You’re getting dressed for a busy day and reach in the closet for your favorite errand-running sweater, but as you pull it close, you get whiff of the fried fish you made the last time you wore it. Guess who threw the wrong sweater in the wash last week! Or maybe you open up a box of pillows you’ve stowed in the basement only to realize that they’re mildewing. Or perhaps you hosted a party at your house and your dry-clean only pillows smell like smoke. Whatever challenge you’re facing with smelly fabrics, we’ve got the solution!
6 ways to take the smell out of clothes without washing them
Aside from a laundry basket mixup with your favorite outfit, there may be other reasons why you may not immediately wash your clothes when you detect a scent. “The clothing may be delicate or heavily worn, and that intense mechanical action via machine wash may cause permanent damage,” explains James Joun, COO of laundry service Rinse. “There’s also the possibility that you’ve already tried to get rid of the smell via washing unsuccessfully.” Other reasons include, well, simple lack of access to a washing machine. And when it comes to dry-clean only garments that aren’t dirty, it’s nice to save the money by not having to take them to the dry cleaners.
1. Have 5 minutes? Whip up a deodorizing spray
Joun recommends employing this strategy if there’s a “certain area of a garment that is the source of the bad smell.” This is because you’re able to essentially spot treat the problem area instead of the entire thing. This could mean using a scented fabric spray. One of Poplin laundry pro Laurie Fulford’s go-tos for taking the bad smells out of clothes without washing, fabric fresheners work by dissolving odor molecules, preventing them from reaching your nose, and adding fragrance molecules. Make sure to spritz the garment from about a foot away — too close and it’ll have spray marks, too far and you won’t notice a difference. One we like: Febreze LIGHT Fabric Refresher in Lavender (Buy from Amazon, $5.48).
Want to DIY your own? If you’re not concerned about what your clothes smell like as long as it’s not bad, vodka or witch hazel straight up is all you need, thanks to the alcohol content in each that kill odor-causing bacteria in an instant, Fulford explains. But you can also make clothes smell fresh by adding around 20 drops of essential oil (you can use more or less depending on how strong you want the smell to be) to the mix. Simply pour 1 cup water, ¼ cup witch hazel/vodka and the essential oil of your choice in a spray bottle.
Another instant option: dryer sheets. If you’re focusing on a particular area, one of the easiest and quickest ways to take the bad smells out of clothes is to grab a dryer sheet and start rubbing, says Fulford. They’re mostly intended to reduce static, but they also have the ability to deposit scent and soften laundry.
2. Have 10 minutes? Try steaming it
Whether you use an actual garment steamer, the shower or the steam setting on your dryer, the high heat of evaporating water has the ability to kick out odor-causing bacteria. Bonus: Wrinkles will see themselves out too.
3. Have 15 minutes? Toss it in the dryer
There are two ways to take advantage of the dryer, the first of which is using the air dry setting, which is heatless. Similar to line drying your clothes in the sun, Joun says this method “allows air to flush out lingering odors.” Fulford’s preferred way of deodorizing is throwing some dryer sheets in with the clothes and turning it on hot for 10-15 minutes. The heat helps to kill the odor-causing bacteria. (This one you don’t want to try with dry-clean only fabrics.)
4. Have a few hours? Air dry it
Okay…you likely already know this one: “The most effective and safest way to remove bad smell is to hang offending clothing article up to air out,” says Joun. You’ll need a few hours for the fresh air to work its magic. Ideally, you’re air drying them outside on a line in the sun, but hanging them inside gets the job done too. Joun’s best advice: “For older and colorful garments, make sure that your item does not sit too long in direct sunlight, as the sunlight may fade the garment’s color with prolonged exposure.”
5. Can it wait overnight? Toss it in the freezer
This one may sound strange, but putting your clothes in the freezer is pretty darn effective, due to the fact that freezing reduces odor-causing bacteria. In order to prevent the clothes from turning into ice cubes or developing a new smell, they should be dry and bagged before going into the freezer for the night, recommends Joun. Don’t forget to let the clothes warm up before putting them on, or you’re going to feel like you just spent the last 12 hours in the freezer. Also great? Placing sweaters in the freezer helps avoid pilling and shedding. That’s because, the chill tightens fabric fibers so they stay put.
Watch this TikTok for more on freezing your clothes:
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