clothes may not have been dried properly. The presence of mildew on natural fibers, can also contribute to the degradation of the fabric. The musty smells associated with mildew are often a challenge in laundry care, as they can linger even after a standard wash cycle.


In addition to the unpleasant odor, mildew can also cause various health concerns, especially in sensitive individuals, due to the spores it releases.

How to Get Mildew Out of Clothes

Here are four ways to get your clothes smelling fresh after they've fallen prey to mildew.

1. Table Salt and Lemon

Perhaps the easiest way to remove mildew stains is to use what's available in your own kitchen pantry — namely table salt and a lemon.


  1. Combine lemon juice and salt to make a thick paste.
  2. Rub the paste into mildewed-infested areas on clothing.
  3. Quickly dry the affected garments in direct sunlight.
  4. If the stain is still there, do it all again. Repeat the process until the mildew is gone.

2. Water and Vinegar

Water and vinegar is another simple way to rid clothing of mildew. Use equal parts white vinegar and water, and soak the solution on soiled areas to remove mild stains. For tougher stains, try full-strength vinegar instead.

3. Borax

Comprised of boron, sodium, oxygen and water, borax is an all-natural mineral that's sometimes used to fight mildew.

  1. Mix 8.5 cups (2 liters) of water with 2 cups (473 mL) of borax.
  2. Rub the solution into mildewed areas on clothing.
  3. Saturate the garments in the solution until the stains are gone. This process that may take several hours.
  4. Once the stains are removed, thoroughly rinse the garments and dry immediately.

4. Bleach

Bleach can also remove mildew stains, but be mindful to use it with caution; if handled carelessly, bleach's harsh chemicals can ruin clothing.

For washable fabrics, first rub a small amount of powdered detergent on mildew stains. If tags allow, wash clothing in hot water and add 1/2 cup (118 mL) of chlorine bleach.

When clothing labels don't permit the use of bleach and hot water, soak garments in a 1/4 cup (59 mL) of oxygen bleach — labeled perborate or all-fabric — in 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of warm water. The mildew stains should be gone after half an hour or so.


Can Mildewed Clothes Make You Sick?

Prolonged exposure to mildew can cause a lot more than a runny nose.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Prolonged exposure to mold and mildew can have serious consequences for your health and well-being. Many suffer immediately after being exposed to spores, especially if they rest on clothing in close proximity to the mouth and nose.

While it's impossible to rid the environment — indoors and out — of mold and mildew, it's important to regularly inspect clothing for stains and remove them when possible. Touching or inhaling mold and mildew can cause a wide range of health problems in both allergic and nonallergic people — regardless if the spores are dead or alive.


Ailments include throat irritation and nasal issues like congestion, sneezing and bloody noses. Eyes may water and turn red, and skin can break out in hives or rashes.

Who Is at the Greatest Risk?

People at high risk for mildew-related health ailments include infants, children, pregnant women, immune-compromised patients, the elderly and those with existing respiratory conditions.

Anyone with a history of respiratory problems should steer clear of damp areas — which are breeding grounds for mold and mildew — especially those with chronic lung illnesses like asthma, sleep apnea and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Health problems due to mold and mildew likely occur when people inhale large quantities of spores. In a 2004 study by the Institute of Medicine, a possible link was found between mold exposure and upper respiration problems.

When exposed to mold spores, those with asthma appeared to suffer from exacerbated symptoms, and even healthy participants exposed to mold and mildew-infested areas experienced coughing and wheezing. The Institute of Medicine also discovered limited findings that link mold exposure to respiratory illness in children who are otherwise healthy.


Additional Tips for Preventing and Removing Mildew

There's no question that mildew is extremely stubborn, but there are ways to rid your clothing of this pesky fungus and prevent it from coming back.

