Top 5 Toughest Odors to Remove From Clothes

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

    Remove Tough Odors From Clothes

    Woman Unloading Smelly Clothes From Washing Machine
    AndreyPopov / Getty Images

    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.

     

    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    Perfume Odors

    Caucasian woman spraying perfume on wrist
    JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

    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. Heavy scents can remain in new clothes, vintage, and used clothes as well.

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 15 minutes

    Total Time: Several hours depending on the severity of the odor

    Before You Begin

    The first thing to do is to determine if the perfumed 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 to avoid more odor sensitivity. 

    What You'll Need

    Supplies

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

    Tools

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

    Instructions

    1. 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. Completely submerge the garment and allow it to soak for at least four hours. Overnight is fine.
    3. Wash as directed using a heavy-duty unscented laundry detergent.
    4. Check the garment for odor. If you can still smell the fragrance, repeat the steps.
    5. 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.

    Continue to 3 of 6 below.
  • 03 of 06

    Sweat Odors

    sweat stains on a cardigan
    Mukhina1 / Getty Images

    A shirt may look and smell clean after washing. But an hour or so into wearing it here comes the sweat odor. This happens because bacteria that causes the odor is still trapped in the fibers after washing. They begin to smell when our body heats the fabric and the odor molecules are released. What to do?

    Sweat Odors on Washable Shirts

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 15 minutes

    Total Time: 1 to 2 hours depending on washer and dryer cycles

    What You'll Need

    Supplies

    • Distilled White Vinegar
    • Water
    • Heavy-duty laundry detergent
    • Baking soda

    Tools

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

    Instructions

    1. 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. Fill a washing machine or large bucket with cool water and add one cup of white distilled vinegar.
    3. Add the colored shirts and allow them to soak for at least 30 minutes.
    4. Drain the vinegar/water solution.
    5. Wash as usual in cool water with a heavy-duty detergent (Persil or Tide).

    Tip

    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.

     

    Sweat Odors on Gym Clothes 

    Working up a sweat is a good thing for the body but can be difficult to remove from today's high-performance fabrics

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 15 minutes

    Total Time: 1 to 2 hours depending on washer and drying times

    What You'll Need

    Supplies

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

    Tools

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

    Instructions

    1. 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. 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.
    Continue to 4 of 6 below.
  • 04 of 06

    Gasoline Odors

    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. 

    Before You Begin

    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.

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 15 minutes

    Total Time: 1 to 24 hours depending on the severity of the odors

    What You'll Need

    Supplies

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

    Tools

    • Washer or large sink

    Instructions

    1. 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 to work before washing the garment.
    2. Wash the item in the hottest water appropriate for the fabric.
    3. Sniff the garment before drying and repeat treatment if necessary.
    4. For lingering odors, soak the stained clothes in cool water with one cup baking soda for at least four hours or overnight.
    5. 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.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Cooking Odors

    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.

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 5 minutes

    Total Time: 1 to 4 hours depending on the severity of the odors

    What You'll Need

    Supplies

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

    Tools

    • Washer or large sink

    Instructions

    1. To successfully remove the oily molecules, use a heavy-duty laundry detergent like Tide or Persil.
    2. Wash on the normal cycle in the hottest water recommended on the care label for the fabric.
    3. Boost the cleaning power of any detergent by adding one cup of baking soda or one-half cup borax to the washer.
    4. If washing correctly does not remove the odor, presoak for at least two hours the clothes in a solution of hot water with two cups of baking soda.

    Tip

    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.

    Continue to 6 of 6 below.
  • 06 of 06

    Musty and Mothball Odors

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

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

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 5 minutes

    Total Time: 1 to 4 hours depending on the severity of the odors

    What You'll Need for Washable Clothes

    Supplies

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

    Tools

    • Washer or large sink
    • Outdoor clothesline

    Instructions

    1. Fill the washer or a large sink with water and detergent and add one cup of baking soda.
    2. Mix well and allow the clothing to soak for at least one hour before completing the washing cycle.
    3. Add one-half cup of distilled white vinegar to the final rinse to cut through any remaining product residue.
    4. Hang the freshly washed clothing outside to dry. Fresh air is perhaps the best refresher of all.

     

    Project Metrics

    Working Time: 10 minutes

    Total Time: 3 to 7 days depending on the severity of the odors

    What You'll Need for Dry Clean Only Clothes

    Supplies

    • Baking soda

    Tools

    • Sealable plastic tub or bag
    • Outdoor clothesline

    Instructions

    1. Place the smelly garment in a large, sealable plastic tub or bag with an open box of baking soda.
    2. Let the container remain sealed for several days as the baking soda absorbs the odors.
    3. Repeat the process several times (with a fresh box of baking soda) until all of the odors are gone.
    4. 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.