The Top 4 Toughest Odors to Remove From Clothes

person smelling laundry

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

Overview
  • Working Time: 5 - 15 mins
  • Total Time: 1 - 10 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Most stains are readily visible when you are ready to treat them before washing, but odors become embedded in fibers and seem to lurk there forever.

Whether the fragrance comes from an overly enthusiastic spritz of perfume or a heavily scented laundry product, these odors can linger, and heavy scents can remain in new clothes, vintage, and used clothes alike.

Using Odor Removers

For washable fabrics, two of the best odor removers are Tide One Wash Miracle free & clear and Fresh Wave odor removing laundry booster.

Tide One uses a mix of enzymes and disinfectants to work wonders in removing body, pet, and musty odors. With a premeasured dose in each container, it is easy to use. Just toss the open plastic bottle into the washer with the load of dirty clothes.

Fresh Wave uses only natural plant oils like lime, cedar, anise, and clove to help surround odor molecules so they can be washed away.

Before You Begin

The first thing to do is to determine if the perfumed or odorous garment is washable by checking the care label. If it says dry clean only, a professional cleaner should be able to remove the odor. You may wish to select a cleaner that uses fewer harsh chemicals.

supplies needed for removing tough odors

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

Removing Perfume Scents From Clothing

  • Washer or large sink
  • Outdoor clothesline or drying rack
  • Sealable plastic tub

Removing Sweat Odors From Washable Shirts

  • Mixing bowl (optional)
  • Washer or large sink
  • Soft-bristled brush

Removing Sweat Odors From Gym Clothes

  • Mixing bowl (optional)
  • Washer or large sink
  • Soft-bristled brush

Removing Gasoline Odors From Clothing

  • Washer or large sink

Removing Cooking Odors From Clothing

  • Washer or large sink

Removing Musty and Mothball Odors From Washable Clothes

  • Washer or large sink
  • Outdoor clothesline

Removing Musty and Mothball Odors From Dry Clean Only Clothes

  • Sealable plastic tub or bag
  • Outdoor clothesline

Materials

Removing Perfume Scents From Clothing

  • Baking soda
  • Water
  • Unscented heavy-duty laundry detergent

Removing Sweat Odors From Washable Shirts

  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Water
  • Heavy-duty laundry detergent
  • Baking soda

Removing Sweat Odors From Gym Clothes

  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Water
  • Baking soda
  • Mild or high-performance fabric detergent

Removing Gasoline Odors From Clothing

  • Enzyme-based stain remover
  • Heavy-duty laundry detergent
  • Water
  • Baking soda
  • Household ammonia

Removing Cooking Odors From Clothing

  • Heavy-duty laundry detergent
  • Water
  • Baking soda
  • Laundry borax

Removing Musty and Mothball Odors From Washable Clothes

  • Heavy-duty laundry detergent
  • Water
  • Baking soda
  • Distilled white vinegar

Removing Musty and Mothball Odors From Dry Clean Only Clothes

  • Baking soda

Instructions

How to Remove Perfume Scents From Clothing

  1. Make a Baking Soda Solution

    Fill a large sink or bucket or your washer with cool water. Dissolve one cup of baking soda in four cups of hot water and add the solution to the cool water.

  2. Soak the Garment

    Completely submerge the garment and allow it to soak for at least four hours. Overnight is fine.

  3. Wash Normally

    Wash as directed using a heavy-duty unscented laundry detergent.

  4. Repeat as Needed

    Check the garment for odor. If you can still smell the fragrance, repeat the steps.

  5. Dry the Garment

    If the odor is gone, dry as directed by the care label or dry the garment in the fresh air.

    Tip

    For at-home odor removal from non-washable fabrics, hang them outside on a breezy day. Or, place the perfumed garment in a large, sealable plastic tub or bag with an open box of baking soda. Let the garment remain sealed for several days as the baking soda absorbs the odors. You may need to repeat this several times (with a fresh box of baking soda) before all of the odors are gone.

How to Remove Sweat Odors From Clothing

A shirt may look and smell clean after washing. But an hour or so into wearing it, here comes the sweat odor.

underarm stains

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

Removing Sweat Odors From Washable Shirts

For shirts that have been washed but still have an odor, mix a solution of two cups of baking soda in a washer tub of lukewarm water. Add the shirts and allow them to soak for at least 24 hours. Then wash as directed.

  1. Scrub the Armpits

    If the deodorant build-up has left the fabric stiff and a heavy sweat odor is present, mix a one-to-one solution of white distilled vinegar and water and use a soft-bristled brush or an old toothbrush to scrub the armpits before soaking.

  2. Make a Vinegar Solution

    Fill a washing machine or large bucket with cool water and add one cup of white distilled vinegar.

