How Can I Make My Towels Smell Better Without Scented Detergents?

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Dear Home Ec 101,

My husband and daughter have allergies and I am sensitive to certain scents, so when our beloved Tide began to irritate my daughter’s skin and their perfume seemed to get stronger with every bottle, we switched to a Free and Gentle detergent with no dyes or scents.

This has helped with skin irritations immensely. However, now that we’ve been using it for a while, I’ve noticed our towels never smell “fresh”, even when they are straight from the dryer. It isn’t the typical musty or moldy smell you might get when leaving them in the washer too long and not truly stinky but just not nice.

How can I make my towels smell better without resorting to perfumey detergents or dryer sheets?
Breathless in Bel-Air

White towels on white counter with green plant in silver container, in background and blurred is white coffee cup and white alarm clock

Dear Breathless in Bel-Air,

You are in luck. What you seem to be experiencing is a simple case of detergent build-up.

Some of the molecules in detergent have an interesting property, part of the molecule loves water, and part of it loves oil. This allows the molecules to surround tiny dirt and oil particles and bring them into the wash water. The problem is that there has to be enough water in the washing machine to have all of these molecules in the water and not clinging to the fabric. If these molecules are clinging to the towels, they aren’t getting washed down the drain. These molecules tend to trap odors. The solution? Get rid of the excess detergent.

How to make your towels smell better

Gather a few of your towels at a time and wash in the hottest water available with either Borax or vinegar.

Vinegar lowers the pH of water, making it slightly more acidic, and making it easier for the detergent molecules to go into the solution.

Borax works on the same principle but on the basic or high pH side. If you use both simultaneously, they tend to balance each other out, and you make some salt, which wastes a little money and time. When you do this, look for suds.

If the water is sudsy and you didn’t add any detergent, you should repeat the process.

It’s very easy to get detergent buildup in areas with hard water, you need to have just enough detergent in the washer to surround all of the minerals in the water and enough to remove the soil, but too much and you’re back to not having fresh towels.

Another source of towel funk? Mildew

Make sure your towels are completely dry before they are folded and put away. Please note that fully dry doesn’t mean leaving them in there on high well past the point of being dry. Over-drying causes premature wear and uses excess energy. Neither of these is good for the environment or your budget.

How to prevent smelly towels.

In the future, use the least amount of laundry detergent possible. Don’t overload the washer. There needs to be room for the towels and clothing to move freely so that the material can be thoroughly rinsed. Taking these precautionary steps will help reduce the chance of detergent redepositing on your towels.

get rid of odors in material
Click the picture for more tips!

*Note* Apparel should not be over-dried; this causes premature wear.

Finally, pay attention to where you store your towels. If it’s under a sink or in a small closet, dampness may be an issue.

Consider a product like DampRid to control the humidity, and use an old-fashioned sachet with your favorite, non-irritating scents to add a pleasant odor.

I have pretty severe allergies, and I’ve found that orange peels, cloves, vanilla, or natural cinnamon tend not to bother me. It’s their synthetic counterparts that set off the sneeze machine.

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17 thoughts on “How Can I Make My Towels Smell Better Without Scented Detergents?”

  1. Try getting some essential oil . Put in a small bottle with a lil water and spritz the towels before putting away. Just a lil spritz, dont saturate. I love lavender or orange or lemon scents. Satchets in the towels in the closet work nicely too.

  2. Awesome post, Heather. I love it when you get all science-y with the home-ec. Makes my inner geek do a happy dance. And yet again, another tidbit I never knew.

    Speaking of towels — my Aunt Pat once told me never to use fabric softener when washing towels, or only to do it very occasionally. She said it makes them less absorbent. (Which would explain the towels I grew up using — mom ALWAYS used fabric softener)
    My recent post NotoriousTBG- TWEETDECK Y U NO LET ME RETWEET FAIL Tweetdeck

  3. Try washing the towels with just borax for one load. That should strip out the built up detergent and smell. Or try hanging the towels outside (assuming you're in an area where they'll actually dry as opposed to just freeze). Nothing beats the smell of clothes dried on the line in the sunshine and breeze.

    BTW, I'm setting up to make my own laundry detergent. I'll scent it with a little lavender oil. At some appropriate time in the future, I'll let you know how it went. The ingredients are about $9, I'll know exactly what's in there, and it will make 5 gallons! Whee! Now let's hope it actually cleans clothes… ;o)

    Thanks, Stephanie…my washer started getting a funk about a month ago and it was on my list to disassemble and find the source…maybe that product will save me an afternoon of expletives not deleted. ;o)

    • Unfortunately line drying isn't always good for those of us with severe allergies. I can line dry in the winter and early summer. I can't even pretend it's going to happen in the spring and ragweed season.
      It rubs the pollen into its skin, then it puts the pollen into the basket. #warpedhumor

      • I grew up with severe allergies as a child that I finally got mostly rid of around age 40 (long weird story), and it never occurred to me that line drying = pollen in everything, but it makes sense. I never noticed the laundry making my allergies worse, but I was so allergic back then, you could look at me sideways and send me into 20 minutes of sneezing and I had at least as much eczema as skin. People would ask me what I was allergic to, and I would answer "LIFE!" ;o) I do not miss those days, and I very much sympathize with your suffering.

        It seems to me that the benefits of line drying could be replicated indoors via UV and ionic treatment. I feel a mad science experiment coming on… ;o)

  4. I have had luck with using the free and clear detergents but adding a cup of Borax or washing soda to the load when I do kitchen and bathroom towels. They come put with essentially no smell, but the mildew smell is gone.

  5. Great advice!! We live with very hard water and have a high efficiency washer (= low amount of rinse water). My towels aren't as fresh as I would like them, plan on trying this out.

  6. I have used vinegar for years in my wash.  Either my “hairy” husband or Golden Retrievers can leave a lovely “funk” on the towels and this works every time.  I use about a half a cup per load!

  7. This sounds weird, but I notice a smell when detergents with baking soda are used on clothes. There is a funky smell that I can’t really describe that comes off clothes and towels that are washed with a baking soda detergent – even the unscented ones…. Could this be an issue? I don’t know why this happens, but it’s very noticeable to me.

      • I don’t have hard water, but I notice the same thing as Kym and now that I’ve been trying to get rid of the funky smell, using recommendations of washing with 1 cup vinegar on the hottest setting possible for the fabric and then washing again with ½ cup baking soda, I’m still having the funky smell in my clothes and towels problem. I was wondering if it was the baking soda! I have cleaned my front loading washer with vinegar and with bleach. There is no black residue coming off.

        Help! I’m running out of shirts I can stand to wear and towels I can stand to use!! 🙂

  8. I know this post is a few years old, but I have had great luck reviving my towels by adding 1/2-1c ammonia (yes, ammonia!) to my wash cycle. They come out fluffy, absorbent, and not stinky.


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