Why do old clothes smell?

Have you ever opened your closet and been hit with a musty, unpleasant odor from old clothes you haven’t worn in a while? If so, you’re not alone. Many people have experienced the phenomenon of old clothes taking on strange, bad smells over time.

What Causes Old Clothes to Smell?

There are a few main culprits behind that funky scent in old clothes:

  • Bacteria – Bacteria grow and thrive in dark, damp environments like clothes stuffed in a closet or dresser. As bacteria feed on fibers, dirt, sweat, and other particles in fabric, they produce volatile organic compounds that give off odors.
  • Moisture – Wetness trapped in clothes creates an ideal breeding ground for mildew and bacteria. The moisture allows microbes to grow and generate smelly byproducts.
  • Dust mites – These microscopic bugs feed on dead human skin cells that collect on fabrics. Their digestive process produces substances that give clothes a musty, stale odor.
  • Sweat – Body sweat contains proteins and sugars that bacteria love to feast on. When sweat soaks into clothing and doesn’t fully wash out, it can cause lingering odors.
  • Pollution/Smoke – Gases and particles in the air adhere to clothing over time. These compounds react with fabrics to cause unpleasant smells.

In most cases, it’s a combination of some or all of these factors that lead to stinky old clothes. The specific source of the smell depends on the garment’s fabric, how heavily it was worn, the environment it was stored in, and how long it sat unused.

Why Do Some Fabrics Smell More Than Others?

Certain fabrics are more prone to developing odors than others:

  • Natural fibers like cotton, wool, and silk absorb odors more readily than synthetic materials. The structure of natural fibers allows smells to get trapped within.
  • Thick, heavy fabrics like sweaters and jeans hold onto scents more than lightweight materials. Bacteria and moisture can accumulate in the weave of thick fabrics.
  • Spandex/Lycra exercise clothing is designed to wick away sweat but the fabric often maintains a lingering stench. The stretchy fibers cling to odor-causing bacteria.
  • Polyester repels water but has an electrostatic charge that attracts particles, smoke, and other smelly substances in the air.

Natural, porous materials used for undergarments, workout clothes, and winter outerwear tend to be the worst offenders for developing long-term odors.

Tips to Keep Clothes from Smelling

You can take a few simple steps to prevent your clothes from smelling musty and stale over time:

  • Allow clothes to fully dry before storing to deter mildew growth.
  • Wash clothes with a disinfecting athletic wear detergent to kill bacteria.
  • Use scent boosters and fabric refreshers periodically on stored clothes.
  • Keep closets and drawers clean to avoid dust buildup on clothes.
  • Store clothes in breathable containers, not airtight plastic bins.
  • Freeze clothing for 24 hours before storage to kill bacteria.
  • Add cedar blocks or sachets to closets to naturally repel moths and absorb moisture.

How to Remove Smells from Old Clothes

If your clothing already has an unpleasant scent, don’t worry – you can take steps to get rid of it:

Wash Using Detergent, Bleach or Vinegar

Wash smelly clothes a couple times using a heavy-duty detergent, odor-eliminating detergent, or a 1/2 cup of white vinegar added to the wash cycle. Vinegar helps kill bacteria that cause odors. Check care labels first when using bleach.

Air Out in Sunlight

Hang or lay clothes outside on a sunny day so the sun’s UV rays can naturally kill bacteria. Sunlight also helps lift odors from fabric.

Steam Clean

Use a handheld steamer on clothing while hanging to remove wrinkles and embedded odors at the same time.

Freeze Then Air Out

Put clothes in a sealed plastic bag and freeze for 24-48 hours, then take them outside to air out. Freezing kills odor-causing bacteria.

Clean with White Vinegar

Soak clothes for 1 hour in a mixture of 1 cup white vinegar per 1 gallon of water, then wash normally.

Use Activated Charcoal

Place charcoal bags or charcoal deodorizers inside a sealed bin or bag with smelly clothes for 24-48 hours so the charcoal can absorb odors.

Use Baking Soda

Sprinkle baking soda directly on clothes and let sit overnight before shaking off and washing normally. Baking soda absorbs and neutralizes odors.

Method How It Works
Wash with vinegar Vinegar disinfects and kills odor-causing bacteria
Air out in sunlight Sunlight naturally kills bacteria and lifts odors from fabric
Steam clean Steam removes wrinkles and embedded odors
Freeze then air out Freezing kills bacteria, airing out lifts odors
Soak in vinegar Vinegar disinfects and deodorizes
Use activated charcoal Charcoal absorbs odors
Use baking soda Baking soda absorbs and neutralizes odors

When to Toss Smelly Clothes

Sometimes odors linger even after washing and deodorizing attempts. At that point, it’s best to just get rid of the smelly clothes. Signs it’s time to toss an article of clothing include:

  • Musty odor remains after multiple wash cycles
  • Visible mold or mildew on fabric
  • Permanent sweat stains with lingering odor
  • Holes, thinning fabric, or other signs of damage
  • Severely discolored underarm regions on shirts
  • Too outdated in style to donate

Discard clothes that are damaged or so odorous that no amount of cleaning can eliminate the smell. When in doubt, it’s safest to just throw it out.