  3. Soak the Shirt(s)

    Add the colored shirts and allow them to soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain the vinegar/water solution.

  4. Wash as Usual

    Wash as usual in cool water with a heavy-duty detergent (Persil or Tide).

Removing Sweat Odors From Gym Clothes 

Working up a sweat can be a good thing, but that sweat (and the smell) can be difficult to remove from today's high-performance fabrics

  1. Add White Distilled Vinegar

    For daily laundry, add one cup of baking soda or white distilled vinegar to your wash water each time you wash exercise clothes. The baking soda or white distilled vinegar will help neutralize odor and make your detergent work more efficiently.

  2. Air-Dry Garments

    Do not machine-dry fabrics. The high heat can bind any body oil and its bacteria to the fibers. Hang fabrics to air-dry.

Tips

  • Do not wear exercise clothes again until they have been washed. Each wearing adds layers of body soil and bacteria.
  • If you are not able to wash activewear daily, invest in a "diaper pail" for the gear. Any plastic container with a lid will work. Fill it with cool water and one cup of baking soda. Drop soiled exercise clothes in the pail and let them soak until it is time for laundry. Squeeze out the water and wash as usual. Fill the pail with clean water and baking soda and you are ready for another round of exercise.

How to Remove Gasoline Odors From Clothing

Whether you work with fuels or simply have a gas pump splashing accident, gasoline and diesel oil odors can be difficult to remove. 

These steps will work well on small fuel stains. If the fabric is heavily stained with gasoline, it should be discarded. You must take great care because the fuel is flammable, so NEVER place garments that even faintly smell of fuel in a clothes dryer.

If the garment is labeled dry clean only, point out and identify the stain to your professional cleaner.

person filling a car with gas

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

  1. Pretreat Stains

    Since fuel is an oil-based stain, use an enzyme-based stain remover or a bit of heavy-duty liquid detergent to pretreat the stains. Work the stain remover into the fabric with your fingers and allow it to work for at least 15 minutes before washing the garment.

  2. Wash in Hot Water

    Wash the item in the hottest water appropriate for the fabric.

  3. Repeat as Needed

    Sniff the garment before drying and repeat treatment if necessary.

  4. Soak Clothes If Necessary

    For lingering odors, soak the stained clothes in cool water with one cup baking soda for at least four hours or overnight.

  5. Add Ammonia (Optional)

    If the baking soda doesn't remove the heaviest odors, fill the washer with warm water and add one cup of household ammonia. Soak for 2 or 3 hours. Drain the soaking water from the washer and wash as usual.

    Warning

    Do not use any chlorine bleach during the ammonia soaking or washing process, as dangerous fumes can form.

How to Remove Cooking Odors From Clothing

Any home cook who fries food or fast food worker will tell you that fabrics can quickly absorb odors and hold onto them even if there are no stains. There are microscopic grease particles from frying in the air, and they embed in the fibers.

If you've gotten trapped next to the fryer or grill when wearing dry clean only clothes, point out the odors to your dry cleaner. If the odor is light, hanging the non-washable garment outside on a breezy day for several hours.

cooking odors and stains

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  1. Wash the Clothing

    Wash on the normal cycle in the hottest water recommended on the care label for the fabric.

    To successfully remove the oily molecules, use a heavy-duty laundry detergent like Tide or Persil. Boost the cleaning power of any detergent by adding one cup of baking soda or one-half cup borax to the washer.

  2. Presoak If Needed

    If washing correctly does not remove the odor, presoak the clothes for at least two hours in a solution of hot water with two cups of baking soda. After presoaking, wash the garments again.

How to Remove Musty and Mothball Odors From Clothes

Musty and mothball odors can be difficult to remove, but several things can be done to speed the process.

moth balls on a sweater

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

Removing Musty and Mothball Odors From Washable Clothes

  1. Wash With Baking Soda

    Fill the washer or a large sink with water and detergent and add one cup of baking soda. Mix well and allow the clothing to soak for at least one hour before completing the washing cycle.

  2. Add Distilled White Vinegar

    Add 1/2 cup of distilled white vinegar to the final rinse to cut through any remaining product residue.

  3. Hang to Dry

    Hang the freshly washed clothing outside to dry. Fresh air is perhaps the best refresher of all.

Removing Musty and Mothball Odors From Washable Clothes

  1. Place Clothing and Baking Soda in a Container

    Place the smelly garment in a large, sealable plastic tub or bag with an open box of baking soda. Let the container remain sealed for several days as the baking soda absorbs the odors.

  2. Repeat as Needed

    Repeat the process several times (with a fresh box of baking soda each time) until all of the odors are gone.

  3. Hang to Dry

    Dry clean only clothes can be hung outside—away from direct sunlight—to air-dry, but most will require a trip to the dry cleaner to remove the odor.