  • Extreme heat is often used as a way to rid garments of mildew, but drying clothes in direct sunlight or in high heat can cause damage to fibers and lead to fading over time. Always pay attention to labels and follow instructions carefully to ensure the longevity of your clothes.
  • Mildew thrives in damp, wet places like basements, attics and closed closets, so strive to keep clothing as clean and dry as possible at all times. Clothing with grease or soiled spots encourages mildew growth, so don't leave dirty clothes on the floor or in the washing machine.
  • Never hang damp or dirty clothes in a wardrobe or closet before thoroughly washing and drying them first.
  • When used in enclosed areas, paradichlorobenzene crystals (used most commonly in moth balls) are known to prevent mildew from growing where clothing is stored, like garment bags or sealed trunks. Therefore, add a few moth balls to these areas as a preventative measure against mold.
  • Since mildew can be harmful to your health, when in doubt, throw it out. While no one wants to part with a favorite blouse or lucky pair of athletic shorts, consider your well-being and the serious implications of keeping a piece of mildew-infested clothing.

One of the biggest ways to prevent mildew is eliminating excess moisture from your home. How well is your home ventilated? Water vapor is constantly released into the air through daily tasks like cooking and bathing, but with good ventilation, the majority of moisture should evaporate.


To help air out your home, open windows regularly on warm, dry days, and use fans to circulate the air inside. Open closet and wardrobe doors, and invest in a dehumidifier for rooms that need help with air circulation.

Mildew's Preferred Fibers

Mildew grows on cellulose-based materials like cotton, linen, silk, leather and wool. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are usually resistant to mildew.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Mildew Smell FAQs

Is mildew smell harmful?
Potential health risks do exist with mildew. According to FEMA, these health risks include respiratory problems such as sinus and nasal congestion, wheezing, throat irritation, and headaches. Prolonged exposure to mildew can lead to worse symptoms.
What does mildew smell like?
Mildew has a damp, pungent, and musty smell, often resembling the smell of rotting wood or dirty socks. These uncomfortable smells originate from microbes that release them as they grow and propagate.
How do I get rid of mildew?
Mix one part bleach to three parts water. Next, dampen a sponge with the solution and apply it to areas infected with mildew. Make sure to always wear protective gear such as face masks and gloves when handling toxic bacteria.
Does vinegar kill mildew?
Vinegar is safe for humans and toxic to mildew. You can dampen a sponge with full-strength vinegar and apply it to mildew to kill it. Let the solution sit there for a few hours and then scrub it again with the sponge.
Can mildew kill you?
Exposure to mildew is rarely deadly to healthy people. However, mildew is extremely lethal to people who have a compromised immune system and preexisting health conditions.
Why do clothes smell musty even after washing?
Musty-smelling clothes can be a result of mildew growth, which is common when clothes are left damp for too long. This can happen if they are not dried properly after washing, left in a washing machine or stored in humid conditions. Mildew produces a distinct smell, which persists even after a standard wash cycle.
Can fabric softener prevent mildew smell in clothes?
While fabric softener can make clothes smell fresh, it does not have properties to specifically prevent or remove mildew smell. Keeping clothes completely dry and allowing air to circulate around them is more effective in preventing mildew growth and its associated odors.
Can a change in laundry detergent help get the mildew smell out of clothes?
Using a laundry detergent that is effective against mildew can help. Some detergents are formulated to combat odors and might include ingredients that help neutralize mildew smells. Additionally, adding baking soda or vinegar to your wash can also help eliminate these odors.
How can I prevent musty smells in clothes in a humid environment?
In humid environments, preventing musty smells involves reducing moisture levels. Use dehumidifiers, ensure good air circulation and dry clothes thoroughly before storing. Avoid leaving damp clothes in laundry baskets or washing machines for extended periods.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • 20 Mule Team Borax. "Product Info." (April 18, 2012)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Facts about Mold and Dampness." July 13, 2009. (Apr. 17, 2012)
  • Cornell University. "Paradichlorobenzene (PDB) Chemical Profile 1/85." (April 26, 2012)
  • Eubank, Wanda. "How to Prevent and Remove Mildew — Home Methods." University of Missouri Extension. April 1998. (April 16, 2012)
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Dealing With Mold and Mildew in your Flood Damaged Home." (April 16, 2012)
  • Reader's Digest. "Mildew Cleaning Solutions." 2012. (April 16, 2012)
  • Zyrtec. "Indoor Allergies." (April 16, 2012)|mkwid|s8jACqzd2|pcrid|3733435683