How do you get the smell out of clothes left in the washing machine?

Quick Answers

Here are some quick answers to common questions about getting smells out of clothes left in the washing machine:

What causes the smell in clothes left in the washer?

The main culprit is mildew or mold growing in the damp, confined space of the washer. Bacteria love a warm, moist environment.

How can you prevent smells from developing?

Don’t leave wet clothes sitting for too long before drying. Run a rinse cycle with vinegar or bleach to clean the washer. Leave the door open to air out between loads.

What’s the best way to get the smell out?

First, try rewashing with detergent and baking soda or vinegar. For stronger smells, use laundry detergent with enzymes. Soak in borax or oxy clean. Air dry in the sun.

What Causes Smells in Wet Clothes?

Leaving wet clothes sitting in the washing machine for too long creates a perfect environment for smells and odors to develop. When moisture and warmth are trapped inside the sealed drum of the washer, it encourages the rapid growth of mold, mildew, and bacteria. Here are some of the specific causes of smelly washer clothes:

Mold and Mildew

Mold and mildew spores thrive in the damp, enclosed environment of the washing machine. The moisture allows them to grow quickly, while the warmth accelerates the breakdown of fabrics and dead skin cells, providing food for the mold and mildew. Even clean wash water contains some spores. Leaving wet clothes unattended gives the spores time to feed and spread.


Bacteria is present on our skin, clothes, and linens even after washing. When left wet and warm in the machine, bacteria multiplies rapidly. As it digests organic matter it releases by-products that cause foul odors. The smell can be anything from sour to sickly sweet or rotten eggs.

Detergent Residue

While detergents help sanitize our clothes, they can also leave residual smells if not properly rinsed out. The perfumes and dyes in many laundry products can cling to fabric and lead to lingering odors when clothes stay wet. The moisture loosens the residue and activates the smell.

Musty Fabrics

Some fabrics are more prone to holding odors when wet. Rayon, spandex, polyester, and cotton/poly blends tend to get a musty, stale smell if left soaked in the machine. The moisture causes the growth of odor-causing bacterial microbes deep in the fabric fibers.

Dirty Washer Interior

Finally, if the washing machine itself has developed a lingering bad smell, it can transfer that stench to clean wet clothes. Soils, bacteria, mold, and soap scum can build up on the drum, gaskets, hoses, and other areas if not cleaned regularly.

How to Prevent Smelly Clothes from Developing

The best way to avoid having your clothes turn smelly in the washer is to prevent the odor-causing bacteria and mildew from growing in the first place. Here are some tips to stop smells before they start:

Don’t leave clothes sitting wet

Try to remove clothes from the washer as soon as the cycle finishes. Don’t delay drying or letting items sit soaked for more than an hour or two. Set a timer or reminder on your phone if you might forget.

Check the gaskets and seals

Use an old toothbrush and baking soda paste to scrub the rubber gaskets and seals around the washer door. This prevents mildew from growing in these moist areas.

Dry the drum interior

After washing a load, wipe down the inside of the drum with a microfiber cloth before closing the door. This removes excess moisture to discourage odor-causing bacteria.

Clean with vinegar or bleach

Once per month, run the washer through a full cycle at its hottest temperature setting, but with no clothes inside. For top loaders, add 2 cups of white vinegar or bleach to the empty wash water. For front loaders, use vinegar in the detergent dispenser.

Leave the door open

After finishing a load, prop the washer door open until fully dry inside. This allows air circulation to prevent moisture from being trapped.

Use less detergent

Excess detergent can leave residue on clothes that leads to lingering odors. Follow manufacturer’s recommendations for your washer size and load level.

Clean washing machine

Follow your washing machine’s cleaning recommendations regularly. This removes any soils and detergent buildup that could make clothes smell.

