Another Case of Musty Odors

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Dear Home Ec 101,
The problem in our family is confined to specific cotton undershirts and one specific dresser drawer. It does not matter how we wash the shirts. We’ve soaked, used vinegar, borax, triple rinsed, air dried for a week, used the gas dryer and everything is fine until the shirts are put in a closet or that one drawer. Note, nothing bad has ever been in this closet or drawer. We’ve had them since brand new. After the clothes are confined there for a few weeks, they develop a strong odor that spreads to other clothes which would otherwise not get smelly. We’ve had to resort to banning that one drawer and going through the closets looking for cotton undershirts to re-wash (no other kind of cotton shirt is affected, even though they are usually worn against the skin without undershirts, so it’s not from body odor.) This only happens to some undershirts. Not even all, just some, even though they can all be in the same laundry load together. It seems to me that we will have to gradually separate the smelly from the non-smelly shirts then throw away the bad ones. I will never put anything in that one drawer again though. Nobody has ever had a clue about what could cause such specific smelliness. I look forward to your opinion.
Mystified by Must

remove musty odor from drawers

Heather says:

I had an email exchange with this reader a few months ago. And admittedly, I dropped the ball in getting her a satisfactory answer.

We went back and forth for quite a while on this topic. I think this is a case of false pattern recognition.

Why? Human beings are designed to recognize patterns, it’s part of the way we are wired. A bazillion -technical term- years ago it helped us find food, remember which cave or clearing was our home, and to learn, over time, cause and effect – things like I didn’t feel well after eating that perhaps I shouldn’t eat it any more.

What is probably going on here?

I think at some point there was a particularly funky shirt that caused a faint odor in the drawer. This caused an association: stinky shirt came from this drawer. Have there been other stinky items from other drawers, probably, but this one was noteworthy. And the next time a stinky item came from that drawer the conclusion was – AH HA the clothing put in THIS drawer becomes funky.

Eh well, probably the damp items put in this drawer have the potential to become funky and it happens sometimes.

Almost every one of us is guilty of putting away slightly damp clothing at least once in a while. This isn’t a huge problem with clothing hung in closets as there is more air flow within a closet than a drawer. Damp clothes in a pile, like in a drawer are pretty much the perfect storm of mildew growth.

So even if the problem isn’t the drawer itself, how do we prevent funky shirt smells in the future?

Empty the drawer, dry it thoroughly. Maybe let it dry fully in the sun for an afternoon. Sunlight is great at killing mildew spores. I’d probably play it extra safe and do the same for the drawer above and below, just to get any lurking time bombs.

Treat the shirts like you would musty, mildewed towels. If they smell super funky, you aren’t going to wear them anyhow -we hope- so try not to stress about the possibility of fading.

Guide to Household Odors
Click the picture for lots more tips!

If there is any deodorant or anti-antiperspirant build up on the clothing, be sure to remove it.

Finally, ensure clothing is completely dry before placing it in drawers and consider adding a bar of your favorite soap or a sachet in the drawer. It can’t hurt.

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2 thoughts on “Another Case of Musty Odors”

  1. I wish we could get down to the bottom of this. I have the exact same problem. Only certain shirts, certain drawers. I just ordered some drawer liners treated with microban (anti-mildew), but the shipment is delayed.. hoping it will come and I can try it out. None of this other stuff has worked for me either.

  2. I have had the same problem described. It is confined to one specific drawer. I have completely emptied the drawer. Washed all of the unworn clothing in it. Dried them twice.. in an effort to sterilize them further. Mean time I sprayed the drawer with rubbing alcohol and let it thoroughly dry before putting anything back in. Two to four weeks later, there’s that odd smell. I tried the same procedure with hydrogen peroxide instead of rubbing alcohol. No improvement. There is definitely something odd going on. Fortunately it has never spread to any of the other drawers in that dresser or any others.


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