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by on May 20, 2014 10:50 AM

If my inbox is any indicator of what’s going on in the world, and I believe it is, smelly towels are a growing problem for consumers — and for sure EC readers. And it’s a rather new problem, the result of modern things such as front-loading high-efficiency washing machines, detergents, fabric softeners and damp conditions. If you’ve noticed the gross smell of stinky, albeit appearing to be washed, dried and ready to go, perhaps you’ve also noticed that your towels have begun to repel rather than absorb water.


That moldy, mildewy, gross smell? It’s the result of the buildup of detergents and fabric softeners that have not been rinsed out properly, together with damp, moist conditions. What you have there is a breeding ground for bacteria. No wonder you’ve got a big gross, smelly laundry problem.


If your towels have stopped doing what they’re supposed to do well — absorb water — that problem stems from the same source: Detergent and fabric softener buildup. Seriously! With detergent and laundry, more is decidedly not better.


You are going to use white vinegar and baking soda to fix this skanky problem once and for all. But not together. This will be a two-step process. Vinegar contains acetic acid that breaks down mineral deposits and dissolves the buildup of detergent and fabric softeners. Baking soda is alkali and breaks down dirt and grease and neutralizes odors. Used together they counteract one another. For this process we want them to do their work independently. This will strip the residue.

WASH No. 1

Load towels into the washer loosely, set it for a long wash cycle and fill with the hottest water you can manage. Turn the water heater up to 140F for this event. Or boil water on the stovetop then carefully transport it to the washer. The point is that the water must be very hot to kill the bacteria. Add two cups of white vinegar to the load. Allow it to run the entire cycle and then leave the towels in the washer.

WASH No. 2

Fill the machine with the hottest water possible. This time add 1 cup baking soda. Run the entire cycle.


Whether you hang the towels outdoors or put them in the dryer, make sure they are completely and thoroughly dry. Now smell them. If they do not smell fabulously clean, repeat Wash No. 1 and Wash No. 2 as necessary until the smell is completely gone. The investment you’ve made in these towels makes them worth the effort.


Find your owner manual and discover the exact amount of detergent you should be using in your washing machine. Measure it every time. Never add more than recommended, especially if you have an HE machine that uses very little water. Never use softening products on your towels — liquid softener or dry sheets. They coat the fibers with a thin layer of chemicals, which make towels less absorbent and prone to produce buildup. Instead, add 1/2 cup white vinegar to the last rinse. This will get out the last of the detergent that causes towels to become scratchy, and prevent that horrid product buildup that can turn smelly. Always dry towels thoroughly before storing them away.

Next week: How to clean that bacteria-laden appliance you call a washing machine.


Mary invites questions at, or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, P.O. Box 2099, Cypress, CA 90630. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of, a personal finance member website and the author of “Debt-Proof Living,” released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at
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