How to Remove a Fishy Smell and Stains From Clothing

Two fly fishermen in a river

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Of all the odors that can stink up your clothing, a fishy smell is one of the worst. It seems to lurk just below the surface so that you don't notice it right away. But when it's there, it's there, and detergent fragrances never quite seem to cover it up. Therefore, the solution is to get it completely out of the fabric. There are some simple home remedies that are easy and cheap, but be aware that a serious odor problem can take a little time and might require repeated treatments.

Line-drying the clothes after treating the stained area will help get rid of the fishy smell, and it won't set the odor stain—like the dryer will—if some of it lingers. Don't dry the clothes in the dryer until there is no trace of the odor. The dryer's high heat can bond the smelly substance to the fabric. Also, the odors can spread to other clothing in the dryer.

Stain type Food stain
Detergent type Laundry detergent with enzymes
Water temperature Hot
Cycle type Normal

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 5 minutes
  • Total Time: Overnight plus washing and drying time

Before You Begin

If you won't be laundering your clothes right away, you can let the waiting time work for you. Place the clothes in a paper bag and sprinkle them liberally with baking soda. Set the bag aside until you have a full load to wash or you want to soak several items. The baking soda will be absorbing odors the whole time the clothing is in the paper bag.

When it's time to wash, simply throw the clothing into the washer. You don't have to worry about shaking off the baking soda powder. It's actually a safe cleaner that will rinse right out.

Another option is to hang up the clothes on a clothesline in direct sunlight. This exposes the fabric to ultraviolet rays, which can be very effective at breaking down odor-causing substances that cling to fabric. Leave them out for a day or more, if possible, to help fade the odor before trying pretreatment and washing.

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • Baking soda
  • Laundry detergent

Tools

  • Bucket

Instructions

  1. Soak in Baking Soda

    Mix one-half cup of baking soda in a bucket or sink full of warm water, or add one cup of baking soda to a washing machine filled with warm water. Submerge the smelly clothing in the solution for as long as possible, preferably overnight.

  2. Wash as Warm as You Can

    Wash the clothing in the hottest water temperature recommended for the fabric, using your favorite laundry detergent (a formula with enzymes, or "bio" detergent, is best, but others should work, too). Hot water—or at least very warm water—can make a big difference when removing a fishy smell. Be sure to check the care label to confirm that the fabric can take it.

  3. Give It a Stretch

    To minimize shrinkage after a hot or warm wash, give the fabric a gentle tug while it's still wet, to stretch the fibers a bit. You will be line-drying the clothing, but be aware that some fabrics shrink in hot or warm water, whether they're line-dried or not.

  4. Line-Dry

Hang the item on a clothesline in direct sunlight. It's safe to line-dry clothes even if they still have some odor. Repeat the treatment, if necessary, until the odor is completely gone.

Tip

If you have a fish oil stain in addition to a fishy smell, rub or brush the stain with an enzyme-powered laundry detergent, and let it sit for 15 minutes before washing. You can also try soaking the clothes in a solution of oxygen bleach (not chlorine bleach) and cool water; let it soak for eight hours, then wash.

If the clothing still smells fishy, you may have to try a more intense soaking. Fill a large bucket with very warm water, and add baking soda, laundry detergent, or a commercial laundry odor-eliminator product. Place the clothing in the bucket and cover it with a clean white towel to keep the clothing submerged. Soak for 30 minutes to one hour. Wash the clothing as usual, then line-dry it in direct sunlight.