Preventing Odors in Stored Clothes

To keep clothes fresh and odor-free in long-term storage, follow these tips:

  • Clean clothes thoroughly before storing.
  • Allow clothing to fully dry first.
  • Use cedar blocks, charcoal, or sachets in storage containers.
  • Hang clothes loosely instead of stacking tightly.
  • Store clothes in cool, dark places.
  • Use breathable containers like cloth bins or wardrobe boxes.
  • Periodically air out stored clothing.

Proper storage habits can help extend the lifespan of your garments and prevent musty smells from setting in. Keep fabrics clean, dry, and well-ventilated.

Why Clothes Smell After Storage

There are a few primary reasons clothes accumulate odors after being packed away:

  • Bacteria growth – Bacteria thrive in the dark, undisturbed environment of a storage bin or drawer.
  • Trapped moisture – Wetness gets locked in when clothes are packed too tight or in airtight containers.
  • Dust and fibers – These particles cling to fabrics and create a musty scent over time.
  • Smoke/pollution – Gases and compounds from the air stick to clothing and cause odors.
  • Pests – Insects or critters can get into storage areas and contaminate clothes.

Keeping storage areas clean, using breathable containers, and periodically airing out clothes helps prevent stale smells.

Fabric Type Matters

The type of fabric makes a difference in how prone clothes are to retaining odors. Materials like:

  • Cotton
  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Rayon
  • Lyocell

Absorb odors more than synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon. Delicate natural fabrics require gentler cleaning to remove odors without damage.

Location Makes a Difference

Where you live can impact how fast clothes accumulate odors in storage. Humid climates promote more mildew and bacteria growth. Places with more air pollution or wildfire smoke also expose clothes to more odor-causing particles. Storing clothes in an attic or damp basement leads to more moisture getting trapped in fabrics too.

Caring for Stored Clothes

To keep stored clothes smelling fresh longer:

  • Wash and fully dry clothes before packing away
  • Use cedar chips or charcoal in storage bins
  • Hang clothes loosely instead of stacking
  • Keep clothes in a dark, cool, dry place
  • Use breathable bins or wardrobe boxes
  • Periodically air out clothing

Proper storage habits help prevent odors. Be sure to wash clothes again before wearing anything that’s been stored for a prolonged period.

Musty Smell vs. Mildew

A musty smell means odors have built up in the fabric over time. This is often due to a combination of dust, sweat residue, and debris accumulating. Mildew specifically refers to mold growth. This creates dark, web-like spots on clothes and an earthy odor. Both scenarios require deep cleaning to remove smells.

Health Risks of Smelly Clothes

Is it dangerous to wear clothes that smell musty? Mold and bacteria overgrowth on fabrics can present some health risks:

  • Allergic reactions – Mold spores can cause runny nose, eye irritation, throat irritation, and skin rashes in sensitive individuals.
  • Asthma flare-ups – Mold spores and dust mites in cloth materials can trigger asthma symptoms.
  • Skin infections – Bacteria like staphylococcus and streptococcus growing on fabrics can lead to folliculitis, cellulitis, and other skin infections if they enter open wounds.
  • Respiratory illness – Microbes present on smelly, moldy clothes could cause respiratory infections if inhaled or ingested.

Wearing very smelly clothes is not recommended due to these potential health risks. Thoroughly clean any clothes that have an abnormal odor or visible mold growth before wearing again.

Do Clothes Ever Smell Too Bad to Salvage?

In most cases, odors can be successfully removed from clothes with a combination of washing, airing out, and deodorizing techniques. But sometimes, fabrics reach a point where odors cannot be eliminated no matter what you try. Signs that clothes are too far gone include:

  • Pervasive musty/moldy smell remains after multiple wash cycles
  • Visible mold is growing across large sections of the fabric
  • Rotting, deteriorating wet fabric
  • Odor is making you nauseous
  • Clothes are damaged beyond repair

At that stage, it’s best to just discard the clothes rather than trying in vain to rescue them. Trust your nose – if the smell makes you gag, it’s time to say goodbye to that garment for good.

Can You Prevent Jeans from Smelling Over Time?

To keep jeans fresh smelling:

  • Wash before storing – Get rid of any residue sweat or dirt.
  • Air dry fully – Don’t put away while still damp.
  • Freeze first – Freezing kills bacteria.
  • Use cedar – Add cedar blocks to help absorb moisture.
  • Avoid plastic bags/bins – Use breathable storage containers.
  • Clean and condition – Freshen up with detergent or vinegar every so often.

With proper care, you can prevent denim from taking on that characteristic musty odor over time.

Should You Wash Clothes Before Storing?

Yes, you should wash clothes before packing them away for storage. Washing helps remove:

  • Dirt, debris, and particles that attract odors
  • Dead skin cells and body oils that bacteria feed on
  • Remaining sweat, which breeds bacteria
  • Wrinkles that can set in fabrics

Washing ensures clothes are fresh and clean before going into storage. Use hot water to kill bacteria. Just make sure clothes are completely dry before storing.


A variety of factors cause old clothes to take on unpleasant scents, especially when left sitting unused for long periods. Bacteria, moisture, dust mites, sweat, and pollution are common culprits. Certain fabrics like cotton and wool are more prone to holding odors. Proper storage conditions, periodic cleaning, and deodorizing methods can help combat smelly clothes. But if odors remain after repeated attempts to remove them, it’s best to just discard the offending garments.

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