Have here several cotton clothes that due to constant use, keeps with bad smell, even after washing.

After been washed, when it's used, after a few minutes it begans to smell bad again.

Already discovered that keeping it about 6 months at wardrobe without use neither washing makes it return to normal.

Any idea on how to remove this? Preferably chemical ways.

  • 1
    Related for fabrics other than cotton - lifehacks.stackexchange.com/q/9836/6973
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 17:52
  • You say “Preferably chemical ways”. Are you looking for something like dry-cleaning chemicals?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 15:28
  • I get exactly this problem with jeans. Smells fine coming out of the washing machine, off the clothes horse, or out of the cupboard, but within minutes of being on my body, even if i'm fresh out of the shower and not sweating at all, there's an unpleasant stale smell. I would love to know the chemistry of this! Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 11:21

7 Answers 7


Cotton is notorious for retaining bad smells.

I do a lot of landscaping and noticed that sweating all day makes the armpits stain and go discoloured. Rain is no better. Wearing rain gear gets very smelly and you notice it once the rain gear comes off.

My recommendations:

  • If you use rain gear, wash them at least once a week and let them drip dry. Use an antibacterial laundry soup. If you do this try not to wear when they are damp. (I have three pairs in use at all times.)
  • Cottons should be washed in the hottest possible temperature possible and with an antibacterial laundry soap.
  • I would recommend putting in a small amount of bleach into the the washing cycle only if this will not damage the clothes. (Please read and follow the directions on the label for washing always.)
  • Pretreating your clothes may be helpful too. I use shout on nasty stains.
  • Use the longest cycle possible that you washer provides.
  • Dry your clothes as fast as possible as bacteria loves a damp atmosphere.

In addition to Weather Vanes answer, there are some things that might affect old clothes more than new ones.

Body odor is usually caused by bacteria. If a freshly washed shirt smells again after a few minutes, the bacteria survived the washing process and start producing body odor again.

  • Wash the shirt at a high temperature to kill the bacteria. Cotton is very forgiving and survives being washed at (almost) boiling temperatures. In this case washing at 60°C / 140°F should be enough.

Shirts that are old and worn very often tend to acculutate tiny deposits of hard-to-remove dirt in the armpits and the neck. These deposits are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and can protect them from the laundry detergent, so even more survive the washing. Especially deodorants with aluminium salts create yellowish deposits that are not water-soluble, so they cannot be washed away.

  • Pre-treat visible stains from sweat to help dissolve them during the washing.
  • Change to a brand of deodorant without aluminium salts, if yours contains them.
  • If you have used deodorant with aluminium salts and your shirts have yellow stains at the armpits, you have to replace them. There's no way to dissolve the accumulated aluminium salts without destroying the shirt.

I used deodorant with aluminum salts for several years and had to replace almost all of my shirts / tops because of yellow stains and they wouldn't stop smelling.

  • Interesting how deodorant causes more odors in the long-term.
    – usernumber
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 14:39

There can be several causes. The worst situation is when the washing machine has a built in-dryer. If you unload the (dried) clothes from the machine and place them straight into a drawer, they get no chance to freshen up.

  • The washing machine needs cleaning. A smelly scum builds up on the inside. You can do a search for ways to clean a washing machine.

  • The detergent is smelly. One brand has been mentioned on this site. Change to another brand.

  • You don't air the clothes after they have been washed. You already know this improves them. Best of all is to air the clothes outdoors on a washing line. Next best is using a 'horse' or 'airer' on which you arrange the clothes, so that air can circulate among them for a day or two.

  • Don't wear the clothes again immediately after washing. Rotate them with other clothes. If you like a shirt and want to wear if frequently, buy two of them. It's not a waste of money, because they will last twice as long.

  • +1. Very interesting points. I initially had a reflex to think about how to keep shirts white - the dialog from "The Flintstones" movie ;)
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 22, 2019 at 9:55

If they smell even after washing this could be caused by mildew in the clothes (a kind of fungus). This happens if the clothes took too long to dry or were left damp and warm for too long.

You can fix this by soaking the clothes in a mixture of hot water and soda crystals for a couple of hours (Sodium carbonate), then washing as normal.

The sodium carbonate increases the Ph of the water and kills the fungus.


I had this problem a lot. I switched from using a fabric conditioner as a rinse aid to using that stalwart of internet cleaning hacks, white vinegar. It does seem to have helped; it didn't rescue any affected clothes, but it seems to have significantly slowed down the rate at which new clothes become affected. The clothes don't smell vinegary, just vaguely fresh.

The theory i was told is that fabric conditioners leave sticky deposits on fabric which can harbour bacterial growth. I haven't seen any solid science on this, but it sounds vaguely plausible.

I wash using a biological washing powder, with an extra half-scoop of Vanish, so the clothes are getting hit with surfactants, enzymes, oxygen bleach, and the rest of the arsenal of modern laundry engineering.

I've tried cleaning affected clothes with:

  • Dry cleaning
  • Vanish
  • Bio-tex (now extinct stain remover, like better Vanish)
  • Washing soda
  • Dettol (a liquid disinfectant)

And none of it made any difference. I'm really intrigued as to what the nature of the smell is. One experiment i'd like to try is putting the jeans in a warm oven (120 C or something) for a long time; if body heat is enough to release some of the smell, maybe serious heat is enough to get rid of it entirely?


The first thing that removes build-up from clothes is baking soda. For a difficult job, saturate the water with baking soda. Let sit 24 hours. If the water is smelly or gross, I continue to do this another time until it is not. NEVER let a very dirty item sit in this water for two days. This causes the smelly water, which has absorbed out the bad things and build-up amd added water to proliferate the bacteria, to then reabsorb back into the fabric, causing the treatment to now take up to 5 cycles to get rid of the "icky water smell". Instead, use the baking soda soak for only 24 hours.

Vinegar removes all smells by neutralizing their molecules. However, spraying vinegar on a fabric does not work completely for types of smells such as body smells. Presumably, the vinegar does not penetrate to the inside of the fabric. That is why baking soda will be the most important step for a fabric that has never been naturally treated before and which is very gross and dirty. Vinegar, however, does ensure that all of the laundry detergent is removed, instead of it's normal behavior of sticking to the fabric, thus attracting other things to stick to it as well as wearing out the clothes sooner. Add at least one cup of vinegar to all clothing while the washing machine is filling up the water to rinse out the detergent with. However, if you have a smell on your clothing already you can try also using some vinegar to soak with beforehand.

The most efficient bacteria killer for this kind of situation is peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide, at the grocery store concentration of 3%, is often used in laundry and as a water disinfectent. Since the issue of clothing is bacteria, soaking it the way I usually soak my washcloths, which ttpically obtain the stale water smell after a couple of weeks during weather that does not dry them quickly, can also be a useful idea. Ttpical advice is to use a tablespoon in a small container. However, hydrogen peroxide is a form of bleach, so be careful if the clothing is one who's color you are extremely opposed to changing. Since it is soaking in a solution, the color change should be uniform. However, you may prefer to spray peroxide just on smelly parts. In that case, do not allow sun exposure to that part unless you wish to bleach it to white or nearly white. If you do allow sun exposure, do not use a very heavy spray, which may cause holes. If bleaching is your goal, then spray a light amount of moderate, and ensure sun exposure, wait 24-48 hours with sun exposure. For the smell, hydrogen peroxide generally kills bacteria but it is very likely that using the two previous methods will work, and those methods also they work faster, so the peroxide method can be saved as the last method.


The old fashioned way, boil them with detergent.

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