Top 5 Toughest Odors to Remove From Clothes

Illustration of the toughest odors to remove from clothing
The Spruce / Ellen Chao
  • 01 of 06

    Tough Odors in Clothes

    Woman Unloading Smelly Clothes From Washing Machine
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    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.

    Here's how to tackle five of the toughest odors that get trapped in our clothes:

    • Perfumes and fragrances
    • Sweat
    • Gasoline and diesel fuel
    • Cooking and grease odors
    • Mothballs and musty odors


    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    Remove Perfume Odors From Clothes

    Caucasian woman spraying perfume on wrist
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    Whether the fragrance comes from an overly enthusiastic spritz of perfume or a heavily scented laundry product, these odors can cause excessive sneezing and a myriad of other health problems. Shoppers may have to deal with heavy scents in new clothes and vintage or used clothes as well.

    The first thing to do is to determine if the perfumed garment is washable by checking the care label. If it is a washable garment, 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.

    Completely submerge the garment and allow to soak for at least four hours. Overnight is fine. Then wash as directed using a heavy-duty unscented laundry detergent.

    Check the garment for odor. If you can still smell the fragrance, repeat the steps. If the odor is gone, dry as directed by the care label with an unscented dryer sheet or without one. An additional step can be to dry the garment in the fresh air.

    For dry clean only garments, a professional cleaner should be able to remove the odor. You may wish to select a cleaner that uses fewer harsh chemicals to avoid more odor sensitivity.

    For at-home odor removal from non-washable fabrics, hang outside on a breezy day as much as possible. Or, place the perfumed garment in a large, sealable plastic tub or large sealable plastic 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.

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  • 03 of 06

    Remove Sweat Odors From Clothes

    sweat stains on a cardigan
    Mukhina1 / Getty Images

    Many of us toss a work shirt in the washer and when we finish washing and drying it, it looks fine as it goes in the closet. Then when we wear it by mid-afternoon, here comes the odor.

    This happens because the body soil and perspiration is still trapped in the fibers after washing and they begin to smell when our body heats up the fabric and the odor molecules are released. What to do?

    First, take time to treat underarm areas to remove excess deodorant build-up that can trap odor and cause fabrics to yellow or feel stiff. Next, use a heavy-duty detergent like Persil or Tide that have the proper level and type of ingredients to remove body soil. Less expensive detergents will not remove heavy perspiration odors.

    For shirts that have been worn and washed but still have an odor, mix a solution of two cups 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 above.

    Gym clothes and activewear odors

    Working up a sweat is a good thing for the body but can be difficult to remove from today's many performance fabrics. One of the great advances is the development of Microban Scentry Revive technology that helps to neutralize and dissipate odors.

    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. Either product can be used in top-loading or front-loading machines.

    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. Just wring 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!

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  • 04 of 06

    Remove Gasoline Odors From Clothes

    Low side view of woman pumping gas into car.
    Andy Reynolds / Getty Images

    Whether you work with fuels or simply have a gas pump splashing accident, gasoline and diesel oil odors can be difficult to remove. And, you should take great care because the fuel is flammable so never place garments that even faintly smell of fuel in a clothes dryer.

    Fuel is an oil-based stain that should be pretreated using a solvent-based stain removal product, like Shout. If you don't have a solvent-based pretreater, apply heavy-duty liquid detergent to the stain and work it in by gently rubbing. Give the stain remover at least 15 minutes to work before tossing the garment in the washer.

    Wash the garment in the hottest water appropriate for the fabric. Inspect the garment before drying and repeat treatment if necessary.

    To remove any lingering odors, soak the stained clothes in cool water with one cup baking soda for at least four hours or overnight. For heavy odors, fill the washer with warm water and add one cup non-sudsing household ammonia. Soak for several hours. Drain the washer and wash as usual. Do not use any chlorine bleach during the soaking or washing as dangerous fumes can form.

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


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  • 05 of 06

    Remove Cooking Odors From Clothes

    Father and daughter cooking together
    Gary Burchell / Getty Images

    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 in the air and they embed in the fibers.

    It's time to once again grab the heavy-duty laundry detergent like Tide or Persil. Use the hottest water recommended on the care label for the fabric. Boost the cleaning power by adding one cup of baking soda or one-half cup borax to the washer. Both of these can be used safely in both standard and high-efficiency washers.

    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 garment outside on a breezy day may do the trick.



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  • 06 of 06

    Remove Moth Ball Odors From Clothes

    Moth balls in the glass over the sackcloth
    Raunamaxtor / Getty Images

    Musty and moth ball odors can be difficult to remove. But there are several things that can be done to speed the process. For washable clothes, add one cup of baking soda to the wash cycle along with detergent. Mix well and allow the clothing to soak for at least one hour before completing the wash. Add one-half cup distilled white vinegar to the final rinse.

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

    Dry clean only clothes can be hung outside—away from direct sunlight—to air but most will require a trip to the dry cleaner to remove the odor. You can try placing the smelly garment in a large, sealable plastic tub or large sealable plastic 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.