Tip Why it Helps
Remove clothes promptly Stops mold and bacteria from multiplying
Clean gaskets and seals Prevents mildew in moist areas
Dry washer drum Removes moisture that breeds bacteria

How to Get Existing Smells Out of Clothes

If you’ve already left wet clothes sitting for too long and smells have set in, don’t worry. Here are some tips for removing musty, mildewy odors from clothes left wet in the washing machine:

Re-wash with detergent

The simplest solution is to re-wash the smelly clothes on the hottest appropriate water setting with regular laundry detergent. This will kill some of the bacteria or mold causing the odors. Make sure clothes are fully dry as soon as the cycle finishes.

Use baking soda

For light smells, re-wash clothes with 1⁄2 cup of baking soda along with the detergent. The baking soda will help absorb and neutralize some of the odor.

Try white vinegar

White vinegar is mildly acidic, which helps kill mold and bacteria. Add 1-2 cups of vinegar to a wash cycle with the smelly clothes to freshen them.

Use enzyme cleaner

Detergents with special enzyme additives are designed to digest odor-causing bacteria, mold, and mildew. Look for keywords like “enzyme”, “oxy”, or “bio” on the label. Soak or wash with an enzyme detergent.

Try borax

Borax is an all-natural mineral detergent and deodorizer. Dissolve 1/2 cup in the washer drum, then soak clothes for 1-2 hours before washing. It sanitizes and removes smells.

Use oxygen bleach

An oxygen bleach product like OxiClean can help eliminate musty washer smells. Add to a load of smelly clothes per package instructions. It whitens, brightens, and deodorizes.

Air dry in sunlight

For really stubborn odors, let clothes air dry in direct sunlight after washing. The UV rays in sunlight are a natural disinfectant and deodorizer. Just make sure to avoid fading delicate fabrics.

Method What it Does
Re-wash with detergent Kills some mold and bacteria
Baking soda Absorbs odors
White vinegar Disinfects and deodorizes

When to Call a Professional

If you’ve tried these troubleshooting tips and can’t get lingering foul smells out of clothes that sat wet in the washer, it may be time to call an appliance repair technician. A professional can diagnose and fix these issues:

Broken washer parts

If the washer has a mechanical failure causing leaks or water to pool, it can lead to extreme odor problems. A repair pro can identify and replace broken washer parts like hoses, pumps, doors, seals, and valves.

Clogged drainage

When drain lines get blocked, water can back up at the bottom of the washer. This trapped water breeds bacteria and causes clothes to smell. Experts have the tools to unclog drains.

Washer not cleaning properly

If residue is left on clothes after washing, it can interact with fabric to cause smells. A technician can fix any issues with cleaning performance and recommend washer maintenance.

Mildew removal

A professional washing machine cleaning service can use special tools and commercial-grade products to thoroughly clean and disinfect a washer overrun by mold, mildew, and bacteria.

Issue Professional Solution
Broken washer parts Identify and replace faulty parts
Clogged drain lines Unclog blocked drainage
Poor cleaning performance Correct washing machine issues

Preventing Smells in Other Appliances

It’s not just washing machines that can generate bad odors if moisture and bacteria build up inside. Follow these tips to prevent smells in other household appliances:


  • Clean spills immediately
  • Throw out expired food
  • Use baking soda boxes to absorb odors
  • Clean condenser coils and gaskets regularly


  • Don’t pre-rinse dishes
  • Frequently clean food filter
  • Run empty cycle with vinegar or baking soda
  • Replace old dishwasher hoses


  • Change filter per manufacturer
  • Use distilled or purified water only
  • Clean with bleach and water solution
  • Let dry completely between uses

Garbage disposal

  • Grind lemon or orange rinds to freshen
  • Flush with baking soda and vinegar
  • Don’t pour grease down the drain
  • Run cold water before and after using


Leaving wet clothes in the washing machine leads to bad odors from mold, mildew, and bacteria. The best way to avoid smells is to promptly remove clothes after washing and regularly clean the washer with vinegar or bleach. For existing odors, rewash clothes with baking soda, borax, enzyme cleaner, or vinegar. In severe cases, contact an appliance pro to diagnose and fix washer issues and perform a deep cleaning. With some diligence about washing and drying laundry, you can keep clothes fresh and odor-free.

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