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
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
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.
*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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