What Causes Smelly Sheets?

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Dear Home Ec 101,
I’ve been wanting to write you for a while! I have smelly sheets! I wash them and I promise I don’t use too much laundry detergent. Then I dry them and then store them in a built-in bookshelf that’s in our closet. For some reason as soon as I get the sheets out to put on the bed they smell weird, a little musty. However they are completely dry when I put them up. I hang up our wet laundry to dry in our closet, do you think that could be the reason?

Also, I have noticed on a set of our nice silver sheets that reddish stains have formed. Not blood or anything like that, but a little like the red mold/mildew you get in the shower. I wash them with color safe bleach and it still doesn’t come out! Any advice?

Thank you so much for all your help! Keep up the great work!
Smelly in Smyrna

what causes smelly sheets

Dear Smelly in Smyrna

First of all, thank you for submitting your question.

How do you solve the mildew problem?

Bacteria and fungi are usually the source of musty odors, and their favorite conditions are damp and still. Unless your closet is well ventilated, it may not be a great place to store your bedding. Cotton is hygroscopic; this is a fancy word that means it can absorb water from the air. So even though your sheets are perfectly dry when they are placed on the shelf, they absorb the humidity in the air providing an excellent environment for bacteria and mildew. The organisms’ waste is the source of the musty smell. Now there’s an appetizing thought for you.

It may be time to find a new place to dry your laundry. To reduce the amount of mildew, mold, and bacteria in the closet, you must reduce the humidity. To further reduce the amount of mildew spores, I’d give the shelves a good wipe down with a diluted bleach solution, diluted white vinegar, or tea tree oil. Run a fan in the room until the shelf is completely dry before storing clean sheets.

Using a desiccant like DampRid in the closet may also be worthwhile.

Another way to tackle the musty odor may be to ask yourself:

How much bedding are you storing?

Do you have more sheets than necessary?

For each bed, we have two sets of sheets. One goes on the bed, and the other set is stored flat, between the mattress and the box spring. Every Monday, the beds are stripped, the dirty sheets are washed, and the spare set is put on the mattress. When the sheets are clean and fully dry, they are tucked.

Guide to Household Odors
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The discoloration is likely oxidation — that’s a reaction similar to what happens when iron rusts- caused by salts in you or your partner’s sweat or a reaction with benzoyl peroxide, which is in many topical acne treatments. Both of these are permanent chemical reactions that have changed the color of your sheets. Please don’t kill yourself trying to remove the stain; it’s usually irreversible. If the culprit is acne medication, try to put it on earlier in the evening so it can dry completely before going to bed. Additionally, you may want to use an old pillowcase rather than one intended for decoration.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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8 thoughts on “What Causes Smelly Sheets?”

    • I'm so glad that tip helped you. I can't remember where I picked it up, we've been doing it for years. As the sheets aren't stored there for more than a week or so, it works really well for us.

      • No more box springs, just slats. Those don’t work so well to keep sheets looking great after ironing. I am donating a bunch.

  1. Great idea for storing the sheets! I think I do have too many sheets, a tiny unventilated closet, and awfully smelling linens! I end up tucking a used dryer sheet, scented with essential lavender oil, but I just feel like it only masks the problem.
    And it probably does.

    What about storing linens (and towels) in the open stand-alone type closet or shelving unit? I saw some ideas for linen closets that have fabric sides, and just stand in the room?

  2. I feel like this WASNT an issue 20 yrs ago. I blame the washers becoming more eco friendly. They just DO NOT wash as well as old washers. And I cannot believe a 70 min wash cycle is more efficient in any way. 7 yrs ago… I bought my first speed queen for my rental properties. And I was shocked how nice and clean and white my towels came out. So I began replacing all my washers w speed queens. Maybe 4 since then… and the decline has been RAPID. I was told they were being forced to go eco. And the first ones I bought had regular cycles and seperate eco – that you could chose. The last speed queen I bought was crap (3 yrs ago) AS WELL as the top of the line commercial Maytag. My sheets would come out with DRY spots!!! No matter what cycle I used!! This IS NOT WASHING!! Im sorry – but having to wash things twice or longer IS NOT ENERGY EFFICIENT. Just like the cars that use electricity to charge… this is idiotic. The batteries are environmental rape. And – my last Maytags had sloped lids. Do you even know how stupid and annoying this is? That you can’t fold clothes or set clothes or anything on top? Plus both had two sets of 3 second activation buttons. Who has time for that? SO ANNOYING!!! 20 YRS AGO… I never had to put 5 different things in my wash to get them clean. This is the washers not washing and we should write the manufacturers and the government.


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