11 Tips for Removing Musty Smells From Your Home

Shower curtain with mildew in bathroom

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Do you smell that? Whiffs of musty odors are quite distinctive in the home, and they can come from basements, walls, spoiled food, laundry, or shower stalls. Usually, this indicates that there is a mildew problem.

Fortunately, with a little investigation, thorough cleaning with supplies you have on hand, and diligence to prevent further mildew growth, musty smells can be easily controlled.

What Causes Musty Smells?

Musty odors are caused by the growth of mold spores. Mold spores are present everywhere, and when they land in a welcoming environment with moisture and food, they begin to multiply and emit gasses that our noses can detect.

Unfortunately, mold spores grow quickly, and it doesn't take an extremely large colony to create odors. Small areas of mildew (fungi that appear flat on a surface) or mold (fungi that appear raised and usually fuzzy) should be cleaned away promptly and the area monitored to prevent return growth.

If the area of mold is extremely large, professional mold abatement may be needed. For small colonies of mildew on fabrics or walls, you can follow these tips to get the source of the musty smells under control.

Locate the Source of the Musty Smell

It's time to take a look and a sniff around. Until you identify the source of the musty smell, you'll never be able to get rid of it—and it can get worse. Begin your search in any areas that are often warm and moist, like a bathroom. Check for mildew growth in the shower, on the shower curtain, and leaks around sinks, tubs, and toilets.

In the kitchen, look for leaks around the sink and dishwasher. Check under and in the refrigerator and small appliances that use water, like coffee makers and tea kettles. Be sure to also check the trashcan, as mildew could be growing under the disposable trash bag liner.

In the bedroom and living areas, look around window seals for leaks and under potted plants that can leak. Check closets for mildew caused by storing damp shoes or clothes.

Don't forget to take a trip to the attic, basement, and garage to check for damp areas around windows, water heaters, and vents.

In the laundry room, check for leaks around the washer and around the doors of front-load washers that can harbor mildew. Be sure that your dryer vent is clean and that the outdoor vent is not blocked so there is good airflow to eliminate moisture.

Don't forget to sniff your laundry hamper. If damp towels are left in a heap, mildew can form there as well.

Repair Leaks and Control Excessive Moisture

To get musty smells under control, repair any leaks that you find. If you don't, the odors cannot be controlled. In areas with excessive moisture, install ventilation fans, place moisture barriers over damp soil, or redirect water flow on the exterior of the home.

Clean Away Mildew

When you see evidence of mildew, it's important to get rid of it before or after you solve the problem causing the issue. You can try using diluted chlorine bleach, as it's highly effective in killing mildew on surfaces like ceramic tile and grout, cement walls, and washable fabrics.

You can also use a more natural approach by spraying the area with distilled white vinegar. Allow the vinegar to work for an hour or so and then scrub away the mildew with a sponge or microfiber cloth dipped in baking soda.

Washable fabrics that are harboring mildew should be cleaned with the hottest water suitable for the fabric, a heavy-duty laundry detergent, and, for white fabrics, chlorine bleach. Follow the cleaning guidelines for mildewed shoes and dry clean only clothes.

Increase Air Circulation

Whether you find visible evidence of mildew or not, the musty smell signals that you need to increase air circulation in the home. Open windows and doors, turn on ceiling and attic fans, or add circulating fans to each room.

Turn on the Heating or Cooling System

Simply starting the HVAC system in a home can help draw out odors and capture mold spores in the filters. Be sure that the system has clean filters and replace them often to help remove musty smells.

Deep Clean Carpets and Upholstered Furniture

Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, deep cleaning carpet and upholstered furniture can get rid of mildew spores and freshen a home. Be sure to work on a dry, breezy day so that the fabrics will dry quickly.

Clean and Declutter Every Space

Stacks of papers and books can trap moisture and lead to a musty odor. Moving from room to room, clean and dust every surface and dispose of as much clutter as possible.

Install a Dehumidifier

Since mold and mildew need moisture to thrive, lessening the humidity level in a home can help keep mildew under control. Some HVAC systems have dehumidifiers as part of the unit, or free-standing units can be purchased. It is essential to keep the dehumidifiers clean and the water-catching bins empty for them to be effective.

Add Odor Absorbers

Commercial odor absorbers that use activated charcoal are available to hang in closets or spaces that lack good air circulation.

You can also use a bowl of dry baking soda, coffee grounds, or kitty litter to help absorb odors. Be sure to change these products frequently.

Add Pleasing Scents

Once you have gotten rid of the mildew, you can add a more pleasing scent by simmering spices or citrus peels, lighting candles, using diffuser sticks, essential oil diffusers, or commercial air fresheners.

Be Diligent

To prevent the musty smells from returning, be diligent with cleaning and repairs, keeping surfaces dry, providing good ventilation and air circulation, and checking often for any evidence of mold growth.