How to Keep Towels Smelling Fresh Without Using Bleach

Remove that musty smell from towels once and for all.

Towels are one of the most important pieces of laundry to keep clean and dry. Damp towels are vulnerable to bacterial growth, which causes that "musty" or "sour" smell. (Gross but true: That unpleasant odor is the smell of bacteria breeding.)

According to Steve Boorstein, a coauthor of The Clothing Doctor's 99 Secrets of Cleaning and Clothing Care, you can retard the growth of bacteria with a holistic approach to the problem. Before you attempt laundry stripping, he recommends these preventative measures and cleaning techniques to keep towels smelling fresh after every use.

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Sanitize your washing machine.

If you clean your musty towels in a dirty washing machine, it's likely you'll have trouble removing the odor completely. So make sure your washing machine itself is sanitary. "People shed about 1 billion dead skin cells every day, much of which ends up in your clothes, towels, and washing machine," says Boorstein. "Before washing your towels, do your whites if you use bleach. Or run an empty load with ¼ cup bleach to disinfect the interior." Running an empty load with bleach prior to washing your towels will disinfect the interior of the machine without being harsh on the towel fabric.

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Deep clean your towels.

It's essential to perform some heavy-duty cleaning on your musty towels. Boorstein recommends washing small loads of no more than three towels in hot water on the longest setting. Use a regular detergent plus a booster like vinegar or essential oils, which you can add to the fabric softener compartment. Make sure you remove the towels from the warm environment of the washing machine quickly or bacteria will start breeding within one to two hours (set a timer if you must). And be sure to dry towels completely.

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Make sure you're thoroughly cleaning yourself.

Scrub diligently with soap in the shower or bath, especially sweat "hot spots," such as the feet, the underarms, and the groin. "Good hygiene in the shower is critical," says Boorstein. "Some people―including most kids―don't wash thoroughly when bathing. Any bacteria from sweat and body oils that aren't washed away gets transferred to your towel."

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Always hang up a towel after using it.

A towel rack is ideal for airing out the maximum amount of surface area. Don't throw a damp towel―whether it has been used in the kitchen or the bathroom―on the floor or in a hamper to dry. The residual buildup of bacteria only worsens if a damp towel doesn't dry completely between uses.

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Use a towel three times or less before washing.

If a towel continues to have a smell, it means that bacteria are still in your machine or on your towel. Run the washing machine again with bleach, or wash the towel a second time to remove the stubborn bacteria. Remember, wash your towels frequently, says Boorstein, and use a bath towel no more than three times between washings.

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